Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Eight

August 24, 2014

22 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I were back and working right on schedule at 1pm at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Everything was as we left it the day before. It’s rather amazing that we could leave paint, brushes and a painting in progress in a public art gallery and nobody touched a thing even though it was a downstairs gallery with periodic security. It does say something about Canada and Canadians. After we had turned on the lights and I sat down, Stephen decided that he needed a viewer to frame me while he painted. He cut a rectangle the same proportion as the canvas out of a piece of cardboard and held it up to look at me as he painted. This was a device that the old masters used: simple, but effective.

“There,” he said, “I can cut out the stuff around you that I don’t need.”

“You’re the very picture of an old fashioned painter—maul stick, long brushes, the lot,” I said.

“Yeah, painters figured all this stuff out centuries ago. Not much need for improvement,” he replied.

“Except perhaps photography,” I said.

“Oh, the old masters had their own devices.”

“You mean like a camera obscura?”


“I’m not sure that it was as widespread as David Hockney believes. I think most artists just eyeballed it, like you’re doing now.”

“I would agree with that, but, in general artists will use whatever it takes to make a good painting.”

“You know about that Albrecht Dürer print with the nude on the table with the artist using a framing device?” I asked.

“Sure, it was a frame with a string grid and vertical sight.”

“The best sixteenth century technology,” I added.

By this time there were two or three people in the gallery watching Stephen paint and listening to our conversation, but they, like most of the people yesterday, were remaining silent. I tried to engage them with the usual, “What do you think?” The usual answer was, “I like it. It looks like you.” As far as Stephen and I thought, that answer was just fine. They were watching Stephen develop the painting and seemed to enjoy the process. The vast majority of the people had never seen a professional artist work and that was the idea of what we wanted to do by painting in the gallery—demystify art.
stephens palette

When we were alone again, Stephen said, “This is really a performance piece.”

“You’re right and it’s better than most so-called performance works.”

“At least,” he said, “it has a product, a finished painting.”

“The good thing about most performance pieces is once they are done they vanish without a trace,” I said.

“Many live on in documentation,” he added.

“And, usually, the documentation is as shitty as the performance,” I chipped in.

“Don’t get your drawers in a knot. It’s not worth it.”

“Well, the only thing that makes this performance work is that we’re both good looking.”

“Surely, you’re putting me on,” Stephen said.

“Perhaps, but in this performance there is cause and effect. I’m the cause and your painting is the effect and most, if not all, people watching can see that. A lot of performance works leaves a majority of people scratching their heads.”

Stephen May about this time showed up again. “Can’t you get enough of this floor show,” I asked him.

“I’m enjoying myself,” he answered, “Stephen, I’ve got a question. Do you behave differently here in the gallery than you would in your studio?”

“Of course. normally painting is a solitary thing. Painting in public is a very different thing. People don’t see your mistakes when you’re working in the studio. Normally you just release the finished produce for public view. Then there is the quiet, the silence in the studio. The only dialogue is between you and the picture. Here people are looking over my shoulder and sometimes asking questions.”

“I don’t know if I’d want to do it,” May said, “I like the studio.”

“Me too. This is a one-off thing that came by chance more than anything else,” Scott replied.

“Ah, chance is the mother of invention,” I added.
“I’m not sure about mothers or invention, but I certainly wanted to have a finished painting to go along with the studies and drawings. After all the title of the exhibition is Stephen Paints a Picture and we needed the picture,” Scott said.

“Deadlines have their virtues,” I said, “They keep your nose to the grindstone.”

“In my case it was my jaw and cancer and not my nose that screwed things up,” Scott said.

The two Stephens were standing together looking at the painting on the easel, I joined them, “Well, boys what do you think?” I asked.

“Maybe, I should start over,” Scott said.

“Are you out of your mind? I think that it’s coming along just fine and you’ve got too much fucking time invested in it,” I told him.

“I tend to agree with Virgil. It’s looking good, Stephen,” May said.

“I don’t know about the right side of the face,” Scott said, “Perhaps some highlights.”

“You can do those without me posing. There is a time when the painting takes over. I’m going to make us some coffee in the staff room. Stephen (May) do you want a cup?”

“No thanks, I’d better get back to my own work. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

virgil complete

Virgil, almost finished

When I returned with the coffee, Stephen was working on the right side of my face, “See,” I said, “it looks better already. Take a break, here’s your coffee.”

“I’m not sure it’s better, I may have just fucked it up.”

“You’re too hard on yourself. Think, I’m the critic, you’re the artist. Let me be the judge. That’s my job.”

“Bullshit, I have to satisfy myself most of all.”

“Suit yourself, but I know you and you’re never satisfied.”

“If I was ever satisfied with a painting, I’d quit and get another job.”

“I know that and that’s why it’s important to part with your work, to sell it. Let it have a life out of your hands.”

“Easy for you to say, but people aren’t falling all over themselves to buy my pictures.”

“Time will correct that, my friend. You’re a damn fine artist. The public just hasn’t caught up to you yet or perhaps we haven’t found the right public.”

“Speaking of finding the right public, it’s time we got off our asses and did something about The New Guild. Like, it’s now or never. There’s got to be a better way to get your art out to the world,” he said.

“You’re right, it’s pretty much all talk and not much else on our part.”

“I think that the technology is already there, but it’s just finding the right way to use it,” Stephen added.

“We need a little help from our friends like Harold (Jarche), Chris (MacKay) and Steve (Scott). They’ve forgotten more of the new technology than we know put together,” I said.

“The point is that we have a product, really good art, that people want. We just have to find a way to get it to them. I’m not just talking about my art, but lots of good art that’s made right here in the Maritimes,” he said.

“The world should be our oyster. The money, and the interest, is just not here. Most people here want to buy stuff for a couple hundred bucks that matches their sofas. The locals with real money buy their art in Toronto or New York. Tom (Forrestall) sells his work to Maritimers in Toronto who then bring it back here,” I said.

“True enough, but there’s a world beyond Toronto and that’s where our market should be.”

We took another break and walked around the exhibition. “It looks pretty good, if I say so myself,” I told him.

“Yeah, I’ve never seen my work quite like this. It’s good to see a series like the swimming pictures all together.”

“I think the show works as group. There is continuity with the work. It’s too bad that we weren’t able to do a catalogue as I would have liked to have linked the other work with the portrait”

“Well, there are certainly a lot words about the portrait in your blog and we’ve already got the start of an e-book on the project.”

“I’ve just got to finish the posts and God knows how long that will take.”

“First things first, I have to finish the portrait,” he said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do so by Sunday.”

“Look, we started a day late and I’m sure that Terry (Graff) will let us work until we’re finished. I’ll ask him.”

We went back to work for another hour and a few more spectators dropped by to watch including Stephanie (Weirathmuller) once again who said, like Stephen May, that she was going to come every day until we finished. “I’m beginning to like this,” Scott said, “It’s fun.”

“Well, I think that our fun is about over for the day. It’s close to five and I could use a drink and perhaps something to eat. Isn’t there a bar nearby where we could do both?” I asked Stephanie.

“I know just the place,” she replied.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, August 17, 2014.

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