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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Nine

October 7, 2014

23 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I arrived at the Beaverbrook around noon in time for a BBQ that director Terry Graff was throwing for his staff who were getting ready for Sunday’s Lord Beaverbrook Day at the gallery. We had stopped on the way in to pick up some copies of the Saint John Telegraph Journal which placed an interview of Stephen and me by Michael Landry about our exhibition on its front page. “It must have been a slow news day,” I told Terry, “but it’s good publicity, nonetheless.”

“I sure as hell hope that I can finish the painting by Sunday,” Stephen said.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure that Terry will give us extra time if we need it, right Terry?”

“Sure and the gallery is closed to the public on Monday and you work in private,” Terry said.

Stephen, Sophie, his wife, and I ate a couple of hot dogs and a hamburger before going into the gallery to continue the painting. The first thing we had to do was to fix the makeshift table that he was using to support his palette. “It’s up to you, man,” I told him, “If there is one thing that I’m not, it’s handyman. I couldn’t drive a nail straight if my life depended on it. That’s why I’m a critic, I can only talk or write about things, not actually do anything.”

“Yesterday I couldn’t touch the head,” Stephen said looking at the painting.

“Well, there’s always today. Sometimes things look better after a good night’s sleep,” I countered.

“And sometimes worse.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. We still have a few days to finish this thing and I, for one, think that it’s coming along swimmingly.”

“So do I,” chimed in Sophie.

“Go ahead and sit down while I adjust the lights,” Stephen said.

“I don’t think that anybody moved them,” I answered. We had put tape on the floor to mark the location of my chair and the lights.

Once he was satisfied with the setup, he started to paint. “I really need to do something with the highlight on left side of your face.” He picked up a brush and dabbed it with a little yellow.

“It’s pretty much about light and dark, isn’t it,” I asked.

“Without changes in value paintings become boring pretty quickly,” he said.

“You know what I used to do?” I said

“No, what?”

“I used a yellow filter to look at painting while I was doing. It changed everything to a mono-chrome and you could see the true values of the colours. It’s something the old masters did.”

“Yeah, colour differences are one thing, but people fail to see value differences.”

“It was certainly something that I had a hard time teaching,” I said.

“Colour theory is hardly taught at all these days. It’s all about content,” Stephen added.

“It all comes back to what you can teach and what you cannot teach,” I said, “Technique is teachable, talent is not.”

virgil 23 MayAround this time there were a few people in the gallery including three students from the Fredericton College of Arts and Crafts who were very interested in what we were doing. They had just finished the term and were keen to see Stephen paint.

“Do you like it?” Stephen asked them.

They all said yes and that they wished that they could paint as well as he did.

“It’s all about practice and hard work,” he told, “nothing comes easy.”

“How long have you been painting?” one of them, the woman— the other two were men—asked.

“Thirty-seven years. That’s since I graduated art school at Mount Allison.”

“That’s a long time,” she said.

“Do you guys like the Craft College? I used to teach there. This is Virgil,” he said, pointing to me, “He taught me. At Mount A.”

They looked at me and then back to him. We must have appeared to be very old to them, but they were too polite to say so. They did say that they did like going to the College.

“Why are you going to Arts and Crafts rather than a university programme like Mount Allison or NSCAD?” I asked them.

“I figure that it would be better learning something practical like illustration rather than fine arts. I could get a job,” one of the men answered.

“I bet it was your parents that told you that,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You should always go with your heart,” Stephen chimed in.

“He’s right you know,” I said, “You’ve only one life.”

“You know jobs are disappearing. Illustration can be done offshore and more of it is being done by computer programmes,” Stephen added.

“Look,” I continued, “if you’re going to be unemployed it is a lot better to be an unemployed artist—a painter or poet—then, if anything else, at least, it’s romantic.”

I was pretty sure that our hints to students on their futures would not be appreciated by their parents, but the next generation of artists has to come from somewhere. Of course, there are certainly more art schools than needed turning more artists than we need, something both Stephen and I agree on, but there are never enough really good artists and who knows one of these three students might just have the talent to become a great artist.

“I think I might go to art school after college,” the other young man said.

“What’s your name,” I asked.

“Max, Max Ackerson.”

“Well, Max what are you doing for the next couple of days? Would you like to help Stephen and me?”

“Doing what?”

“Just hang around. You can pick up some pointers from Stephen. Isn’t that right Stephen?”

“Sure, I can always use some help and a second set of eyes.”

“That will be great,” he said.

“Well, we’re here tomorrow at the same. Around one,” I said.

The three students hung around for awhile asking questions of Stephen. They left, I would like to think, happy with their afternoon.

“Stuff like that makes it all worthwhile. It’s good to find kids that are interested in art,” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m not sure that it’s not a good career move on their part.”

Actually there were quite a few people in the gallery over the afternoon. It might have had something to do with the Telegraph Journal article or people were at the Beaverbrook because they had nothing better to do. In any case, they were there and asking intelligent questions. They were very keen to watch Stephen paint from life. Most people equate realistic painting, particularly portraits, with skill and their preconceptions were confirmed watching Stephen paint.

“You know,” I told Stephen, “people looking at old masters, and high realism, in general, just don’t understand that they were painted by mortals, human beings and not by magic. That’s why it’s good for them to see you at work.”

‘Yeah, a lot of people seem to think that old masterpieces were done with some secret formula that’s been lost to the ages.”

“Actually, artists, before the modern age, apprenticed for at least seven years before they got into a guild and they had to present them with a master work as well before they were accepted.”

“Hence, the term masterpiece.”

“You got it,” I said, “most art schools today are all about talk and nothing else. A lot of graduates today couldn’t paint their way out of a paper bag.”

“Who would want to be in paper bag in the first place?”

“It’s not my point. It’s just that a lot of contemporary painters haven’t any idea what they’re doing.”

“You’re the guy that taught art for thirty-seven years, so it must be your fault.”

Touché, mea culpa.

Sophie, who had been visiting her sister and mother while we worked, returned to the gallery with coffee. “What do you think, Sophie?” I asked, “still look like me?”

“I think so,” she said.

“Why don’t you take some pictures with my camera?” I said, “We’re pretty much done here for the day. It’s pushing five.”

“No Shit?”

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” I said.

“Never going to get this done by Sunday.”

“Don’t sweat it, man. Remember what Terry said; I’m sure he’ll give us all the time we need and I’ll stay until you finish. Let’s get something to eat and drink. After all it’s Friday night.”

Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, September 30, 2014.

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