Archive for the ‘Stephen Paints a Picture’ Category

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Five

July 8, 2014

9 May 2014

the studio

It was shortly after noon when I sat down and Stephen Scott started to continue to paint his portrait of me at his Nashwaak Village home studio. We had been talking, over breakfast, about his summer plans. Every year he tries to get away from the Fredericton area that is “too fucking hot”, to quote him, and work elsewhere. Last summer he was in Sackville and that resulted in this project. “I have an offer to go to Minister’s Island which would be interesting,” he said.

“Where’s that,” I asked.

“Around St. Andrews. You can only get on and off the island at low tide.”

“You sure? What’s happens when you need a beer? Much less if you need to get to the hospital? There is a health thing, you know.”

“Islands are romantic.”

“So is a dead artist. You could come back to Sackville. It’s pretty nice in the summer as you know.”

“Actually the idea has crossed my mind more than once.”

He was working on the canvas with what looked like a two inch brush. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Covering up yesterday’s mistakes,” he replied.

“Jesus, you spend hours doing details then turn around and cover them. You’ll never finish at this rate.”

“I hate the fussy stuff. Sargent did the same things. He would spend thirty or more sittings on a portrait and then wipe it out and start all over again.”

“And then there’s Freud,” I added, bring up another favourite artist of Stephen’s.

“All my favourite artists are slow—wonder why?”

“Seems pretty obvious to me. You like artists who paint like you. It’s all about paint, isn’t?”

“You got me there. By the way, what do you think of Freud’s portrait of the Queen?”

“I don’t know if we talked about that before, but to me, he made her look like a British housewife from the 50s. He certainly didn’t idealize her.”

“It’s still a good painting.”

“I’m pretty sure that it’s not one of Queen’s favourites, but she had the balls to commission it.”

“I still admire Walter Sickert.”

“Of Jack the Ripper fame?”

“That’s bull shit, but he, like, Freud and Sargent were artists who can control their media,” Stephen said.

“But not without a fight,” I countered.

“Yes, the fight is the good thing and that’s what I’m doing with this painting of you.”

“Now it’s about who’s going to win: the painting or you.”

Stephen and I had talked a lot over the past year, during this project, about painting being a form of combat. Generally a combat that remains invisible to the viewer, but is all too obvious to the artist during the production of an art work. There are exceptions, like in the work of some abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston or William de Kooning where the combat is very visible. The American critic Harold Rosenberg talked of abstract expressionism as action painting. But there is a lot of action in the paintings of Rembrandt, Hals, Sargent, Freud and, indeed, Stephen, only the action, the combat, is covered, brought to a cohesive whole, rather then being left visible on the surface as in a de Kooning or Guston.

“There’s a very delicate balance between skill and control,” Stephen said.

“By skill, I assume you mean technique?”

“Yes. There are certainly artists who have all sorts of skill or technique and still are not good artists.”

“I’m not sure about the reverse,” I replied, “I guess it’s possible to make good art without skill, but not very likely.”

“I would think that it would be more of an accident than anything else,” he said.

“Along the lines of a donkey painting a likeable abstract painting with his tail; the monkeys with typewriters thing.”

“Yeah, I’ve yet to see much high realism painted by donkeys, but anything is possible.”

“And I’m still waiting for the thousand monkeys to produce a really good book, but we’re left with the problem that art, whatever art is, is separate from technique, skill and, for that matter, control,” I said.

“If we can figure out what art, is our fortune will be made and I can stop painting right now. Speaking of stopping. Let’s have a cup of of coffee and you can tell me what you think.”

We went into the kitchen and while Stephen made the coffee, while I paid some attention to Echo, his dog.

“Stephen, I sure hope that we can pull this off and actually finish the painting in the gallery (The Beaverbrook) on schedule,” I said.

“I don’t think that we have much choice, do you?” he replied, “anyway, have a look before we start again.” He handed me a cup of coffee and we went back in the studio.

“Looks pretty good to me,” I said, “but we’re going to have to really figure out the hands. I think they’re sort of key to the painting. They define who I am, a writer.”

“Yeah, in an old fashioned way, since writers today write on computers and not longhand with a pen and paper.”

“True, I’m going to write this shit up on my Mac and publish on my blog, but all of notes are on this notebook. But the point of this whole exercise is a bit of an anachronism. A throw back to a 17th century oil portrait painting of a guy who is a writer. Hell, it’s a classical motif.”

“OK, sit down and we’ll throw ourselves back into the 17th. century.”

Stephen started his creative dance in front of the canvas. A dab here and a dab there. It’s kind of wonderful to watch him work on a large painting. There is a real energy in his movements which is a great thing, considering what he has been through with his illness, the cancer of the jaw, that in general as left him fatigued.

“You’re talking about motifs,” he said, “some change, others don’t. Look at guitar painting: Goya, Manet, Picasso. All made great pictures with the guitar as the central element.”

“Let’s not leave out the nude and women, in general, as an important motif.” I countered.

“You know who I still have a problem with is Balthus,” he relied.

“He is sort of a dirty Fred Ross or, perhaps, historically, Fred Ross is a cleaner version of Balthus.” I said.

“I like naked women as much as the next guy, but I just can’t get my head around the prepubescent little girls.” Stephen said.

“Yeah, the painting of him in the bathrobe is a bit much.”

“It’s hard to get around the nude, but difficult to do these days in our age of political correctness,” he added, “but we still have romantic landscape.”

“Romantic?”

“I’m too jaded to be a romantic,” he said.

“Bull shit, you’re full blown romantic. How about if I call you a post-romantic? No, make that neo-post-romantic as there was a post-romantic school in the 19th. century.

Not a bad name for a new school, Neo Post Romantism.”

“I like it. Let me write it down.”

“Well, Stephen, do you need cancer to go from a romantic to a neo-post-romantic?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, we are both neo-post-romantics. I want to make it clear that we are not rejecting romanticism, but we’re romantics is an age that rejects romanticism which is different from the postmodernists who want to reject all the tenets of modernism. You agree?”

“I think so, but I’ve got to think about it.”

“OK, go right ahead, but on second thought, maybe we should widen our base from only those who have survived cancer to artists who share our antiquated ideas. The good thing about the cancer bit is perhaps we could have our own colour like pink and breast cancer. Then we could all wear green hats or something.”

“Green? It’s not my favourite colour.”

“Most of the good colours have all been taken. Just a thought. I like the hat idea.”

“Where are we going with this conversation anyway?” he asked.

“Look surviving cancer is a big deal and it does give you a whole new focus on life. You always know that it might come back and kick you in the ass and that’s actually true in my case with prostate cancer. I decided after my bout with cancer and a heart attack that I might as well do and say what I want. The hell with convention. You only live once and in our case, perhaps, twice. You agree?”

“Of course, but it can be depressing.”

“Look, I’m further away from my cancer than you, but I was around your age when I was diagnosed and I’m still here and that was twelve years ago. I’m still pissed off, but it’s more about not doing what I should have done with my life. So paint like there’s no tomorrow.”

“I’ve been thinking about that realist tag. I think of myself more as an expressionist than a realist. Intention is the root of all things.”

“Intention is one thing,” I said, “and the result is another thing. To my mind, you’re a romantic and it’s my job to make up tags. Banging away with square pegs and round holes. In the end, it’s the painting that counts not the label.”

“Are you talking about labelling the artist or the art work?”

“Both. I guess an expressionist artist can paint a romantic painting and vice versa, but the art work stands alone despite an artist’s intention.”

“That’s a little hard to swallow. You saying that an artist doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

“Not really. It’s more about intention and labelling. If you call a painting expressionist and the rest of the world calls it romantic, it’s likely romantic, but the painting is the painting.”

“You’re losing me, I think it’s time to stop for the day and have a drink and, in your case, a stiff one,” he said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, July 5, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Four

June 23, 2014

8 May 2014

It was around two in the afternoon before we got our asses in gear and began working again on the large portrait of me that Stephen Scott was painting in his home studio. “We really shouldn’t be having these leisurely breakfasts if we’re going to get this sucker finished before the show opens,” Stephen said.

stephen painting 24

“Got to remember that I’m getting old and takes me quite awhile to her up to speed, but we do have a couple more days before I have to get back to Sackville,” I replied.

“I’m thinking,” Stephen said, looking at the painting, “that the formal elements are always more important than the narrative ones.”

“I agree,” I said, “I can’t get to the content of a painting until I can get by the formal values of a work. If it’s a crummy painting technically and I just can’t interested in its content.”

“True, but there’s a lot of shit out there that’s content over form and we’re supposed to like it because it has an important message.”

“Look, if art could solve the world’s problems we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now. Art to me is all about catharsis. You’re the art therapist aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I gave it up to return to painting,” he replied.

“And, I’m glad you did.”

“You know, I think that I’m going to do some drawing before I start painting. I’ve got to do something about your hands.” He got some butcher paper that he had and taped it to his drawing board.

“That paper reminds me of a show I saw in Vienna years ago of Klimt drawings of the nude done on butcher paper. They were drop dead beautiful,” I said.

“Yes, he could do great things with so few lines.”

“I really think that your drawing has really been important to this project.”

“I used to do a lot more drawing because my studio was outside, in my car, but it’s good to be doing some drawing again even if I’m working inside. I’m way out of my comfort zone, however, inventing as I go. Normally, I might take photographs of your hands and play with them when you weren’t here, but we agreed, no photography.”

“And I said no recording. Just notes. We’ve made it hard on ourselves rather like wearing hair shirts and, speaking of shirts, I apologize again for forgetting to bring the yellow shirt.”

“We’ve got plenty to work on without the shirt.” he worked until about an hour on the hand study and then took a short coffee break before he started on the painting. He had put yesterday’s leftover paint on a sheet of glass which he stored under water in glass baking dish which he now transferred to a wooden palette.

hands

“Shall we start?” he said.

“Realism is always in vogue, no matter what. People just like it. It never goes out of fashion,” I said.

“If you try to follow style, the latest trends, you’re always one step behind. You should stick to what you believe in,” Stephen added.

“That’s a good thought, but art is fickle. Art is what people say it is and right now that can be pretty much anything. Duchamp really screwed things up and that was a hundred years ago.”

“Stop, you’re depressing me.”

“What establishes value is the market place and there’s fuck all we can do about it,” I continued.

“Surely there’s a breaking point. Somewhere, sometime there’s got to be a realization that a lot of what is passing for high art is crap.”

“I’m not sure, but one thing is for sure that so much is so poorly made that it’ll self destruct. Dust to dust.”

“A whole lot of Jeff Koons’s stuff will last forever.”

“You’re right. Now you’re depressing me.”

Stephen was looking intently at me as he painted and I attempted to sit still. The studies made at my place last summer were done while he sat. Now he was painting the large painting on a studio easel while he stood. He did a sort of dance while he painted, darting back and forth at the canvas. He looked to me like he was enjoying himself.

“Painting on your feet is a whole different process, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It’s certainly more physical,” he replied, “you can get away from the canvas and see the whole thing.”

“That’s why the long brushes are important. You can stand back and paint at the same time,” I said.

“Yeah, and you just can’t buy them. That’s why I made these extensions.”

“The only time I saw them was at Pearl Paint in New York and that was many years ago.”

“And you gave them away, you shit.”

“I’m sorry about that. You just weren’t in the right place at the right time.”

He was working on the right side of the head. “It’s more about what’s not there than what’s there,” he said.

“Good painting is certainly about making people think that they are seeing something that really isn’t there. The Dutch and British portrait painters of the 17th. and 18th. centuries had that down pat,” I said.

“That’s why I have to use big brushes. Stops me from being too finicky. I pick a brush, then put it down and pick a bigger brush.”

“Another thing you have in common with the Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Hals is a very limited palette.”

“There are contemporary Canadian artists who have masterful technique outside of the usual suspects like Colville, Forrestall and Pratt,” Stephen said.

“Like who?”

“Well, Robert Bateman, Ken Danby and David Blackwood.”

“I certainly wouldn’t put Bateman and Danby in the same ballpark as Blackwood.

Well, neither would I, but I was speaking of technique not if they were interesting artist or not.”
“Bateman, Danby, and to some extent, Pratt, I assume we’re talking talking about Chris and not Mary, are photo realists. I thought you didn’t like photo realists.”

“I don’t really, but they do have technique.”

“Sure, but it’s very different than Rembrandt and Halls. It’s like night and day. You paint nothing like a magic or photo realist.”

“Early in my career, I was much tighter. Like Tom or Alex.”

“I like what you’re doing now and I do like Forrestall and Colville.”

“The maritime realists, Alex, Chris and Tom are individualists and really don’t fit neatly into mainstream Canadian art history,” he added.

“How about Jack Chambers?” I asked.

“I do like him, but he’s an exception. I find a lot of Canadian art of the 60s and 70s crap. A low point.”

“You mean stuff like Bush and Molinari?”

“Exactly. I’m a romantic and they’re not.”

“I’ll give you Molinari, but I’m not sure about Bush. His last paintings, the colour field ones, are pretty. I like them. Anyway, let’s have a look at what you’re doing. We’ve pretty much butchered Canadian art history and I need a cup of coffee.”

The painting, to my eyes, was coming, although slowly, together, but Stephen was still be very critical. “Maybe, I should start over,” he said as we both looked at the painting. “For God’s sake, no. Look at the time we’ve both got invested in this thing.”

It hard to be objective when you’re looking at a painting of yourself, but I was feeling that he was finding faults were there were none. There was still a ways to go before the painting was finished, however, what he had done thus far was pretty damn good. “Look, man, why don’t we stop before you screw it up, have a drink, go into town for dinner and start fresh in the morning?”

“OK, as long as you’re buying.”

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, Sunday, June 22, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Three

June 11, 2014

7 May 2014

VH June 2014Two weeks later finds me in Nashwaak Village at Stephen Scott’s house and studio, once again to continue work on the portrait. We went to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, around noon to pick up the unfinished painting from the exhibition and bring it back to the house. We managed, in the process, to create quite a stir. There was someone at the front desk who did not recognize me or Stephen and when I announced that we were going to take a painting from the gallery and replace it with a blank canvas all hell broke out. Thank God, Terry Graff, the gallery’s director, was not out to lunch and introduced me as an adjunct curator of the gallery, the curator of the exhibition and that finishing the large portrait was all part of the exhibition. It did, however, prove that the staff was on their toes.

Back at the house, around three in the afternoon, we had again to try and replicate the lighting of my kitchen in Sackville which is where we started the painting. We started talking about art forgeries and, in particular, the Chinese guy in New Jersey who painted fake abstract expressionist paintings that were being sold as originals in a high end New York gallery that in the end bankrupted the gallery. The poor painter, who got peanuts for his work, thought that he was painting replicas for people how couldn’t afford originals while others made millions from his work.

“Just another case of artists being screwed,” Stephen said.

“Hell, you can buy copies, good copies, from China of almost any painting be they old masters or modern art on the internet,” I added.

“It is just the way artists in China were trained, by copying. It’s not a bad away of learning, you know,” he replied.

“Still are as far as I know. When I was in China a few years ago, I had a chance to visit a few art schools and they still copy. Mind you, people are still copying old masters in museums like the the Met and they seem to know how to paint.”

“That does, once again bring up the question of emphasizing originality over technique in most art schools today,” Stephen said.

“That goes back a long time. Certainly that was the case when I went to art school and that was over fifty years ago. I thought I still got sort of a solid education at the San Francisco Art Institute, but there was still the idea that we’re artists rather than students.”

“You know,” Stephen, mused as he painted, “we might be able to use one of those Chinese guys just to do the work right now. It would be easier than figuring this painting out. It would give us more time to drink and bull shit.”

“I think it’s coming out pretty good, myself. Just that it’s taking a lot of time. I’m getting saddle sores.”

We did have an agreed upon deadline of May 25th to finish the painting. It would, we reasoned, be a nice touch to put the last touch on the painting at the gallery in the closing hours of the 25th. Lord Beaverbrook Day; a bit of added drama. But, it did mean that we would have to get our shit together. No mean feat as Stephen was not only a slow worker, but he is very demanding of himself and I lived in the terror of him deciding to wipe everything out and starting over again.

“Art is a mugs game, art is just a game,” he said.

“But, it’s one you enjoy playing. I mean what else can you do?”

“Not a whole lot and you?”

“I never claimed to be clever. I’m one step more down the tubes than you. I write about art and you do it. Using Plato’s analogy, it puts me pretty much on the bottom of the heap. First you got the idea; then the thing itself; then the imitation of the thing, art and finally, me writing about art. Tis’ a long way from reality.”

“I prefer Aristotle’s definition of art being an improvement on nature rather than an imitation,” Stephen said, “anyway who wants an innovation to The Republic? Sounds like a boring place.”

“Rather like Heaven. Give me Hell, at least it’s warm which is more than you can say for Canada in the winter and there is some variety in Hell,” I added.

“It seems that your namesake, Virgil, was quite the expert on Hell.”

“Yeah, Dante seemed to think so. Made him the guide to the whole damn place.”

“Art critics should be guides of some sort don’t you think? Leading people down the garden path to art appreciation.”

“Most critics,” I replied, “couldn’t find their way to the washroom unaided.”

“It’s upstairs.”

“Thanks for the information. I like those extensions you made for your brushes. Keeps you from getting too close to the canvas.”

“I’ve got all of these brushes and I can never find the right one.”

“Perhaps the right one is at the art gallery. There’s quite a bundle there.” (We had setup a dummy studio at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as part of our exhibition which included a number of brushes.)

“Listen, you never have the right brush regardless of how many you own. How’s it going anyway? You seem to be enjoying yourself.”

“It’s got a long way to go. Let’s take a break for coffee and you can judge for yourself. You’re the critic aren’t you?”

We tend to work in periods of thirty to forty five minutes, then stop to take stock and generally have a cup of coffee. The good thing about this setup as compared to those that were at my house is that lighting, while artificial, is constant. We don’t have to worry if it’s cloudy, rainy and having the light change position as the sun moves. Natural light is certainly nicer, but it’s nice not to worry about the light. The big thing, of course, is colour temperature, but Stephen, with all his years of experience has a pretty good handle on the problem. Colour does look different under artificial light than it does under natural light and that’s what we’re talking about as colour temperature and it can be measured in degrees Kelvin, but who wants to go there.

The big problem that we were having is that I forgot to bring the right shirt, the famous yellow shirt, with me from Sackville so we were working around the missing shirt emphasizing my head and a beautiful head it is. “It looking pretty good to me,” I said taking a sip of coffee.

“Is that the best you can do? Not very profound for an expert.”

“Well, the coffee is better at my place,” I offered.

“I’m having a problem with the right hand side of your head.”

“Is it in the details?” I said.

“Likely the opposite. Too much detail. I should be using a bigger brush. I need to get the impression.”

As I have said, throughout this process, Stephen uses far larger brushes than one would think when looking at his finished paintings. I’ve watched Alex Colville and Chris Pratt paint and they do use tiny brushes, ones, twos while Stephen is popping away with tens and twelves. Brushes range in the size of their tip from 00, the one hair type, up to twelve and beyond. There are flats, rounds, brights and, believe it or not, filberts. All of this is very interesting to painters, but the general public tends not to care, but, for information sake, Stephen is a large flat guy when it comes to brushes. To not confuse this with Long Flat which is an Australian red wine and not a bad one.

The thing about how Stephen works, as did Rembrandt and Hals, when using broad brush work is that the paintings fall together when you step back and view the them at a proper distance. Some say that the proper distance is the diagonal of the painting, but I like to get my nose right up to the surface as well which drives museum guards wild. Stephen and I have gone around and around on this issue. It boils down to that there is no proper distance. Likely there is no proper anything, but that would leave Stephen and me with nothing to talk about.

I sat down and Stephen started painting again. “You know we’ve got all day tomorrow to paint,” I said, “I vote for dinner and a good bottle of wine.”

“You don’t have a vote and since my radiation treatment I can’t taste a fucking thing. Wine and food all taste like shit.”

“Bummer. Food is one of the great things in life and you know my opinion on wine. That only leaves sex.”

“A man your age shouldn’t be talking about sex. It could prove dangerous,” he told me.

“Look, I already had my heart attack back in 03 and If I got to go I would it rather be in bed after a great dinner while engaged in even greater sex.”

“Dream on and while you’re at it sit still for a minute.”

“Well, stop talking about sex.”

“You brought it up.”

“Shouldn’t you be using more medium?” I said making an uncalled for suggestion.

“I don’t need a medium.”

“Yes, you do. It makes wet on wet easier.”

“My wet on wet is just fine. Shut up with the medium stuff.

painting toolsMediums are mixtures of oils, solvents and varnishes that are used to thin paint from the tube to a consistency that’s more fluid. (Pedants: I know that plural of medium is media, but here we’re describing different painting mediums.) Stephen does mix walnut oil with his paint and, from time to time, occasionally, sparingly, uses a medium of his own mixture, but he is loathed to admit it.

“You’ve got to push control to the back burner,” he said, “The only time things happen is when you’re taking a chance.”

“Hey, Columbus took a chance and he died he in jail.”

“Very helpful.”

We painted for another hour or so and threw in the towel for the day around five-thirty. I was keen to get to the red wine even if Stephen couldn’t taste it and tomorrow could spend all day working.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, June 9, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Two

May 13, 2014

18/19 April 2014

Part Two of Two

“What happens when you lose interest, I asked Stephen Scott, “in a painting or a genre? You told me last summer that you liked figurative painting over landscape, but you’ve spent your life painting landscapes and doing them extremely well.”

“I’m not sure that I’ve lost all interest in landscape painting, but I think that there’s more thought in figurative art, more invention. A critical mind is an important thing.”

“All the work in your current exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is figurative. Mind you, I did curate the show and I think that it works well as a body of work,” I said.

“The show is pretty much a majority of my serious work over the last couple of years.”

“But right here in the studio you have two series of small landscapes that you completed over the last two summers. Last summer in Sackville and the summer before that in Newfoundland. I think that they’re terrific. They would make a great little show, perhaps, two shows. Anyway, you could sell them a lot cheaper than your figurative works. A man cannot live on love alone. Mind you, in my case, I’m willing to try a little love, I just can’t get a woman to agree, but I digress.”

“You certainly do, you have to keep your mind on art and not sex, but, yes, those little landscapes were fun and the plein-air experience was good. You need to work fast.”

“It’s sort of the opposite of what you’re doing now. We’ve got a lot of time on this project. I’m pretty sure that most people looking at your stuff in the Beaverbrook haven’t a clue about the time factor in those paintings nor would they relate to how much thinking goes into them.”

“I guess. Most people just see the product. That’s OK. The thinking and doing is my job,” Stephen replied.

“I’m sure that artists, and I’m talking painters here, think differently than other people. It’s visual thinking to use the term psychologist Rudolf Arnheim used. I’ve been writing about this crap for a long time. A long enough time to know what I don’t know. As a painter I spent a long time looking at blank canvases and wondering what the fuck to do next. Then, if I was lucky, I would see the painting in my head. My problem was the painting in my head was always better than the one I painted. That’s why I quit. You, my friend, are a lot better at getting it right on the canvas.”

“I couldn’t rationalize it,” he said, “My life of being an artist is something that I had little control over. What else can I do? A painting never does measure up to expectations. If it did you would stop painting. It’s always the next one.”

“At least you have a next one. I seem to be trapped in a world of words. Watching you paint your paintings of me gives me an insight that will forever change the way that I look at them. Actually, change the way that I look at all your work.”

“I think that we should stop for today. Fix something to eat and take it easy. We can paint again tomorrow.”

We managed to throw something together for dinner and drank a goodly amount of wine before, during and after the meal. We continued our conversation about art throughout the evening. But even Stephen and I sometimes tire of our own brilliant conversation and I suggested watching Top Gear via Netflix on my iPad. In my non-art life, I am a gear head, a car nut, and the BBC programme Top Gear is a bit of an obsession. It’s a stupid show, but whose’s claiming to be smart and I sucked Stephen in. Three hours later, he threw in the towel and went to bed, I soldered on for another hour or so before I joined the cat in their spare bedroom and called it an evening.
The next morning Sophie, his wife, left to spend Easter with mother in northern New Brunswick leaving Stephen and me to cope with our breakfast alone. He made carrot and apple juice, in his new juicer, to go along with an omelet. We listened to Saturday morning programming on CBC radio. “Saturday morning still OK on CBC radio, but they’ve pretty much managed to dumb down their programming most of the time,” I said.

“It’s all part of the Harper government’s plan to screw the CBC and appeal to their base,” he added.

“I think the arts are fucked by this government. It’s our fault for allowing these idiots to be elected. If the left and centre could get their act together we would never have these right wing nut cases in charge,” I said.

“That’s not about to happen. Why do you want to change the world? Lets just get down to painting.”

“Excellent idea, there is much to said about art for art’s sake.”

VH 19april14We moved from the kitchen into the studio and I tried to get back into yesterday’s pose while Stephen got his painting materials together. “You know, I could have used more support in realism at art school from the third year on. It was really depressing and it was your bloody department, you were the head,” Stephen said, as he took up his position in front of his easel.

“Hey, it wasn’t all my fault. I had a department to deal with and a lot of my faculty and a fair number of the students thought that realism was a dead end. I always taught all of my drawing and painting classes 100 percent from the figure, but my courses were all first and second year.”

“So, how come it didn’t rub off?”

“Look you were there as well as me, art in the 70’s was going all over the place. The kids were painting with their face in Artforum. I had all sorts of students who were talented in realism, when they entered the school, who when they graduated were doing what they thought was ‘real’ art which certainly wasn’t realism. Not many, like you, stuck to their guns.”

“It wasn’t easy and it took time for me to recover from the experience.”

“Well, if it helps, you had company. I’ve talked to a number of students over the years, not only from Mount A, who felt they got pushed in the wrong direction.”

“Why was that? I have my own ideas, but I’d be interested in yours.” By this time Stephen was throwing the paint around pretty well.

“I think it was because those of us teaching art, particularly in university, thought that we had to teach students to be ‘artists’ and not how to make art—basically technique. It goes back along time, several generations. We’ve got teachers who simply don’t know technique, craft, who were taught themselves by teachers who didn’t have a clue.”

“Yeah, as I said, I had to pretty much teach myself how to paint after art school,” Stephen said.

“And, if I may be so bold, I think that you’re doing stuff that I have trouble with technically, but your results are great. I certainly could have done more as a teacher. Craft and technique are teachable, teaching somebody to be an ‘artist’ isn’t. It’s basically bullshit. Artists make themselves by making art and that should happen outside of art school.”

“I’ve always had to rely on gut feelings about what’s art and making it. Hell, as a kid I wanted to be a secret agent. The first James Bond film made me realize that I would rather be a secret agent than a priest which was something I thought about when I was very young. James Bond changed my life. Film told me that I want a little adventure in my life.”

“It must have been that sense of adventure that drove you to Europe after high school rather than going directly to university.”

“Of course, as they say, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“And Europe and that eureka moment on that Spanish beach where you realized you wanted to be an artist is all thanks to James Bond.”

“You could say that.”

“Funny these eureka moments. Mine was in Paris as a teenager when going into a bar in Montmartre, this would be ‘53 or ‘54, and looking around and saying, “This looks like fun,” and it sure, the hell, beats becoming an accountant. Then and there, I decided I wanted a life in the arts.”

“That aside,” he said, “how are we going to finish this painting? You’re going back to Sackville tomorrow,it’s a long way from done and we’ve agreed to paint in the Beaverbrook from May 20th to the 25th.”

“I can likely come back a couple of more times before that and there may be things you can do without me. You got the studies. I would sort of like to see the unfinished painting back in the gallery between our sessions as it’s more interesting than the totally blank canvas we’ve left in its space, but I’d sure as hell would like to see us finish the painting on the 25th. with a bang. It’s Lord Beaverbrook Day and there will be hundreds of people in the gallery.”

About this time I got a call from Sackville. My vet, and good friend, Gina Bradet told me that she needed to euthanize my seventeen year old dog, Kara. It was a call that I had been dreading. Kara was very sick with cancer and we had been keeping her going with drugs for well over a month. I had left her in the care of my son at my house and I knew that this moment might come at anytime. I told Gina that I trusted her and that she should do what she had to do. I think that she loved my dog as much as I did. In any case, this put a damper on the afternoon and Stephen, who knew Kara as well, knew it.

Kara

Kara

“I think that the painting is coming together alright now. I’m sort of happy with it,” he said.

“Sort of happy is about as good as it gets,” I replied, “how much longer do you want to work. I’d like to get into town and buy a couple of things and I’ll buy you dinner. I’d like to celebrate your health and the life of Kara.

“Let’s get the hell out of here. I could use a drink,” he said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, Saturday, May 3, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty One

May 7, 2014

18/19 April 2014

Part One of Two

There has been a seven month hiatus since Stephen Scott worked on his portrait of me and an awful lot has happened during that time.

The major thing, of course, was Stephen’s battle with oral cancer. It was a fight that everyone hopes that he has won. It has not been easy; a long and complicated operation followed by many, many sessions of radiation, but he is a stubborn and courageous fighter. He has very good support from his family and friends and, in particular, from his wife and soulmate, Sophie. The other thing that has happened, and this a good thing, is that our project resulted in a major exhibition, which I curated, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick that is presently on view and will continue until the 8th. of June. The exhibition’s title is the same as our project, Stephen Paints a Picture, and consists of the oil sketches and drawings he completed over last summer, plus an e-book of all of my blog posts. In addition, there are over twenty more, mostly large, oil paintings of his that I picked from his studio.

The exhibition was planned just prior to Stephen learning about his cancer. “Just prior” are the operative words here as it was only one week before he was diagnosed that we settled on a date for the exhibition. Many of us in Sackville over the summer, Stephen, in particular, had an idea that there was something seriously wrong with his health, but the idea of an exhibition of our summer’s work at a major public art gallery was certainly attractive. Originally the idea, if you were following my blog, was that I would go to Fredericton several times over the fall and Stephen would finish the large portrait that he had started in Sackville. This was to central to the idea of the exhibition. Plans change.

I thought that it was important that the exhibition go on regardless of Stephen’s illness in the grand cliché of the “show must go on”. I believe very strongly in the quality of Stephen’s work and when you have a chance at a major exhibition at a public art gallery you take it. Fortunately, Stephen agreed and we had to come up an alternative to our original plan. I thought, what would happen if we displayed the unfinished portrait, which was a charcoal cartoon on canvas, along with the oil sketches and drawings and that we finished the painting in the gallery during the run of the exhibition? There were a lot of imponderables in the idea as we had to believe that Stephen would be well enough to paint while the exhibition was up, but Stephen and I believed that he would be. Terry Graff, the Beaverbrook’s director, thought it was a really interesting idea and it was his idea to extend the exhibition to include more works by Stephen.

So when Stephen Paints a Picture opened on the 27th. of February we had created a small studio in one corner of the exhibition with the unfinished painting sitting on easel with brushes, paint and a palette on a small table beside it. It should be said that Stephen had just finished his radiation treatment a few days before the opening and it wasn’t certain that he would be well enough to attend, but nothing was going to stop him and he was there. Now we had to figure out the when and how of completing the portrait. So on the 16th. of April, I arrived at Stephen’s house, in Nashwaak Village which is just outside of Fredericton, and now is his studio as well, to see if we could get a head start on finishing the painting as there was no way that it could all be done in the gallery given how slowly he works. Stephen had spent over forty hours on the preliminary oil sketches and drawings during the summer as this was to be a major three by four foot painting.

The following day was a bust as the Saint John River, on which his house borders, was threatening to flood and we spent the day checking the basement and an escape route, but the river crested and all was OK except we were out of wine and beer. The next day we got to the gallery, had a pleasant lunch with Terry, took the unfinished canvas, replaced it with a blank canvas, bought lots of wine and retreated to Naswaak Village.

After drinking some of the wine we decided that it would be better to start painting the next day. After breakfast Stephen had to solve some technical problems before we could start. The big one was to recreate the lighting that we had at my house over the summer so that he could use the oil sketches and drawings as a guide for the large painting. This meant blocking all the windows in the studio and setting up artificial light.

VH 18april14

Portrait of Virgil by Stephen Scott

“What colour shirt do you want me to wear? The blue one or the yellow one?” I asked. During the summer we had used two different shirts for the oil sketches, two with me wearing a blue shirt and two with a yellow one. I had brought both of them with me. “It doesn’t matter. How about the yellow one?”

“Suits me.”

“Wait, I want to put some tape on the floor to mark the legs on the chair.” The idea was to mark everything so that we cold replicate the situation at each sitting. I sat in the chair, while he played with the lights and when he was satisfied, he marked their positions as well.

“It’s bloody cold in here, man, I’m going to freeze my ass off,” I complained.

“There’s a heater upstairs in the bathroom,” he told me.

“OK, I’ll go get it while you play with your paints.”

After I plugged in the heater and sat down again, he said, “Your hair is the same.”

“It’s been seven months and not seven years, but I assure you, I’m getting older and not necessarily better.”

“Sit still for a minute while I figure it out.” He told me to move my head this way and that before he figured he had it right.

“Look, you know that I’m going to move from time to time if I’m going to keep notes of our brilliant conversation.”

“Yeah, but try and keep it to a minimum.”

“The conversation or my movement?”

“Very funny and your left hand goes over your right.”

paintings in the beaverbrook

Stephen & Virgil at The Beaverbrook Art Gallery

“That was quite an interesting painting we looked at in the vault at the Beaverbrook yesterday. Graham Sutherland’s small portrait of Somerset Maugham. A good choice, if I say so myself,” I said. I was talking about a painting that was the first choice for a new project that Stephen and I were looking forward to doing this summer. Starting with the Beaverbrook, the only Canadian location, we want to go art museums in the north eastern United States from Maine to New York and, at each, pick a painting from their collection and have a conversation about it. I’ll put the conversation on my blog, produce an e-book and a short You Tube video on each painting.

“I really like Sutherland’s paintings, in particular, his portraits, but there was another picture on the same rack. A tall thin painting of a man in a grey overcoat,” Stephen said.

“I think I know the one you mean it’s by Walter Sickert. Another great British painter. It’s a shame that artists like Sutherland and Sickert aren’t appreciated as much has they should be.”

“They are in sort of a lost period, but I agree they are both really interesting artists,” he replied, “you know this surface is crap.” He was referring to canvas he was working on. “I bought this at Mt. A (Mount Allison University) bookstore. It was cheap and shows. It’s not sealed enough and it’s sucking up the paint. I’m going to put on a couple of coats shellac. It’ll dry fast. In the meantime, we can have another cup of coffee.”

“Sure, I’ve got no place to go. What did you think that you learned from our show?”

“I think that I have more freedom to move forward. It’s really interesting to see your work in a venue like the Beaverbrook.”

“It’s also cool to have it up in it’s own space for three to four months,” I added.

“In a commercial art gallery you’re lucky if it’s two weeks and then your work that doesn’t sell is generally tied up for a year.”

“The answer, Stephen, is to sell all your work at the opening.”

“Fat chance of that in a place like New Brunswick,” he said.

“I don’t know about you, but a life changing event like the one that you just went through is certainly a good time to reflect on your life. I know it was for me after my heart attack and my own bout of cancer and your crap was a whole lot more dramatic than mine. This much is for sure, you scared the shit the shit out of me.”

“Yeah, it does give you a pause. Life is short and I don’t feel like fucking around any more.”

He started back on the painting and was using quite a long maul stick. “I had one of those,” I said, “I gave it to one of my students when I retired and stopped painting.

Most artists don’t even know about them much less how to use them.”

“They come in handy to keep your hand steady and out of the paint,” he said. The other thing that he did was to add extensions, wooden dowels, to his brushes to make them longer so that he could paint further away from the canvas. Also, different from our Sackville sessions over the summer is that he was mostly standing while he painted rather than seated.

“Painters in the past did use much longer brushes when they were painting larger portraits. It’s hard to buy long portrait brushes these days,” I remarked, “however, I did find some remarkable and beautiful portrait brushes at Pearl Paint in New York City. They cost me a small fortune and I ended up giving them to the same student that I gave the maul stick to.”

“I didn’t want hear that. I wish that you had given them to me,” Stephen said.

“You weren’t around at the time, but I did give you that great French drawing paper and a roll of six foot canvas.”

“So you did. Try and keep your head in one place. You know one thing that we haven’t talked much about is 19th. century English Romantic painters like John William Waterhouse.”

“Yeah, he’s coming back in fashion after being nearly forgotten. I tried to look him up in my 1970 copy of The Oxford Companion to Art, a big honking 1200 page book, and he’s not there. I think his 1888 Lady of Shalott is a hoot, but it’s beautifully painted.”

“I like his The Mermaid around the turn of the century, 1901, I think. Again, a very pretty painting.”

“I guess you could call him a Post Pre-Raphaelite. He was out of date when he was painting his best pictures. It was round the same time as the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, but he was wildly popular in his own time,” I said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Thursday, May 1, 2014.

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Portrait of an Artist

March 24, 2014

From the Telegraph Journal Salon section 22 March 2014

Last summer, adjunct curator Virgil Hammock sat for a portrait by Fredericton artist Stephen Scott. Hammock documented the almost two-month experience, sharing their conversations and his own thoughts about art. The collaboration has been assembled as the exhibition ‘Stephen Paints a Picture,’ on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery until June 8. Here are some excerpts from Hammock’s documentation.

Read/Download the PDF here:

Portrait Of An Artist TJ

The blog series: Stephen Paints a Picture

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Stephen Paints a Picture at The Beaverbrook Art Gallery

February 24, 2014

Stephen Paints a Picture at The Beaverbrook Art Gallery (link)

Fredericton, NB – Opening on 27 February 2014 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM

Until 8 June 2014

stephen scott artistMy friend, the artist Stephen Scott, likes to take his summers away from his Fredericton area studio and home to travel and paint in a different location. This year he decided on going back to his roots in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he had studied art at Mount Allison University from 1974 to 1978. I was the head of the fine arts department when he was a student here. Now he is nearly a senior citizen and certainly a senior artist. What that makes me is left to your imagination. Soon after his arrival this summer, we fell into a conversation over coffee about the act of painting. I told him about a book, Man with a Blue Scarf, I had read written by British art critic Martin Gayford, of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, and how interesting it was to follow their conversation over the very long time it took Freud to complete the painting. One thing led to another and we decided to repeat the idea with me as the subject. Stephen is a very good portrait painter and likes to paint from life. It is a very different process from painting from photographs and Stephen, like Freud, is a very slow and meticulous artist.