Stephen Scott scribbles a string of letters along the bottom edge of a newspaper, before tearing it off. “That’s me, that’s what I am,” he says, passing it to me. The letters, all capitals, spell out NEOPOSTROMANTIC. Nearly everything else he’s said has gone well over my head, but I’m fairly certain this word is as unique as Stephen. I ask him to sign it, a postmodern portrait of the artist, and slip it into my pocket.
Stephen is an artist’s artist. He’s been at it for some time now; having attended the Ontario College of Art, completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Mount Allison in 1978, followed by a Master of Arts in Arts Therapy from Concordia in 1998. He is intensely introspective, reflective, and authentic. His works possess a depth to them that I have only been able to glimpse the near edge of with the aid of a guided tour. “I’m a submerging artist, meaning I’ve been around for a while. More and more and more younger artists are coming out, and I’m feeling that I’m getting to be a little bit senior. I’m over the hill, age-wise; I’ve been at it for a while. I’m supposed to be in mid-stream, established, and not really having to go for those prizes which bring visibility in a hurry.”
“I always had trouble with art-speak and the writing that’s being done about art. Art journals are pretty boring, you really have to have a dictionary in one hand, and a thesaurus of art-speak.”
Following high school, Stephen took a year off as a period of self-discovery, and it was on the shores of North Africa that his life’s pursuit came to him. “Most people don’t think, until after they finish high school, about what they were going to do with themselves, and I wasn’t any exception to that. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was pretty mixed up, I think. While I was there, in Africa, the dust settled, and I was able to engage with the world in a new way. I started looking to the future, and it made sense to me to try to describe as much of the mystery, magic, and beauty as I could.”
Since then, travel has been an integral part of Stephen’s life, and his work, drawing inspiration from both the landscape and his experiences. It’s made a world traveler of him; making several trips through Europe, with extensive plein air studies throughout France and Germany, but Berlin, in particular, has left its mark on him.
“Berlin was the biggest one that really made me understand that… it highlighted what romanticism is. Romantic art, for me, is a situation where it’s almost subjective: the emotion, the looking for identification in the subject, and there’s also this kind of dreaminess about it. I read a book by Christopher Isherwood called Goodbye to Berlin. His descriptions of some of the things that I had painted were spot-on with some of the things I felt. I did a large painting of Tiergarten, this big forest in the middle of Berlin, that, for some reason, I had painted black, and Isherwood’s description of it was: ‘the black heart of Berlin’. It was such a revelation that subjective responses to external events are also available to me. It helped to define myself a little bit more, and to realise that I could work on a theme, because each one of my works was pretty different.”
“I find landscape to be a vehicle of mood; it’s an externalisation of how you feel, so it’s a projection. Everyone picks what they identify with. Some people use high-key colours, bright yellow, cerulean blue, and things that would put my teeth on edge. I never use lemon yellow. I’m always criticised for using black or brown colours, colours that are very dark, but I don’t have a problem with it; other people do, but I go for the deeper notes. When I paint landscape, there are going to be contrasts, there’s going to be some expression of mood. Very seldom am I going to paint a picture where you’re going to have some kind of bright, cheerful, not-a-care-in-the-world, sky. I’m less of a romantic in landscape; I see more of the ugly in it. There are more power grids, or there are more box buildings, and roads, and all this kind of shit that I would never have painted in in the past, or a few years ago. I was more of the bucolic kind of landscapist, as kind of an ideal place to go in your mind. I’m getting older, seeing more, being more aware of things that are happening. I don’t want to repeat myself.”
His style of representational impressionism is often moody, and a dark mood at that. His brush strokes are just as significant to the composition as his subjects, as though they provide a dual narrative; to misuse a quote, ‘the medium is the message’. As Stephen puts it, his style is, in fact, an avoidance of style, “Once you start stylizing, you start to begin to develop a methodology of working, which, sometimes, you’ve forced upon the subject. I try to come to each painting fresh and let the painting dictate to me how it should be painted. My style is really elusive; overall, people say there is a consistency. I can’t see it.”
Stephen’s early work began in egg tempera, before progressing to watercolours, and, primarily, oils, his medium of choice for its expressive qualities; colours hiding, and blending, layer upon layer, a collage built in four dimension. Stephen provides a sense that, within his paintings , there is an entirely new colour previously undiscovered, and only visible through years of intensely dedicated study.
“The interplay between how something looks, and how it’s expressed is dynamic; that’s fascinating to me, and that’s why I like oil painting. I’m not moved to do sculpture or anything else. Oil paint has all the capabilities of that; exploring that area of fascination between the real and the abstract, that’s the fascination with representational art; it’s presenting a pictorial theme that is a little bit deeper. It’s a response that’s more psychological, more emotional, more spiritual, but these things are incorporated in the manner of the execution. I find that I love the expressive qualities of the way that some artists are able to conceal or incorporate gesture in with a subject, which also needs a high degree of definition. To me, it’s really important that I get certain things right; half the painting can be very abstract, but the parts that need to be defined have to be defined well.”
While his summers are spent gallivanting about the countryside, he spends his winters holed up in his Fredericton studio, largely dedicating his time to portraiture. In past years he’s done portraits of notable New Brunswickers, including Virgil Hammock, Elizabeth Parr-Johnston, as well as a particularly curious (and certainly NSFW) self-portrait titled ‘Self-Portrait In Leather Thong‘.
“I think portraits are the hardest thing. There are two people involved. It’s kind of a matrix, which is always changing, because you’re not passive. I tend to talk to my subjects, and I find that sometimes I wish I didn’t, because I’d much rather let them be. Sometimes they fall asleep. The dynamics are always evolving, and the longer you’re painting the more it comes into it, there’s an emotional thing. A portrait isn’t done in a minute; it takes a lot of time to pull off, and it’s different from painting a landscape or still life; those subjects are really static, but portraiture is pretty fascinating. It’s just so complex.”
“I’d like to see people change their furniture to match the colour of my paintings, you know, ‘Okay, he’s done a blue one, we’re going have to get a blue couch and a rug’. It’s the other way around; I’m not painting to match someone’s furniture. This is the worst, as far as you can go in art.”
Stephen’s insight into the dynamics of artistry is profound; he conscientiously works on a multiplicity of levels. His painting is expressive, intriguing, and enjoyable to the casual observer, but there’s plenty lurking in the depths. “When I started, I could only paint barns, that’s all I could paint. That was the first thing that meant the most to me, on a romantic level, because the content of my work was based on my experiences with my family’s rural past. Those things were really exciting to me as a child, but as you get older you can accommodate more. I still think I’d have a hard time just painting a 7-11 store, but, I probably will, if I can do it well.”
Stephen has had three public showings in the last year, including the Reflective Gaze exhibit with William Forrestall at the Saint John Art Center from November 7th until December 23rd. He is currently working on his portraiture series throughout the winter months. To learn more, visit his website.
“I’ve painted my wife a number of times, and it’s not a problem painting her at all, but I still always am looking for an accurate description of her, truthfully. I don’t need to idealise her; she’s beautiful. Make sure you include that…”