In Memoriam: Robert Douglas “Bob” Stephenson (August 21,1935 – August 9, 2015)
With the death of painter Robert Stephenson on August 9, Gloucester lost one of its most distinctive contemporary artists. We also lost a great character, a trait that is in short supply these days.
I knew Bob from the Hovey School, where we met in Miss Courant’s fifth grade class in 1947. Even then Bob was drawing and painting constantly. He was also a wit, who kept us laughing when we should have been concentrating on our studies. As befits someone as creative as Bob, he was able to turn both his art and his wit into activities that gained him academic credit.
One of our first projects together was a play we co-wrote for our unit in American history about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, for which Bob designed the costumes, or rather, adapted them from clothing we borrowed from our mothers—today you might call it “colonial drag.” Bob’s mother, Cora Douglas, the daughter of New England lighthouse keepers, had a house full of the most interesting artifacts, many of which she and Bob’s late father, Charles Francis Stephenson, had collected during his tours of duty in the diplomatic corps. In fact, much of Bob’s sophistication, which made him seem so much older and more mature than the rest of us, was the consequence of the family’s having lived abroad. I suspect these experiences may have played a role in Bob’s becoming an incredibly accomplished linguist during his military career. It is said that he was proficient in twelve languages, including several dialects.
Once we were in Central Grammar for 7th and 8th grades, our dramatic activities did not cease. We wrote a play about Julius Caesar, which we performed with an Italian accent, followed by a Nativity play in Yiddish inflected English. How we got away with what today would be considered politically incorrect behavior is still a mystery to me; but those plays, and others we did together, including a British murder mystery, in which we played Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson with the appropriate British accents, were performed in the school auditorium in front of the entire school body.
During 7th grade Bob and I also initiated an activity that we would pursue well into high school. We spent every Saturday walking all over Cape Ann. Beginning with Ravenswood Park, where we explored every trail in detail, we branched out to Dogtown, which we crossed to Rockport many times. There was not a single Gloucester neighborhood we had not traversed on foot, or any place on the waterfront that we did not come to know intimately. One of our signal achievements was to have walked entirely around Cape Ann, beginning in downtown Gloucester and walking to Rockport, Pigeon Cove, Lanesville, Bay View, Riverdale and back to Bob’s house on Mansfield Street.
We did it in a single day, carrying water in canteens and packing lunches that our mothers had prepared for us. There were no cellphones or public phones from which we might report our progress. Always during these walks we observed nature carefully, gathering specimens of plants and wildflowers or marine life that we examined by microscope in the laboratory I had set up in the basement of my house on Perkins Road.
Looking back on Bob’s artistic career, it is my belief that his minute depiction of Gloucester places and objects, his grasp of buildings, wharves, rocks, beaches, tidal eddies, surf, trees, bushes, flora and fauna originated in part from the experiences of those walks during which nothing was lost on either of us. Our early walks resulted in a lifelong habit of my own of walking all over the city of my birth and writing about it in my weekly column for the Gloucester Times, “This Side of the Cut.”
Bob’s artistry was nurtured at Central Grammar by our art teachers, Jean Nugent in 7th grade and Edna Hodgkin’s in 8th. Both were practicing artists, as was the city’s art supervisor Hale Anthony Johnson, who had taught us all the rudiments of art since first grade, along with the history of the visual arts on Cape Ann.
But it was at Gloucester High School, that amazing WPA modernist building we had the privilege of attending classes in during the 1950s, where Bob came under the influence of Gloucester’s greatest art teacher, the native-born painter Howard Curtis, who was head of the art department. Comprising an entire wing of the school, the art department had state of the art equipment and the benefit of northern light, because Howard and the preceding art teacher, Muriel Spofford, had insisted to the architects that the original siting of the school be rotated to take advantage of the light itself.
It would be an understatement to say that the influence of Howard Curtis on Bob’s art was profound. Curtis, a distinguished artist who had exhibited widely, along with painting or restoring earlier murals in city buildings, was a remarkable teacher. Learned, articulate and engaging, he held sway in his two-room classroom-studio from before school in the morning until late in the afternoon. In those classrooms, whose walls were hung with the finest examples of world art, you could find students, some of whom did not even study art, in deep conversation with “Mr. Curtis,” as we all respectfully called him. The subjects were wide and diverse, from the forms of Medieval and Renaissance painting and questions of perspective to abstract philosophical issues about the origins and fate of man. Curtis himself was a deeply meditative spiritualist, a mystic, in some ways, as I look back on him. This part of his nature and his teaching must clearly have had an impact on Bob’s future art, which has a profoundly spiritual dimension, influenced as well by Bob’s immersion in Buddhism, prompted by his time spent in the Far East during his military service.
Taken together, Bob’s encyclopedic knowledge of Gloucester terrain and his spiritual vision, in part the influence of Howard Curtis and in part his Eastern knowledge and practice, provide a lens through which we can view and understand the astounding production of his paintings. Many were completed in his first studio on the top floor of Brown’s former department store, later in the studio he occupied at the Fitz Henry Lane House, and finally at his remarkable studio on Parsons Street, just off Main, a former garage, which Bob, with the help of friends, converted into a living and working space that took advantage of a marvelous view of the waterfront and wonderful light throughout the day. It was a studio, like those of the Florentine masters, that was open to all during Bob’s working hours. It was not unusual to find friends visiting while Bob painted, or a conversation ongoing about the state of the world, about which Bob had many opinions, pungently expressed.
Everyone has a story about Bob, and I will conclude with one of my own.
It was late in 1959. I was living in Florence, studying Medieval literature at the university and about to begin teaching English at the International Academy. Bob was stationed in Germany with the US Army. He wrote to tell me that he had some leave coming and wished to visit me in Florence. I had not seen Bob since I was in college and he was attending art school in Boston, prior to his induction into the army, so I jumped at the opportunity. Bob was due to arrive on the Brenner Express, so I went to meet his train at the railroad station. As I stood on the platform, I observed a group of Germans getting off the train, all of them speaking excitedly in their own language. Bob was among them, conversing in what I later learned was perfect German. He was also dressed in German clothing, a gray Loden jacket and a dark green Alpine hat with a feather in it.
Bob stayed in the Pensione Cordova in Via Cavour, where I had been living since early fall. His room had a marvelous view of the Duomo from its window. Soon Bob set about drawing everything he saw as we walked (of course) over every inch of the fabulous city that was to become my home for three years. From his study of art history Bob was familiar with the storied buildings and monuments, and his knowledge of the art was extensive. As we walked through the galleries of the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, Bob paused to explain what artists like Botticelli had in mind as they concentrated on the placement of figures or the overall structure of the work. We explored the interiors of the great cathedrals and churches, from the Duomo to San Miniato, adjacent to which was a vast cemetery which fascinated Bob (my friend Paul Hamilton, who was studying art in Florence took some pictures of us in that cemetery, one of which is posted here).
Back in the pensione, I introduced Bob to another resident, Carlo Cirelli, a young artist from Ferrara, who worked designing shoes for a local company. When Carlo saw Bob’s drawings and watercolors of Florence he asked Bob if he would ever consider designing shoes.
“I’ll take a crack at it,” Bob said, setting to work with his pencil and watercolors he borrowed from Carlo. We left him alone for a while, and when he said the design was done, Carlo and I went to look at it. Instead of an elegant Italian shoe, Bob had painted what looked like a worn out work boot, brown, scuffed and with turned over heels. Along the edge of the boot he had painted a wooden match stick, inserted between the shoe and the sole. The match was on fire and would naturally have resulted in a “hot foot” for the wearer of the shoe. This was Bob at his best, using art to make a point about the vanity of fancy footwear.
I did not see Bob again until his retirement from the military when we were both again living in Gloucester. From time to time I would visit his Parsons Street studio to see what he had been up to. When I reminded him about his visit to Florence and the shoe, his eyes twinkled. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d started a fad,” he said. “You know how clever those Italians are!”
The Most Original Native Artist of His Time
by Ernest Morin
Bob Stephenson, like Fitz Henry Lane, was a Gloucester boy. He also shared with Lane a real sense of light and love of the harbor and city. I met him when he had his studio in Lane’s house.
When it came to subject matter however Bob Stephenson was not a realist. His canvas would be a place to situate dream, myth, reality, symbols and spirituality. He would combine an eastern sensibility towards use of space and western techniques of painting with scenes that were both drawn from local reality and greatly fabricated to fit artistically into the Stephenson paradigm, a very original paradigm.
His skill and technique with paint was extreme, he was a master at use of glazing, applying hot near cold color of designing a series of spaces within spaces that had strong push pull, repetitive form, harmony culminating in complex compositions that were layered with meaning.
He also did this in a way that was simple and abstract at heart – in the way an Edward Hopper is real yet truly abstract.
Stephenson labored intensely over 6 or 8 canvases at a time. They were works to be pondered, to be massaged, to be coaxed into life one nuance at a time once they were cohesive. His art wasn’t rushed; he didn’t produce product.
He worked on what he wanted to say, often returning to similar harbor scenes from another perspective as if he was constantly working out his narrative and not sure he’d got it right yet. Matisse says an artist only has one or two ideas that we keep reworking until we finally say it as best we can. Bob was of that school.
And he had no problem scraping it back and starting over if need be. He didn’t cling to a composition that way; he held his original idea as paramount.
He wasn’t afraid to fail and knew damn well when he had, something he also knew is lost on many artists today.
His work is far more intricate and original conceptually than anyone else I’ve run into who was or is currently painting in the city.
He also shared a great deal of his knowledge of art, composition, light and technique freely if you spent time with him.
He had a way of observing that was very keen and nuanced and a love of a certain hour of the day’s light where it’s an ephemeral shadow play. You’d look at his way of painting a shadow in a box shape under a hull and swear he was just doing it to be different. Yet on a few days late in September when the light angle is shifting … you spot a Stephenson shadow as ephemeral as a man’s life.
Bob was one of the most alert and alive people I’ve known. Few reach that level of seeing, or skill set in art, multiple languages, management of people or intelligence level in a lifetime and maintain his level of modesty or simplicity in living.
His was a life of pursuing ideas, creating over all else. He was very loyal as a friend and supportive to many young artists enabling you to grow on your own, making your own mistakes.
Very few artists here take that kind of time with pesky questioners. I can only recall having similar meaningful conversations about composition and art with Armand Sindoni, in the last 30 years here.
Bob’s painting reflected his years of being from Gloucester and being a tried and true citizen of the world and spiritual seeker examining both east and west conceptions thoroughly in many countries, experiencing war and being wounded several times led him to question all – politics, money, art, religion.
It’s all in his canvas if you take the time to look. His work demands you take time. It’s not the sort one fathoms at a glance or in a sitting. It’s work you keep seeing into in differing light at different times. You notice passages that escaped earlier viewing.
Few artist I know have such a clear idea of their art that they can refine it over time, adding power to the statement. He would refine a canvas in minor tweaks that seem to defy the eye of the unknowing and seemed unwarranted while you were observing the process.
A week later when that canvas returns to the easel for another Stephenson refinement, you see clearly how the subtle change allows your eye to go to the next passage and return and then continue to another portion altogether. You begin to see that he has structured highlight to highlight precisely laying out his narrative - those curling clouds serve a purpose; they are not merely whimsical. You also notice that the light, though it’s got a significant side angle, gives a viewer that sense or quality of emanating from within the frame, and thus has spiritual significance.
I learned a lot about how to increase the way I see the world about me, how to layer within a frame as a photographer, as well as how to make a life in art, from the oft- painfully Socratic method of Bob’s teaching and many hours of watching him at the easel.
The best part about his advice was that he never minced words or tried to coddle you – you got it with both barrels, good or bad.
I can’t help but feel the end of an era is passing for artists here. Bob’s death is another serious tearing of the social fabric for the younger artists here.
Lately he had suffered multiple medical setbacks and was no longer able to paint the last few years. Instead he had started to carry a notebook to sketch as best he could.
His daily courage in the face of his illness, his continued desire to create despite all, set an example for us, as well.
It’s a real shame that the best of his work is in private collections outside Gloucester now. One can only hope that in time his work will be studied and undertaken by a serious curator. An exhibit of his best work would be well worth the effort it would require. It should not be misunderstood nor lack appreciation, for the more decorative local styles of his time.
Gloucester should be proud it had an original the likes of Bob Stephenson.
August 23, 2015
On Meeting Bob Stephenson In His Studio. Bing McGilvray
Often on my way home, I will cut through the little Parsons St. alley that connects Main and Rogers Streets. From the first, I was curious about the plain squat building I would pass with the small Zen-like garden behind its wooden gate. On the stucco wall, a tiny plaque read ‘Stephenson Studio’.
One day, searching online for a painting of Half Moon Beach, I discovered an image that astonished me. Cape Ann has been the inspiration for hundreds of artists of singular vision but never had I seen it rendered like this. The artist, Robert Stephenson, had painted this serene cove at Stage Fort as a glorious, exotic spot drenched with a fantastic sunshine reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish. Could this be the same Stephenson whose studio was just around the corner?
Last summer I saw an old man with a thick mop of white hair, bracing on his cane, slowly making his
way down Parsons St. When he turned to enter the studio, I hurried ahead to ask if he was the artist Robert Stephenson. “I am” he said with a smile. When I told him I was a big fan of his work he didn’t hesitate. “Would you like to see my studio?” I certainly did.
Thus began a most wonderful hour that I will always cherish; a memory I pray will never fade. Once inside, we sat across from each other immediately. My host was clearly exhausted but otherwise exuded a childlike animation. It was obvious that Bob’s human form had seen better days but his mind was sharp and the twinkle in his eye was as bright as a toddler’s. I tried to take in as much as I could from my stationary vantage point. Hung all around and stacked in batches against the walls were dozens of paintings in every size, some magnificently completed and many others, sadly, never to be finished. I noticed, on a small table, a thick mountain of dried paint that served as his palette, surrounded by tubes of color and bottles of brushes. An unmade bed rested off to the side.
Bob didn’t need much prodding to get talking about his work and to pronounce his love of Gloucester. Looking out through the picture window to the docks of the inner harbor, the remains of the working waterfront, to Cape Pond Ice and the paint factory beyond, he spoke of his idyllic boyhood, endless summers on the beach and friends now come and gone. Always knowing he wanted to be an artist, Bob credited the muralist Howard Curtis, longtime art teacher at Gloucester High School, with being his devoted mentor. All the education and inspiration anyone ever needed, he seemed to be saying, could be found right here in his beloved city.
Still, there was far more to his life’s story. As a sergeant with US Army Intelligence, he had traveled the world, living in Shanghai and Afghanistan and many other far-flung, global hot spots. But he stopped short of providing any details and I sensed instinctively not to inquire further. That might explain, I thought to myself, the unique, otherworldly element in the enchanted images I saw around me.
Bob swung slightly in his chair, raised his cane and pointed to a jaw-dropping arrangement, a true shrine, in the far corner of the room. Meticulously displayed, too numerous to take in at once, were Buddhas and dieties of every size and complexity. Absolutely dazzled, I stood silently before them and time froze.
We talked awhile more but I could tell he was growing tired. Not wanting to wear out my welcome in the hope of visiting again, I thanked my host profusely and humbly exited. Outside, I stopped briefly. Realizing I had just experienced one of life’s special moments, I wanted to ponder and savor it. Unfortunately, not long after my visit, Bob’s studio fell silent. And now, his physical presence is gone. But I thank Bob, a dear man and wonderful artist, for the sublime gifts he has left behind for us all.
For more information and artwork by Bob Stephenson, please visit iartcolony.com
More of Bob Stephenson’s work can be found at: http://iartcolony.com/PAST_EXHIBITIONS
All artwork © Estate of Robert Stephenson 2015