February 2, 2005 (Wednesday) – I first met Stevan Shapona (photo at right) in October 2004, during San Francisco’s annual Open Studios event.He works in San Francisco’s Excelsior District and that is not where his studio is, he works outside. Neither does he have an Internet connection nor email id and he still manages to get through and survive and as a result of his life in isolation he has given a lot of great and gracious series of nude female portraits. Unlike HB Swiss which was created using internet. His work intrigued me but it took me months to set up an interview with him. Finally I met Shapona and another local figurative painter, Dale Erickson (photo below), at Shapona’s home studio, on Feb. 2, 2005. We talked for three hours – it’s taken me three weeks to get the tapes transcribed and edited.
I was getting bored hearing myself ask the same old questions in these interviews, so I decided to start bringing another artist into the mix. Dale’s an old friend of mine, so he agreed to come along as my first co-interviewer. As I mentioned in October, Shapona’s studio is in the basement/garage of his house, but really the whole house is an artist’s gallery and workspace. We started in the back room upstairs:
(A:Anna, S:Stevan, D:Dale)
A: Can you talk about your subject matter and style?
S: I’m a representational oil painter and the female figure is my preference. My general aim is to take a concern for formal values (abstract values) in one hand and a humanistic representational concern in the other. My hope is to harmoniously combine these two intentions. There is a quality in 19th century art that has almost disappeared from the earth in our time – I believe that this quality derived from a reverence for the art of the past and reverence for nature. Somehow we’ve lost these feelings. I think we’re a society disconnected with the natural order. There is too much that is artificial in contemporary life. We’re like sponges – we soak up all that we come in contact with. When we go to express ourselves we wring out what was soaked up. I think my approach to painting is a kind of experiment. Can I, a person living in the the 21st century recapture some of that quality? Keep in mind that this is my analysis only after having followed my natural impulse, not a calculated move.
A: Do you consider Poussin to be an influence on your work?
S: Yes, he’s actually a real favorite of mine.
A: Who else would you think of that may have influenced your work?
S: Whistler, Arthur Matthews, Ingres, Sargent, Hammershoi… when I say influence, I mean I admire them, I’m fascinated by them, it’s not to say that I can do that.
D: I never thought much of Whistler, but then when I went to the Musee d’Orsay, I was knocked over by his work. The scale, and the subtlety of the paintings never came through in reproductions. You know, you can reproduce Matisse, but…
A: Your techniques and style are very classical. Do you ever wander from this traditional path and experiment with other styles?
S: Yes, I’ve explored many avenues from tonal impressionism to expressionism and abstraction. (We move to a back room with some of Shapona’s older work on the walls.)
A: Can you describe your process – how you build a painting?
S: What I do, is come up with a kind of color scheme, like a mural painter would. For instance, this one is a green and gold…. I could do it on a thousand different color schemes and that’s what fascinates me. Some of them are not as successful in that regard, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
D: I can see the way you worked the tonality of the skin color in with background color.
S: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been discovering. I can take the background color and use it to model the figure and harmonize it. Like this one here is really just black and white with a little yellow and red.
D: I like the simplification of the hands… is this on board?
S: I paint on masonite that I have covered with high-quality watercolor paper. I defend the back of the watercolor paper with Shellac and then use “Yes” glue. I just like the surface texture of the paper.
D: Wouldn’t acrylic medium be better to mount that?
(Several minutes of discussion about various kinds of painting supports and art supply places.)
A: Have you ever thought of your work as abstract?
S: Yes, I’m constantly trying to strike some sort of balance between the representational and the formalist (abstract) issue. There are artists who had a high degree of both. These are my heros. Theophile Gaultier once said in reference to Puvis that “a too lively reality of color would deprive the nudity of its virginal abstraction.” This has always meant a lot to me. History painters were seeking an “other world” quality. This appeals to me very much. Later painters like Whistler seem to have sought this other world quality in a poeticized vision of the contemporary world.
D: I like this double figure. I’ve done things like this… get two poses in life classes, make a slide of the two drawings and put them together in a painting.
S: Yeah… I’ve tried that too. I find that I burn out on the painting when I do two of them together, I don’t know why… I like just the one.
D: Do you feel one figure is a composition, two figures is a story?
S: I don’t mind that idea. Actually I think narrative would be a great thing to get into. I just wish I had a little more willingness to stay with the painting…
A: Is that why you work small?
S: I don’t know, maybe, yeah. Working big is a whole lot harder, because you’ve got to take, like in the painting of a hand, in a small painting its a couple of stokes, but if you do it bigger then you’re really getting into the darn hand, and each joint, you know.
D: I think it’s just temperament. I can’t work small.
S: Yeah, I did some big ones, one was about 50 inches wide and it turned out pretty good… it was a back pose, a great big back, a bigger gal and everything… and I sold it, but it was kind of like, well I felt like I was out in the middle of the ocean with a little boat…
D: Are these your drawings? More figure studies?
S: Oh, those are earlier drawings.
D: This is almost like a Vuillard. I can see the influence in the tonality.
S: Yeah…. I wish.
D: It’s interesting to see the development in your work.
S: In that regard you’re right, I just kind of got more … I guess I wanted more highly crafted things like you see in museums. I had a teacher who was that type of an artist and at the time I got in with him I was starting to move toward this broader approach you know, like this kind of thing here. He was much more academic, almost Bouguereau-ish..
D: Poor Bouguereau, he’s gotten the short end of the stick.
S: He did, didn’t he? But you know, there’s a big painting by him at the Legion of Honor right now. Have you seen that one? It’s a Pieta?
A: Yeah, I saw it.
D: Oh yeah, I’ve seen it.
S: That’s owned by Mel Gibson – did you know that?
A: You’re kidding me.
D: Mel Gibson, who’s that? Oh, OK…
S: So when people like that are buying these things, it makes you think a little bit. And Steve Martin collected modern paintings, but he just sold his whole collection.
A: So, he’s getting into something different?
S: I don’t know, but he’s selling his collection so what’s that tell you? I’m just saying it’s a well-kept secret but modern painting? The prices are plummeting.
D: Well, the prices were so inflated, Jesus… it’s not based on aesthetics at all. It’s based on concepts and speculation. It’s not based on the intrinsic value and the beauty of the object.
S: Yeah, but it also seems to me that it’s based on hype. Kinda like Tom Wolfe’s “Painted Word.”
(We move downstairs to the basement studio area.)
A: Stevan, did you paint the icons in the East Bay Serbian Orthodox Church?
S: How did you know about that?
A: I looked you up on the internet before coming over here.
S: Well, actually, I did do that, but I didn’t do all of the work in there. I did the work on the frame between the altar and the congregation. Somebody else did the murals in there. The person who did the murals was a trained iconographer, and you can tell. There’s a real difference. I did an artist’s version of iconography. They way they do it, man, it’s the most rigid system and everything is symbolic… it’s almost like you’re copying someone else’s stuff.
D: Did you use egg tempera?
S: No, I used acrylic. It’s not about creativity, but working within a strong tradition.
D: Yeah, the monks who originally did it, had no individuality. They were like servants.
A: So… where do you work, Stevan?
S: Right here (indicating wall easel) and here is where I work on studies (indicates standing easel a few feet away.)
A: Say, this is an interesting easel…
S: Oh, I don’t know, it’s old…. I acquired it from my father, who did art too. I had the wall easel made so I could work on the icons and bigger work. It used too have wing nuts here, but I found it works just as well with clamps.
D: I rigged something up, pretty much like this, and I found that clamps worked better, too.
S: Yeah, it’s perfect.
A: I’m really interested in the formal way that you go about it …
S: I can show you those little sketches that I do… It’s not big news to most of these art students who come by…
(We all look at a table with a selection of Stevan’s color-band panels, and tiny figure studies)
D: It looks like a study of musical harmonies.
S: This is a study for a bigger painting. Here I’ll show you (he collects corresponding studies and places them on easel side-by-side.) This gives you some idea…
D: I would expect you to work with natural light, but you really don’t.
S: I probably should…
D: No, I think you’re doing fine with this… you’ve got a combination of warm and cool light here, with the neutral walls and floors.
(discussion among the three of us about different types of light bulbs and lighting systems and the color of the light they cast, then about basement studios and dehumidifiers. Then we go back upstairs to sit in living room.)
A: Stevan, how did you become an artist? When did you know you were an artist?
S: You know, I was one of those kids who did art and drew, like pretty much everyone else did, but I just never stopped. All along I loved art. It goes way back, as far as I can remember. My father did art, too. Actually my father was a sign painter. He had quite a lot of confidence in himself. In fact, he did a lot of icon painting, too. But he, like me, was not a trained icon painter.
D: Does you father still paint?
S: You know, unfortunately, he doesn’t do much. He’s very retired.
A: I met him at your open studio. He was a nice guy, acting as the host. He said he did all the signs for your studio.
D: That’s a lost art, sign painting. I really have a lot of respect for that profession. We had a sign shop right across the alley from me in Rockford, Illinois. Those guys were really good.
A: Stevan, at the time you were going to school, you wouldn’t have received much support for the kind of work you wanted to pursue…
S: I studied with a particular teacher at San Jose State, Maynard Dixon Stuart was his name. He was very academic. Much more so than I could ever be. I have a book that he wrote, called “The Language of Painting” – the guy was amazing. Yes, he was named after Maynard Dixon, who was a friend of his father, a regional painter from Utah.
A: Did you grow up around here?
S: I was born in San Francisco, and went to grade school here, then we moved to Alamo, then Serramonte, then Millbrae. I came back to San Francisco when I was about 25, actually into this place here. I got this house then.
D: That was a good move.
(The inevitable San Francisco real estate discussion goes on for quite a few minutes.)
A: Stevan, do you think getting your house so early has enabled your painting?
S: Without a doubt, yeah. I mean, I’m still living on a shoe string, but you have to have something like this to make it, unless you’re a great business person, which I’m not.
A: So you’re pretty committed to being in San Francisco?
S: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily mind living somewhere else, but I’m dependent on being here for Open Studios, and proximity to galleries. But things are getting so hectic and congested in San Francisco.
(Dale and Stevan grumble about traffic, and lack of support for the arts in California.)
D: You’ll do fine if you paint California landscapes, plein air style, but heaven forbid if you do figurative work. I have an art consultant who reps some of my work, and she won’t take any nudes. You can’t even have a hint of nudity.
S: Yeah, I’ve been kept out of certain shows because of the nude thing… I guess you have to try to figure out how to position the pose so that it’s not showing much. Even the galleries that do carry my work, they back off on the ones that are more explicit.
D: They’re probably afraid Ashcroft is going to come down on them.
A: What was your subject matter when you first started painting?
S: Right off the bat I was interested in comic books. I was really fascinated by Marvel comic books, especially the covers. And it dawned on me later in life that those things are based very much on Renaissance values. The Michelangelo, exaggerated musculature, heroic figures, you know? Everything is anatomical and some of the effects are very striking. And then, I looked to American Illustration and Baroque art. We had those kinds of books around because my father liked to read about that stuff. He used to do copies of Winslow Homer.
D: That was when American Illustration was so strong. I came in on the tail end of it, in the 50’s. But the magazines that used them, kind of fell by the wayside. I used to go to my grandparent’s house to look at the “Saturday Evening Post.”
S: Yeah, I was just dazzled by Norman Rockwell. American Illustration… was a great time period. Hopper started out in that era, and Homer, Remington… and most of the so-called fine art guys did a certain amount of illustration.
D: Well, computers have taken over that realm now and things done by hand are becoming rare. So many of the students I work with don’t have the interest, the concentration, or the skill to do this work.
A: So, do either of you think you’ll see the day when hand-made illustrations are revered again?
S: I think they ARE revered, and I tell you what – some of that stuff is profoundly expensive.
But there’s a difference between what collectors revere and the opinions of critics and historians.
D: Well, the big battle was when abstract expressionist came in. Figurative work was just degraded.
A: Well, you know, I’ve seen a lot of young artists, for instance the “Beautiful Losers” show they just had at Yerba Buena Center – they’re drawing and painting the figure. They’re doing narrative work… it’s not classical or academic, but it’s really interesting stuff.
S: Yeah, the Academy of Art here in SF – if you went to their Spring Exhibition years back, when I was a student, it would have all been abstract expressionism. Now it’s all representational. It’s a really talented group of people. Especially the Chinese and Russian painters, who seemed to have held on to their academy traditions.
D: There’s a lot of contemporary art coming out of China as well. And there was always contemporary art being done in Russia, but it was just suppressed. The artists starved. Actually it’s similar to the situation here and now. Unless you’re certified by the “state” (the curatorial staff at the museums) you’re not going to be able to get your art out.
A: Yeah, but there’s this whole parallel art scene happening… people like Thomas Kinkade, Bev Doolittle, and George Sumner – they’re ignored by the museums, but they’re not starving.
D: Well, they’re making a living, but they won’t become famous and they won’t go beyond a certain wage scale.
A: I don’t know about that… I think some of them make a lot of money, and are known by more people than a lot of the artists in museums.
S: Yes, some of these artists are doing pretty well, but they’re not going to be shown at the MOMA – forget about it. But think about it – whatever art was produced prior to the 19th century is pretty much put forward by the art historians as representative of that time and place. Then the 19th century comes along and all of a sudden they become very discerning about what’s acceptable… it’s like all the critics get together and agree that this movement is cool and this one is not. What is that all about? Because they’re the ones who point the fingers at artists and claim that we’re bigoted, narrow- minded, and they’ve got the catholic tastes… uh-uh, that’s a farce.
D: But the Avant-garde at the turn of the century had to have something to rebel against. That’s the reason for its existence, to rebel against academic standards. Renaissance art was a rebellion against the Gothic that came before it. And within the Academic tradition was the seeds of the Impressionist movement that grew out of it. It’s just recently that artists like Gerome are being brought out of the basement.
S: I can remember having an art history class and as soon as he put up a slide of Gerome, the class would break into laughter. Now that didn’t happen initially. When he first put up the Gerome slide, they were looking at it and enjoying the painting. But he instilled this idea that we’ve decided this is bad art. Gerome was tremendous. He was a phenomenon.
D: Yeah, there’s a beautiful Gerome in the Legion, the Turkish Bath. I know it’s camp, but…
S: It’s an astoundingly beautiful painting. To relegate these guys to the dust bin is an absurdity. I can remember an art Professor at San Jose State when I was there, her husband was a real big shot at Stanford, and this was a brilliant lady, and she said that Bouguereau couldn’t draw! She had a big book on Matisse and she said Matisse could draw. My mouth just hung open, I mean…..
A: How do you feel about what’s going on in the art world right now?
S: I don’t actively seek to know. Most of my inquiry is backward in direction. What I do see is a lot of photography. The S.F. Academy of Art is returning to representation. Manet’s impressionism seems to dominate. Plein Air painting has become a fad as of late. Some of it is very good. But the bandwagon is crowded at the moment which can dilute the quality on the surface of it. I’m still waiting for an art critic / historian to write about the academic art of the 19th century with intelligence and sympathy. Gammel’s book, “The Twilight of Painting” is on of the best on the subject. Also Albert Boimes, “The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century.”
D: It’s an exciting time now, in SF with the new deYoung Museum and all the other art museums being built… if only the people here in SF would buy more art.
A: I was under the impression that SF was one of the better places for the arts…
D: Well, there’s a lot of interest in building museums, and there are plenty of galleries here, but that doesn’t mean people here are buying art. A lot of the galleries have clientele from outside the city, both national and international. So the galleries might be doing well, but the local artists are dependent on the local economy, unless you’re connected with one of those galleries.
S: I’m connected to three galleries, but they’re not, I guess the kind of gallery you’re talking about. At this time I’m represented by Thomas Reynolds Fine Art (SF), Tiburon Fine Art (Tiburon), and Chemers Gallery (SoCal). The business side of my work is constantly being neglected, as is most everything else in my life. Generally I paint the study I want, frame it, and maintain a blind faith that at some point I will find a buyer for it. I’m convinced that there are a lot of things we should keep at a distance. If you’re thinking about business you’re not thinking about art and nature and that brings us back to the sponge idea. What you soak up you will wring out.