Stephen Hall Autobiography

What inspires an artist who grew up in the lush horse country of the Bluegrass to paint the rugged canyon terrain of the American Southwest?

Stephen Hall’s impressionistic acrylic paintings capture beautifully the colors and textures of this uniquely American part of the world. It is impossible to view these works without feeling yourself drawn magically into the canyons, amid the orange and brown outcroppings of earth and rock, accentuated as they are by the clear, cerulean skies that crown the Southwestern landscape. Stephen sums up his passion for painting and his muse, the desert, this way:

“I dream. To slather paint on canvas. Like butter on biscuits. Melting into pools of delight. Running off the edges. Sweet. Like desert honey. Dripping from my finger tips. I dream. To see shapes emerge. Like a distant desert mirage. Shape shifting with the sun. Moving motion in summer’s heat. Constantly coalescing. In my mind.”

Stephen often hiked the trails through the red rocks of Sedona seeking inspiration.
Stephen often hiked the trails through the red rocks of Sedona seeking inspiration.

Stephen Hall was born in the bluegrass of Henry County, Kentucky on St. Patrick’s Day. His art career began with private lessons at the age of ten, copying Currier & Ives prints. Mrs. George Boyer taught both children and adults the fine points of oil painting in her large Victorian house at the end of  Main Street. Her studio, a large sunroom, looked out onto the green pastures of her husband’s horse farm. In the center of the studio was a huge, antique country dinning table. The students sat around it with their canvas boards flat upon it and a lazy Susan in the center stocked with communal art supplies.

“The atmosphere was like a Sunday dinner with the family,” reminiscences Stephen. “’Pass the yellow ochre, please. May I have some of that yummy beet red ?’ Sitting elbow to elbow, we learned as much from each other as we did from Mrs. Boyer.”

When the weather was fair the students would paint en plein air. They roamed the farm fields looking for suitable subjects or grand vistas dotted with horses. “Generally, I would set up under a tree with my back braced against the trunk and my canvas board in my lap,” explained Stephen. “It wouldn’t be long before a curious thoroughbred yearling would work his way over to me and block my view or step on my tubes of paint. From this experience, I decided to become a studio painter.”

Stephen studied with Mrs. Boyer until high school. And then it happened—the best of all possible worlds. To his small Kentucky high school came an honest-to-goodness art teacher, Mademoiselle Joanna, from Paris, France. It was love at first sight. She was young, petite and beautiful with a classic French accent, yet, softer and sexier. But best of all, she could draw and paint horses.

As a Kentucky artist born in the horse country of the Bluegrass, Stephen has always been ashamed that he can’t draw a horse. “Joanna tried without success to teach me the basics of horse anatomy,” says Stephen. “Despite my love of horses, to this day I’ve never been able to draw one properly. In other aspects of French culture I excelled: I learned the difference between Manet and Monet; I read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, cover to cover in the original French; and, I dined on escargot for the first time—surprisingly tasty.”

Feeling confident in his natural talent for art and the superb instruction from his art teachers, he applied to a museum school, the Art Academy of Cincinnati in Eden Park. This was a special moment for him and he knew it would set the course for his future career. After a nervous two-hour-drive, Stephen arrived at the imposing Cincinnati Art Museum. He was scheduled to meet with Professor Julian Stanczak, but he was absent. Instead, they met with another professor of painting.

The interview and portfolio review lasted all of five minutes. “In a manner that can only be described as dismissive, the professor said that I had no talent for art or painting,” recalls Stephen.

That rejection took the wind out Stephen’s sails for about two years. Deflated, but not defeated, he transferred from community college to the Allen R. Hite Art Institute of the University of Louisville as a fine arts major in painting. His painting professsor, Mary Spencer Nay, was a nationally noted painter herself, and the wife of painter, photographer, and muralist, Lou Block. Mr. Block, along with Ben Shahn, worked with Diego Rivera on the murals for Rockefeller Center in New York. Their work for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression era was a large influence on Stephen’s art career.

During this period, The University of Louisville was expanding. Whole blocks between the university and downtown had been razed by urban renewal. In the middle of this stood the studio arts building—a very old, three-story home—looking like a postwar painting by Ben Shann. The basement contained printing presses, along with tens of thousands of metal foundry types and wood types for the graphic arts classes. Classroom instruction was held in the first floor rooms. The upper floors housed the art studios. If you walked into the building blindfolded, you would know where you were by smell alone.

Unfortunately, art class was nothing like Stephen expected. It was very unstructured, and students were left to develop their own study plan. Therefore, it seemed natural to Stephen to start at the beginning of the art making process—making his own canvases instead of store bought. Through research at the art library, he learned the old Renaissance masters’ way of doing it. To this day, the canvases he made at college are still tight and square without blemish. They’re superior to anything commercially made then or now.

Hungry to learn, the university’s art library opened up the world of art to Stephen. His French art teacher in high school had given him a good foundation of the Impressionists, but here he learned about Fauvism and painters like Matisse and Bonnard, the “wild beasts” of color. During this time, he became infatuated with the abstract expressionists, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. He especially liked Kline for the studied simplicity of his black and white “action” paintings. “While they appeared to be spontaneous,” explains Stephen, “ I could see that an underlying design was present.” Other painters that influenced him greatly were the Dutch painter, Karel Appel and the Spaniard, Joan Miró, along with Jean Dubuffet of France. But, the one that Stephen connected with the most was the American artist, Ben Shann­.

“Feeling good about art again, I began to paint passionately.”

He even enjoyed his art history classes despite having difficulty understanding the foreign-born professors. Sadly, the good feeling was short-lived.

He enrolled in a printmaking class with a popular U of L teacher, Henry Chodkowski, to learn woodcut engraving and intaglio printing. “At our first class, he handed out 6” x 6” greased plates for us to etch at home before the next class,” recalls Stephen. “I was fired up for the challenge. Using a nail, I scratched out a Matisse-like impression of a wicker rocker next to a potted plant. Happy with my little piece of art, I turned it in looking forward to the etching and printing process. However, professor Chodkowski was not pleased. He wiped the plate clean, saying, ‘This is not art. I think it would be better if you dropped the class.’ Once more into the quagmire of doubt, I questioned my artistic abilities.”

Looking for answers, Stephen sought out fine arts painting majors who had recently graduated. “Our conversations,” remembers Stephen, “typically went like this: I asked, ‘How’s it going? What are you doing now?’ They replied, ‘Great, just great! I’m selling insurance.’ Or, ‘waiting tables,’ or whatever it took to pay the bills. Painting was pushed aside to the weekends or after work — almost as a hobby. No art graduates that I spoke with was earning their living by their art.”

The art bubble burst, and his great expectations were washed away.

Into this void, came a brilliant teacher, Robert J. Doherty, chairman of the U of L fine arts department. He was a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (BFA) and Yale University (MFA). In addition to his excellent academic credentials, he had made a national reputation as an expert in the use of aluminum in product and packaging design. Doherty was recently awarded by U of L the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts honorius causa in recognition of his lifetime of contributions to photography, design, typography and letter press, and historic preservation, as well as his inspiration and mentoring of students, professionals, and institutions in these fields.

Doherty became Stephen’s mentor during and after college. The most important lesson that Stephen learned from him was how to define and solve a problem, whether it was designing a bolt, a bridge or a brand. Under his tutelage, Stephen was awarded the Fetter Printing Company Scholarship Award—the first of over 200 national awards he has been given for his creativity.

Showing an affinity for book design in classwork, Professor Doherty introduced him to Carolyn Reading Hammer, a noted fine book printer, and the work of her mentor and husband, Victor Hammer. Victor was an Austrian-born American painter, sculptor, printer, and typographer. Carolyn founded the King Library Press in 1956 at the University of Kentucky, and later became the University of Kentucky Libraries’ curator of rare books.

Mrs. Hammer and Professor Doherty encouraged Stephen to try his hand at publishing. With their support, he published The Florentine Year, a 32-page case bound book of poetry, by Madeline Cundiff (Madeline) in his senior year. He designed the layout; set by hand the foundry type; set up a Vandercook hand press for the text pages and a Chandler & Price Platen Press for the cover pages; and printed by hand a limited, letterpress edition of 200 copies on Japanese handmade rice paper.

The publishing process took six months—mostly due to logistics. Dario Covi, Madeline’s husband and a professor of art history at U of L, was on a sabbatical year in Florence, Italy. Since the university only had enough foundry type to set four pages, he would pull a 4-page proof and mail it to Madeline in Florence. She would proof for typos and mail back. Whereupon, Stephen would print 225 sheets and then distribute the type back into its case. Then, he would set another four pages and the proofing and printing process would begin again.

The success of this publishing project launched Stephen’s career into graphic design and marketing.

Professor Doherty recommended him to David R. Godine to head up his fine book letterpress operation in Boston. Stephen was twenty-three at the time. Godine, not much older, was already established as a fine book publisher. His printing operation was located in a quaint red barn in Brookline, Massachusetts where he printed mostly limited editions on handmade paper.

In the summer of ‘71, Stephen and his wife, Linda, drove to Boston to look over the press and talk with Godine about the job offer. Afterward, they drove up to Doherty’s summer house near the coast in New Hampshire to review the opportunity with him. The next morning, after several servings of Doherty’s fabulous blueberry pancakes, Stephen and Linda started back to Louisville in their Triumph TR6 sports car. With the top down, and feeling like Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in “Two for the Road,” they cruised US 1A along the coast stopping at every beach to sunbath, swim and sketch from New Hampshire to Virginia. Despite the chance to work with some very talented creative people, Stephen decided to pass on the opportunity. He was concerned that he would be trapped in production, and not able to use his art talent.

Professor Doherty continued to push Stephen forward. He sponsored Stephen’s application to Yale University’s MFA program. Yale’s rejection letter came as no surprise­ to him—it was to be expected by now. Then, another door opened. Louisville Magazine contacted Professor Doherty looking for an art director.

Here was an opportunity to work in both areas of interest—his new found talent for publishing and his passion for creating art.

Stephen was able to illustrate covers and articles, as well as design and layout the monthly, life-style magazine. He illustrated several Kentucky Derby issues including the cover for the one-hundredth running of the Derby. Because Stephen signed his illustrations as S. Hall, the editor, Betty Lou Amster, started calling him “shall” in editorial meetings. The name stuck, and Stephen continues to sign all of his works as “shall.”

Louisville Magazine was the foundation that Stephen built his creative career on. Two years after signing on, he formed his own design firm and retained the magazine as a client for the next thirteen years. In his publishing career, he was able to redesign and art direct over 45 regional and national magazines. In addition, he launched Kentucky Lawyer and Kentucky Business Monthly; consulted with Spain’s Ministry of Education and Science for over fourteen years regarding their USA publishing program; and purchased a majority stake in Annapolis Magazine and Eastern Shore Magazine. The Society of Publication Designers, based in New York, recently profiled his career as a part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. Shown with the interview are two covers he illustrated for the Kentucky Derby, including the 100th Running for the Roses and other covers. The link is: http://www.spd.org/2014/09/the-spd-15th-call-for-entries.php.

“While I had been detoured from a fine art career, the foundation I received in art and business prepared me to enter the fine art world. So in 2006, to fulfill the dream of my youth, I developed a 5-year plan to transition from publishing to fine art.”

Stephen was reborn, artistically, in the dry Sonoran desert. He had retired to Tucson, Arizona from a successful career as an art director in Washington, DC. In the golden hour of evening, while sketching in the wilderness of the Rincon Mountains, he made a commitment to take the leap, and go full-time into painting.

Three years into his plan Stephen was represented by a respected gallery in Key West on famous Duval Street, had his work shown in ARTnews magazine, among others, and several solo shows under his belt. Finally, he was living the dream. Then came discouragement, and a change of direction.

In two successive solo shows, six out of twenty-four paintings on canvas warped while on display. This had become a recurring problem—one that Stephen had never experienced in his youth when he was making his own canvases. Disappointed with the poorly made brand-name professional canvases, Stephen started experimenting with acrylic paint on heavy-weight Arches cotton paper—and his personal style and technique was born.

On cold press, watercolor paper, Stephen put down marks and areas of bright color. Because acrylic paint is fast drying, he can paint broad areas of new color over the dried base colors with a brush. Then, with various sized palette knives, he quickly remove lines and areas of color allowing the underpainting to show through, giving form, depth and texture to the painting.

The Struggle
The Struggle, acrylic on paper, 30″ x 20″

In the advertising business, there is a saying—’sell the sizzle, not the steak.’ This is the approach Stephen takes with his paintings. He may sketch what he observes while hiking a desert trail or walking the beach, but he never paints en plain air. Inspired (the sizzle) by what he sees (the steak), Stephen takes it back to the studio and creates an entirely different picture based on the inspiration.

However, Stephen doesn’t seek or wait for inspiration in order to begin painting. Generally, inspiration comes to him uninvited when he’s deeply involved in some other project. When it does happen, he stops and takes a moment to sketch it — usually less than a dozen strokes — with minimal notation. When working, he keeps a stack of letterhead paper folded in half for this purpose. It gives him the option of a vertical or horizontal composition. The sketch then goes into a 30″ x 40″ flat file cabinet for the future. When he’s ready to paint, Stephen goes to the cabinet and picks one from approximately 300 such minimal sketches.

Stephen’s fellow painter, Chuck Close, has said that “all the best ideas come out of the process.” Stephen disagrees.

“My work always begins with an idea—nothing begets nothing, no matter how hard you work at it.”

“I do agree with Chuck that the idea can be changed and improved by the process, or that it can even ‘push [the idea] in another direction.’ For my work, inspiration and productivity go hand in hand for great art.”

It has constantly nagged at Stephen that he couldn’t depend on canvas stretched over wooden stretcher bars. The warping of canvases in his art shows was disturbing — if it was happening to him, then it was happening to other artists, too. Stephen decided to fix the problem by creating a new and better canvas stretcher bar for the professional artist. He determined that the traditional wooden stretcher bar, unchanged for over 500 years, required a new material (aluminum), a new shape (triangular) and a multi-purpose design—one that negated torsion; reduced weight; eliminated the need for corner keys, corner-bracing and cross-bracing; and allowed for the attachment of the canvas to extruded aluminum stretcher bars without staples or tacks. In other words, a revolutionary solution to multiple problems associated with wooden stretcher bars.

Seven years in the making, Stephen’s patented stretcher bar design combines the geometry of the Egyptian Triangle of the pyramids, the Golden Ratio and extruded aluminum to create a truly revolutionary new stretcher bar for professional artist canvases. He branded it as DrumTyght Stretcher Bars (www.drumtyght.com).

DTI_Canvas_FullFrame_Corner_300
Shown here is a cross-section of stretcher bar, assembled frame, and frame with canvas attached.

“My supports will not warp, expand or contract due to the environment. My design negates torsion or the twisting of the frame due to torque. It’s stronger and lighter than wooden supports. Cotton or linen canvas can be stretched with more tension without staples or tacks. The canvas can be removed and stretched again in the exact same position without any loss of canvas. Further, the canvas can be shipped broken down by the artist to a gallery—lowering shipping costs—and then, reassembled by the gallery in less than five minutes. No corner keys, corner-bracing or cross-bracing is needed at any size to keep the canvas square and tight. It is recyclable, sustainable and environmentally friendly.”

It’s been a long and challenging journey for Stephen to bring this design to the marketplace. However, rather than selling or licensing the patent to a corporation, he would like for all artists to share in the revenue that this new stretcher bar can generate.

How would he do that? Stephen is gearing up to promote an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign—March 2017—to gain funds that will allow him to launch the business. Once DrumTyght is operational, Stephen proposes to form an artists’ purchasing cooperative. This cooperative would be awarded an exclusive license to sell the DrumTyght stretcher bar. Members of the cooperative would get their art materials — and services such as art coaches, accounting, legal and general business services — at greatly reduced costs by cutting out the middle man/retailer. In addition, co-op members would share in the earnings from the cooperative’s sales of DrumTyght Stretchers along with other art materials and services based on their patronage of the co-op.

Stephen’s mother started him on his journey to a career in art. They painted together throughout her life, side by side at the kitchen table. Although he was detoured from a fine art career in order to support his family, he found his way back to art in the dry Sonoran desert surrounding Tucson, Arizona. The desert has become his muse — inspiring not only his painting palette, but also how to help artists create a superior foundation for their art.