Stephan Stephansson was born in Iceland in 1853 where his formal education lasted one month. His family immigrated to Wisconsin, USA, where in 1878 he married his cousin Helga Jonsdottir. Repeated crop failures, debt and drought brought the couple further west until they settled near a place called Markerville in Alberta, Canada. Here, in a harsh pioneering environment, the Stephanssons farmed and raised seven children.
Stephan’s passion was poetry. He wrote in Icelandic: abrupt, visual, heartfelt. During his lifetime there were six books published. Many translations were to come. He died in 1927. He’s known as “Iceland’s poet of the Rocky Mountains.”
In the company of friends, I’m painting on the grounds of Stephansson House. It’s now a Heritage Park, preserved pretty well to 1920 standards. Young women in period dress show you around. You get a pretty good idea of the labour in building and maintaining a farm in a wilderness, and how a young Icelander might figure it out. The Stephanssons started with a rough log cabin. Eventually, as the family expanded, they built it into a respectable home. Stephan didn’t have a clue about dairy farming, but he figured it out. With the exception of his cultural legacy of Icelandic sagas he knew little about poetry, but he figured it out. With his work on the local school board, acting as Justice of the Peace, and sod-busting experimental grain growing, he wrote much of his poetry late at night when all were asleep. Helga often found him slumped over at his desk in time for the milking of cows.
Today the house on top of the grassy knoll is wrapped in lilacs and hollyhocks and painted in its original colours. Rosy-pink walls with pea-green trim. There’s lots of quirky gingerbread. Stephan was a pioneer of free-thinking and joyous living. He brought life and love to his work, his family, his community. A homespun philosopher, the volume and straightforward honesty of his poetry are surprising. His art was the way for him to understand the mysteries of life. You have the feeling that he figured it out.
PS: “I, mostly my own doctor
A lawyer and builder smart
A teacher, prince and pastor
A horse, a plow, a cart.” (Stephan G. Stephansson)
Esoterica: Plein air painting gives the improvisational spirit — something that an artist may not get in a comfortable studio. By planting your feet on the ground you feel the power of “earth energy” and a new-found honesty. Plein air strokes take on pioneer wisdom. While challenging, even daunting, the new complexity tests your ability to think things out.
by Susanne Piche
Stephan’s life refutes our artistic excuses. Trouble finding time to work? “Figure it out.” Trouble finding inspiration, space, or the will to work at times? Just figure it out. This “can-do” attitude produced results for him and will for artists as well.
by Brenda Hofreiter, FL, USA
Stephan Stephansson resonated with me. When I was a child, my grandfather, Jesse J. Johnson, used to entertain us kids around the table with stories of his childhood. He grew up at the turn of the century in a rural farming area and his stories were full of wisdom, and the heroism and ingenuity required to survive in rural America. He also taught me to love and appreciate the outdoor world and its beauty and bounty. I found that I felt this kindred spirit when I began to paint en plein air. It connected me to the people and places that went before me, both artists and pioneers. Although it is harder to find these days, the wilderness always allows me the luxury of feeling like I am the “first person to see and appreciate this.” Plein air painting requires me to paint with honesty, integrity, ingenuity, stick-to-it-ness, and the ability to “cut to the chase.” These were all pioneering traits that I learned at my grandfather’s knee and cherish in these modern times.
by Disa Hale
I was born in Markerville, Alberta. Although I was moved to live with an aunt at age 10 months, she kept me in touch with the “relatives.” Although I was moved to live with an aunt at age 10 months, she kept me in touch with the “relatives”. With Icelanders everyone seems to be a “relative” and I haven’t quite figured out who really is and who’s not! My name then was Bjornson, but eventually I was adopted by my aunt and uncle, however with my name “Disa” you have to know something is up. It is a lovely peaceful region with the tranquil Medicine River running slowly along. I visited last year and bought Stephansson’s translated poetry books.
The plein air life
by Dan Gray, BC, Canada
A week of painting. Friday, the nude. A hot rod at a car show Sunday. A Seascape on Monday which entailed rappelling down and up steep slope with my gear. Back to the sea Tuesday. Friday ferry to the mainland to a gallery for inspection then meet fellow painter Arnie for lunch and a warm up painting (pastel) of kids playing on the beach. Then the main event: The client shows up at the beach with nanny and toddler, plus a 6 year old. They are to pose for a commission but as we are introduced the skies cloud over and it starts to sprinkle, wind blows, it gets dark, we almost quit, it lets up and the kids pose, get restless and all go home. My job now is to fill in the background landscape, the pastel goes bad, it becomes the struggle, the tide rises faster and I have to move up the beach three times. The pastel saves itself, I finish, drive to clients, present said portrait and it is well received and paid for!!! Pick up some beer, don’t like any of the look of the cans in cooler so take a 6-pack of beer. Waiting for ferry to Victoria I notice (4 rows over) an original ’61 Chevy Bel Air, unrestored with a young couple inside. She has magenta hair and cool black glasses, the driver a waterfall and cell phone. I look over and she takes a swig of beer! Then she gets out and lights a cigarette! Long, tall, black motorcycle jacket and long magenta hair blowing in the wind and smoking! I ask her for 5 minutes, so she poses and I paint her and the car, with all the people in the cookie cutter cars watching! Gave it to them and went on to Victoria. Saturday painted stacks of nudes from noon to 7pm, then the long drive back to other adventures. The muse the highlight, the commission hard, models all day Saturday the reward. Monday a bucolic seascape near home.
by Anne Copeland
When we began to use computers I had the sense that there would now be an extra barrier to understanding when people wrote to each other. The element of emotion would somehow be hidden because we are looking at a keyboard instead of the other person’s face. More and more we are connecting to the outside world through electronic media — cell phones, palm pilots, CDs and other forms. What can we expect of art when we are no longer in touch with other humans on a face-to-face basis? Did primitive art have more integrity because people were more intimately in touch with each other and with their environments?
Plein air community
by Gisele Lapalme, Montreal, Canada
In our community an artist started 10 years ago a plein air circuit around Montreal open to all artists. Well it’s grown over the years and sometimes we end up with over 50 artists of all mediums in parks and most beautiful spots which are predetermined in April running every Tuesday rain or shine throughout the summer till the end of August. I make it a date to attend at least five of these apart from going on my own as often as I can. Beginner artists are just thrilled to attend these and get free advice from other artists. It makes us work faster to capture the light and shadow right then and there, which brings out the spontaneity.
by Sue Poole, OR, USA
Out there on the edge of the hill behind our house where bracken and bramble briar hatch like a tumble of jackstraws, where rootlet tubers, seed leafs, spears and earthnuts become a tangle of mingling grays and browns…summer’s leavings, where shadows dapple clumps, twigs, and stones in patchy oblique shapes, I tossed scoops of wheat millet, cracked corn, and black oil sunflower seeds on the earth where Sweet William, snapdragon, and strawberry parfait dianthus lay beneath the knotted veins of lichen, needles and barkdust bits.
I heard their “ka ka kow” break the stillness of the hour. The notes sounded like “Who are you?” and they came, cautiously, their black forward curving plumes bobbing on chestnut crowns, skirting, prancing, heel and toe, wary to the wind. Small and plump, their bodies colorfully and intricately patterned, the entire family began pecking and scratching near the ribbon grass, where once rock rose chatted with golden sister fleabane.
Sometimes, while sitting in my window chair, my eyes pierce the hill’s edge, focusing on the jumble of winter’s pulse, like a child’s hidden picture-page, in search of my elusive visitors tucked away in their suits of gray blue mottling.
Dealers and proprietors
by Graham Forsythe
Is there a difference between an art dealer and the proprietor of an art gallery? If so, would you mind telling me how I might find an art dealer? This term keeps coming up in your letter and I feel that if indeed there is a difference that maybe this is the key element I’m missing in having my work promoted.
(RG note) There are several types of art dealers. An artist would be well advised to try to figure out which type he or she is talking to. Some hang anything they think will sell and then lurk in the back of the gallery and watch to see who’s interested. Other dealers actively choose and sponsor art that they believe in. These dealers sometimes support an artist when works appear on the secondary market. Many retail galleries are not as interested in building artists as they are in building their own short term cash flow. Dealers who respect artists can be the very best of friends and partners. The best way to attract dealers these days is to have a simple website — preferably one that empowers the dealers or agents you might already have. For a modest but highly effective art site see www.robertgenn.com We have dealt with dealers previously in the letter Dealing with dealers and at other times that can be found by using the search facility.
by Zoe Pawlak, Montreal, Canada
David Hockney’s self-titled coffee-table-style book on his life and art-making and painting is about how he re-constructed, when modernism appeared to have dissected itself (deconstructed), using all types of styles to make pictures about styles co-existing and bound by canvas and his exploration of abstract expressionism, which was at its height in America while he was studying in Bradford, England. Hockney painted relentlessly through his break up in the mid-70s and good times alike. Never exhausting a theme or favored composition or style, the man knew how to hold his own interest. He kept himself engaged, being concerned enough to get the substantial information and research done to build a good picture. He was obsessively drawing. When the image is good, no line less, no line more could hold your breath like the way these drawings just ‘settle.’ Oh, how the man can make a line lie on the outline of a jetting-out leg, scratch some lines into a shoe or an ankle, add an awkward strap to a Mary-Jane and tell you, this, this is how it was.
by Tim O’Sullivan
Nine years old — I remember painting a scene of a great emperor penguin standing on an ice floe. My references were two small photographs, both black and white, one of the penguin and one with what I had deemed to be an impressive ice floe. I added what I felt were the appropriate colours, carefully shading and outlining as only a nine-year old can. I entered the painting to an Art competition at a local yearly event. The theme of the competition was along the lines of ‘the beauty of nature.’
Entering the huge tent where the children’s artwork was on display, I remember feeling a sense of excitement and wonder, with a mixture of dread; did I win a prize? How did I compare? A quick search for the section with my age-group, the fleeting sense of panic; where’s my painting — the sheer joy and thrill and excitement on seeing the red rosette: 1st prize, attached to my, MY Painting! The glow I feel coming to my face.
The words from behind, that ripped and shred — “That was traced — there’s no way a child could do that. He cheated!” I turn to see a woman; outrage on her face — I look for support — my parents were still outside — I run and hide.
How easily, in the presence of praise and awards, we let criticism pierce our heart. I hide my hurt as a child will do, and tell no one. I put away my paints without further thought and concentrate on other things… Years pass…
Forty-two years old — A few months ago, I picked up my son’s brush and painted, and the memory of that day returned and brought with it a flood of tears and a gut-wrenching cry of anguish. The sheer sense of loss and wasted time, and anger that I feel is indescribable. I look at my wonderful children, two boys, 9 and 11 years old, and realize how careful I am of what I say. How I quadruple check each sentence before I speak.
I have just recently come to understand the phrase ‘self-realization.’ I am an artist. I haven’t made it happen and I feel it’s too late, that the opportunity has passed, that there’s too much to learn. I grieve for my lost life. Is it possible to reset and restart one’s life at 42?
(RG note) It’s never too late to indulge in the joy of creating, to accept the challenge and the struggle, to thrill in the result. “Age is not a handicap. Age is nothing but a number. It is how you use it.” (Ethel Payne) “There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.” (Michel de Montaigne) Our Resource of Art Quotations is full of good stuff to keep an artist on track.
by Marylee DiLorenzo, Mexico
I love your letters and would like to pass them on to an artist friend. However, he reads and speaks in Spanish. Any plans for translations into Spanish? I hope so, this is too good to not be available in all languages.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.