Stephen Andrews is a Toronto-based painter. Over the past 25 years, he has exhibited his work in Canada, the U.S., Brazil, Scotland, France and Japan. He is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Belkin Art Gallery, the Schwartz Collection, Harvard as well as many private collections. His work deals with memory, identity, technology and their representations in various media including drawing, animation and recently painting.
For me, there’s always the lived experience and the work comes out of that. In my youth, I had to deal with mortality when I became HIV positive. It was a gritty black and white AIDS narrative. Now, my recent work tends to be more poetic or beatific. I’m older and dealing with mortality in a different way, in a more philosophical way. It’s the Wizard of Oz transformation from black and white to colour. Now everything is colour.
When I turned 50, I decided to do something I said I’d never ever do–I started painting. It was pretty abrupt. I turned 50 and bought a bunch of canvases. They were big from the beginning. I thought, if I’m doing to do it, I’m really going to do it. If I’m going to screw up, I’m really going to screw up.
In some ways, my technique is similar to watercolours: I work up from the whites. I layer transparent colours and they mix optically. Originally, I used oil and paint but it was taking too long to dry. Now I mix up my own mediums based on Rubens’ medium. It’s a modification but it has Venice turpentine. Venice turpentine is so beautiful. It’s basically just distilled pine sap. It looks like honey and it smells like pine sap.
The mediums are sticky—they get bugs in them. I pick them out with a porcupine quill. I pick the bugs out while the paint’s still wet. If you look at the paintings, there’s hairs in them and all sorts of stuff. The surface is so activated, what difference does it make?
It’s a much more colourfast transparent medium now, more durable. I have a book full of recipes so I know the recipe for each colour layer. Conservators love this stuff. When museums buy my work, I show up with a notebook and say, ‘Here’s what this painting is made of.’
The imagery in my paintings is based on my own photography. It’s mostly from a ten block radius of this studio. For years, I did work from appropriated images online and I just wanted to bring it all home. The work has always been personal but this is different. It’s about trying to describe my immediate world rather than the larger social political world.
I can’t work if there’s anyone in the room. If there’s someone here, their energy pulls me away. I need to stay in my head. It’s almost like day dreaming. You’re intensely focus but completely spaced out. I’m thinking all the time so sometimes people say things and I find it has a weird relationship to what I’m working on. I’ll make a mental note and then go back to it when I’m in my studio.
I didn’t realize how hard painting is. Making art is hard. It’s really really hard. It’s hard for me to be critical of stuff. Of course, everyone has their opinions about work but for the most part, I always think, ‘Oh my god somebody actually made something.’ That is really hard. Just to do anything. I tend to be like that with other people’s work: ‘Oh great! You made something!’
–Stephen Andrews, as told to Studio Beat
Photos by Courtney Vokey
Visit Stephen Andrews’ website here.