Art fashions come and go, but a Cape Breton folk artist stays true to his own path.
Self-taught Sydney, Cape Breton, artist David Stephens has been a growing force on the theoretical fringes of Nova Scotia's folk art scene since he established his first studio with the late artist Lorne Reid, back in 1989. But after more than 20 years of creating art, he's finding new popularity among collectors and dealers. Despite sometimes being placed in the "outsider" or the "lowbrow" artist category for his glossy and brightly painted scenes of island environments and characters, David's big-picture plan to stay true to his own ideal of what's beautiful and important has allowed him to establish a lasting relevance.
"I was raised in a family where anything and everything-such as music, books, poetry and art-were open for discussion. Early on, painting and drawing became my dominant interests. Later, a private art teacher told me I was an artist, and I knew that whether I took art on as a vocation or not, I would be involved in it for the rest of my life.
In 1984 I left my job as a marine rigger at the Halifax Dockyards and moved to Labrador City, where sporadic employment and the sheer isolation of the place allowed me the time to develop my art. A few years later I moved to Dawson Creek, BC, and in 1988 I came back to Nova Scotia, to Cheticamp, which offered me a tourist audience for my work. That's where Lorne Reid and I got together.
Lorne's brother had opened a pizza shop on the main floor of a building in the town, and Lorne had opened an art studio upstairs. I went in one day to order a pizza. Lorne was working behind the counter, but I didn't recognize him at first. He recognized me though, from 1977, when we were in basic training together at CFB Cornwallis. We were both dabbling in art in the army, so he invited me to see his gallery. We spoke a long time, and then he offered me a wall in that big beautiful space to display my work.
Not long after that, while talking at the gallery, we consciously decided that we'd abandon everything we had learned about art and start again with the pure colours and basic shapes we had known in childhood. We weren't going to worry about perspective or vanishing points or shadows or light or contrast. As a result, people coming in were calling it folk art. All we knew was that it was playful and fun; the colours were bright and brilliant. We didn't promote ourselves as folk artists, but we fell into that category.
The same year that Lorne and I got together, Chris Huntington [a folk art promoter and dealer] came on the scene. Lorne decided to go down to Lunenburg and speak to him about what we were doing in Cheticamp. We formed a friendship with Chris and one day, we were sitting around the dining room table at his place, talking about how folk artists were scattered across the province and had no access to each other. Right then and there, Chris decided that he was going to get 25 or 30 artists together and have a large outdoor exhibit that summer, which he would call the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival and Picnic.
I remember Chris saying that Lorne and I were at the folk art festival because it was the only game in town. In other words, we didn't fit in anywhere else. But what I'm concerned with now has to do with other people labelling me. In the late 1980s and early '90s, a lot of "insiders" said we really weren't folk artists, but they didn't know who we really were. We weren't 75 years old, and we hadn't lived in remote locations all our lives, so they thought we were riding on the coattails of the folk art craze.
That wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. [I guess] the folk art festival people understand that. Maybe that's why they asked me to do the poster this year.
It's really an honour after 17 years of attendance.
Lorne got sick in 1990, and was later diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1992.
After living for years in isolated communities, having someone like him to bounce ideas off helped me define my personality and drive. Pushing simplicity so far that it becomes complex is the main point that Lorne and I learned together, and it was a major turning point for us both. Lorne always said the dot is the simplest form in art, but it can become part of something extremely complex if it's pushed.
Other artists also influenced me, letting me know that I was part of something bigger than myself, that I wasn't alone. Folk artists like Eddie Mandaggio, Dick Tutty and Sid Howard.
Beyond infrequent face-to-face interaction with a few artists, I still live in relative isolation. Cape Breton keeps me out of the mainstream. My location is a positive thing, because I'm not overly influenced by art theories. In Toronto, for example, I could walk down a street and visit a dozen art galleries that would influence me. Here, I'm not confronted by formal concerns, and I can just be who I am.
One of the things I am becoming known for internationally is my art car work. I've always loved cars. My first painted Volkswagen car door opened lots of real doors for me, because it got me an art grant that helped me to create a fully functional art car. I was able to literally jump inside my art and drive it to places like the Convergence International Arts Festival in Rhode Island and the Houston International Arts Festival and Art Car Parade in Texas. The art car had taken me off in directions I had never dreamed of.
There are no stop signs anywhere ahead on this highway. Before, I was in the back of Chris Huntington's Suburban with everybody else, driving around all the little roads of Nova Scotia. But now I'm in the driver's seat. I'm headed towards my future, whatever and wherever that is."