I can’t precisely recall the first time I met Stephen Hayes, but I do vividly remember the first time I saw his work. It was, of course at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, shortly after I moved to Portland. Being involved in what could be termed loosely the “avant-garde,” I was somewhat taken aback at being so moved by work that was two-dimensional, framed, and figurative. The intensity of my response surprised me, and I know that I am not alone in this. I have seen many people, artists and collectors alike, react deeply to the images Stephen creates. Although it was sometime later, one of Stephen’s “River” monotypes became the first piece of art I purchased outright from a gallery. It has been hanging prominently on my wall at home for years, and I have had some of my most clarifying thoughts while staring into it.
We soon became friends, quiet co-conspirators, great advocates of each other’s work, and collaborative participants in each other’s processes. We sometimes can spend months trying to get together, schedules conspiring against us, but we are never unaware of each other’s periphery. When Stephen asked me to write an introduction to his much-deserved catalogue, I struggled to determine which angle I would pursue among the many I could choose from.
“Generosity of spirit” isn’t yet a cliché, and the phrase describes Stephen, and certainly his artistic practice. In his way of working, he fully excavates his skills, observations, intellect and emotions. This is never a formulaic process for him. It is more a freewheeling and intelligent improvisation. The resulting images in Stephen’s work are hauntingly beautiful. By this I do not mean ghostlike, but piercing and tender in their reflection of human capacity. With a deftly layered palette he gets directly at states of being, the deep solitude occasionally seen behind someone’s gaze or pained smile, and represents them through a posture, a figurative grouping, or a landscape. What he includes in his images is as important as what he removes or leaves behind.
He intermingles his external observations and internal impulses with just enough detachment that we as viewers can assign our own intimate responses to his imagery. He seems to focus his attention on a site, a situation, or an exchange otherwise likely to become lost or forgotten, transforming it instead into a moment suspended, and doing so gorgeously. Stephen is an artist who fully participates in the life he sees in front of him.
The sagacity reflected in his work is somewhat uncanny, considering that Stephen boyishly improvises with his materials while working in a studio alive with the sounds of rock and roll, blues, and jazz. He can carry on a fully engaged conversation, singing along with the music while wielding a brush or a palette knife, rolling out his inks or mixing his paints. I have watched him on more than one occasion entirely scrape off what he had been painting, doing so to the rhythm of the music playing on his tape deck, without the slightest pause in conversation. I was talking to an artistic director recently, and he said that his expectation of those in his theater company was that they all “work exceedingly hard to make something truly good, and since no one is going to pay us enough not to have fun, we have to have plenty of that.” Sitting in a pub in Manhattan, I immediately thought of Stephen and how much he would have appreciated that perspective.
As I write this I am able to imagine Stephen running off to an opera rehearsal, or cooking an elaborate dinner for his friends, music blasting, or talking animatedly while waiting for his oils to dry just enough to allow him to scrape it off with precision if the impulse demands it, always remaining alert for the next situation that will command his particular artistic intention.
Kristy Edmunds is the Artistic Director at The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA
Founding Director and Curator, PICA (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art)
This catalog essay is from a 2001 exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR