New York City is awakening from its Covid-19 nightmare… and leading the way is an acclaimed artist who has gone from Mastrick to Manhattan.
Aberdeen-born Stephen Hall’s new exhibition of works, Awakening, is one of the first events in the Big Apple to welcome back members of the public – and it did it in style with a glittering opening on Thursday night.
“Manhattan is bustling, it’s full of life and energy again, it’s just grand, especially after the year and a half we’ve had. It’s pretty open now,” said Stephen, whose works are on show at Stride Arts in New York.
“They wanted to use my work as a solo show for an inaugural exhibition as they opened up as real gallery again, which is wonderful,” he said.
“I have done solo shows before, but not at such short notice. But luckily, because I have been working so hard during Covid, I’ve got a fair body of work and they virtually took everything,” said Stephen, adding it was an amazing feeling for his work to be part of the re-opening of Manhattan.
It is just the latest chapter in Stephen’s career that has seen him garner high profile clients – such as Diana Ross, Johnny Depp even art legend Andy Warhol – since he arrived in New York in 1978 hungry to carve himself a career as an artist.
Selling pop posters to Aberdeen classmates
It’s a long way from his roots, when his first sales were to classmates and friends at Aberdeen Grammar School.
“I have been selling art since I was about 11-years-old,” said Stephen. “It was at the time when people were putting posters on their wall, so I thought I’d do a painting of Bob Dylan and Jimmi Hendrix and sell them for ten bob.”
His talent shone as a youngster – “I’ve been painting since I was three years old” – and at the tender age of 17 the boy who lived on North Anderson Drive had his exhibition debut in Aberdeen Art Gallery itself with a painting in the Aberdeen Artists’ Show.
Leaving school with “itchy feet” and a desire to see the world Stephen found himself in a kibbutz in Israel, where a famed local artist recognised his potential and encouraged him to pursue his passion.
Giving in to ‘Scottish mentality’
“My job at the time was cleaning the dining room, I was a floor polisher, and I had hung up my drawings in the dining room. This artist was looking at them, he liked them. By then I had met a girl from New York who also saw the drawings and she said ‘Why don’t you come to New York’ and that was in 1978,” said Stephen.
“At that time the East Village of New York was literally exploding with galleries, in corner shops, in people’s living rooms. I started showing and selling work,” he said.
After a year, Stephen gave in to what he calls his “Scottish mentality” of not liking America and deciding to go home to Aberdeen.
“I was back about two weeks and realised ‘not a chance’. You can’t make a living and exhibit like that, so I was back to New York tout suite and things kept going.”
His work caught the eye of A-listers and Manhattan’s elite and while Stephen doesn’t divulge too much about his clients, his works have been bought by the likes of Depp, Ross and Warhol.
His art even featured in the Hollywood hit Benny & Joon, which starred Depp.
Creating art for Hollywood hit
“When he did the film Benny & Joon, Mary Stuart Masterson was playing this autistic girl that Johnny Depp’s mime character falls in love with and she used the drawings and paintings of him,” he said.
“So I ended up having him in my studio posing, so I could do the things she was supposed to do in the film.”
Sad story with beautiful melody
It was also a coup for Stephen to come to the attention of pop art trailblazer and guru Warhol.
“I met him a couple of times. I used to do abstract geometric paintings back in the 80s and put a clockwork in them to make them clock art on the wall. He was walking by one of the galleries they were showing in and bought one,” said Stephen, adding the artist bought a second from another gallery shortly after.
For his new exhibition, his focus has been firmly on the crisis of pollution, overuse of fossil fuels and loss of countless species and habitats and is the culmination of six years of work by the artist.
“About six years ago, I started awakening up to the fact that our planet is in bad shape, with global warming and plastic pollution,” he said, adding turning to art to express his concerns was helped along the way by his friend Luke Cresswell, the creator of Broadway hit show Stomp!
“I said to him I wanted to do a traditional still life but with my take on it, involving plastic, and he said that was brilliant,” said Stephen.
His first painting involved him collecting plastic bottles, and ripping open a plastic bag to drape over them in the style of a classic still life composition, but with coral and a fish skeleton.
“I called it Fat Free Ocean and that was it, I was off and running. Everything I have been doing since then is about that – plastic in the ocean, pollution and what we are leaving behind.
“Tom Waits once said he loves to tell a sad story with a beautiful melody. I feel that’s my work right now. It’s telling a scary story but showing the beauty of nature.”
People know a Stephen Hall painting
Stephen is a self-taught artist, always pushing himself to refine his skills and develop his own language so people could look at his work and say: “That’s a Stephen Hall painting”.
His incredibly detailed works are so hyper-realistic they can almost be mistaken for a photographic montage at first glance. But they are far from that.
“I am meticulous in my execution. I love stretching the canvas, I put the primer on myself, I draw with pencil and I paint with a brush,” said Stephen, whose work has a global reach thanks to the digital world, with paintings on display in virtual galleries around the world.
Stephen has never forgotten his roots in Aberdeen and was last here four years ago. He is planning a visit with his wife and daughter in August, pandemic restrictions allowing, to see his mother and brother, who still live in the city.
He hopes his success will encourage more home-grown talent from the Granite City.
“I’m a working artist, I’ve been in collections globally and that’s an encouragement to young Aberdonians that it is possible to be an artist coming out of Aberdeen. I didn’t know that when I was growing up.”
To find out more about Stephen Hall’s work visit stephenhallart.com