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Just Play (again)

Kids really are the best. They live life like they really mean every minute of it.They go everywhere at a gallop until they’re too pooped to go on, and rarely giving much thought to what happens next. When they do give it some thought, it’s with the faith that it’s probably going to be AWESOME!

I figured the TD Art Gallery Paint-in was going to leave me exhausted and spent. There was a lot of “peopling” going on, which I’m really not used to. It turns out that the exact opposite happened and the day left me energized and inspired. That’s at least in part due to the time I spent making “colour wheels” with the kids. A lot of them knew mostly how colour works, but to see their eyes light up when skeins of yellow paint rolled over red to make orange was pure magic.

So, inspired by the kids I met on Moss Street, I decided to return to where it all started, with the “Just Play” series. Amazing things can happen when I approach a new project without expectations of the outcome. Painting for the sheer joy of seeing the colours materialize in front of my eyes. I suspect “Just Play” will become my touchstone when I start taking myself too seriously, or when I’m bent on the outcome of one project or another.

You can read more about the “Just Play” series here, and check out more of the actual work here.

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Just Play

These are the words I kept telling myself when I started painting again:  “Just play with the paint”. It was a way for me to overcome the pressure I put on myself every time I sat down to draw or paint something.

Starting something new is often terrifying for me. It’s not just art, it’s life in general.  I worry a lot about failure.  I seem to want to be an expert at everything I turn my hand to.  So the condition I found myself in my mid forties was terrible:  A desperate desire to paint again, and a paralyzing fear that everything I made would be garbage.

The solution came from running.  A while ago, I learned that the cure for inertia in my running was to just get out and do it.  Get rid of any pace or distance goals, lace up my shoes and run.  By relieving the pressure that goes along with expectations, it became possible for me to rediscover the joy of running and turn dread into anticipation.

So I applied that approach to art-making.  “Just play with the paint, Stefan”, I told myself.  “Don’t worry about whether or not you end up with something beautiful, just do it.”  I didn’t even need to have any idea of what I was going to paint, I simply had to start making marks on the page and trust to intuition from that point on.

Painting really is like running in that way.  The biggest obstacle to doing either is my mind.  I find if I can muster enough willingness to lace up my shoes and get out the door, everything else takes care of itself.  Some runs are good, others aren’t, but at least I’m getting out the door and being active.  Waiting for motivation or desire almost never works for me, and I end up doing nothing at all.

I like Picasso’s take on it: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”  

So, I try keep working whether I want to or not.  Now I paint or draw every day, no exceptions.  It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, it doesn’t have to get finished that day, but I must do something.

The interesting thing is that, like running, it’s hard to get started.  But when I lurch into motion, however haltingly, I seem to enjoy it and inspiration does pay a visit eventually.

Take a look around the “Just Play” Series, and let me know what you think.

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Spring Matrices

The word matrix means a lot of different things to different people. I know the expression from direct marketing to mean a simple x/y grid.  I also know it from print-making to mean whatever is used, with ink, to hold the image that makes up the print. To the biologist, matrices are the tissues in animal or plant cells, in which more specialized structures are embedded.  The nerd in me can’t see the word without thinking of the late 90s movie starring Keanu Reeves.

Most fascinating to me when I looked it up is that the word matrix comes from the latin root “Mater” meaning mother.

Having tired of stripes doing the “Quiet Insistence” paintings, I moved on to working with grids. It was an intuition, and I knew Agnes Martin had worked in grids too. That scientific, logical part of my brain seemed to think it was the right move, just adding one more coordinate/variable to the practice I’d already been enjoying.

What happened next was really interesting. Whereas with the stripe paintings I pretty much did my level best to “colour inside the lines”, as soon as I got working with a grid the game changed and I started consciously evading the lines. Or rather, I was sticking to the general rule of the grid, but nudging the paint to break the lines here and there. Layers of paint would overlap, not not quite completely, the better to emphasize the layering.  Looking back on them, the grid itself is still very apparent, but it’s like I used it as a lattice upon which to let the paintings grow along their own course.

It’s almost like the grid was there to nurture the process, saying in effect, “Don’t Panic!”. As with the strip paintings, the grid absolved me of the need to plan out a picture and let me just play, but this time it was with some pretty complex layering of colour, opacity, shade, and intensity.

The term “Spring Matrices” came from the fact that I was doing these paintings early in the West Coast spring and that a lot of the colours were inspired by the season. I’ve pulled together some of the Spring Matrices paintings here. Take a look and let me know what you think.



I’ve loved drawing since I was a little kid. I’d spend hours drawing pretty much anything and everything.  I also loved art class, regardless of what it was we were creating.  In retrospect, I realized it’s making that I enjoy.  The artifacts themselves don’t really interest me much – they never have – but I think the process from ideation to creation is something beautiful.

In high school, a teacher encouraged me to try painting.  I found I loved that too, enough to study art at York University and graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Art.  I put a lot of pressure on myself then and afterwards.  It seems like I couldn’t sit down to draw or paint without expecting I would create a masterpiece every time.  Unreasonable expectations like this turned something I truly loved into a source of tremendous stress, and it kept on building over time.  Curiously, as I actually did less and less art, the stakes got progressively higher.

I wandered away from art for close to 20 years..  Life got busy, a career and family life took over, and I lost sight of the joy I found in making.

Consciously, anyway.

Subconsciously, I slowly drove myself back to art.  There wasn’t a job I took that I didn’t modify in some way to allow me some opportunity for expression.  A job at a fundraising agency gradually morphed to include print and digital design.  I started making handmade cards for special occasions.  Then web development and absurd spending sprees at art supply shops despite not knowing what I was going to do with the materials.   I picked up bread baking as a hobby.   The closer I looked at my life, the more obvious it was that the common thread is my joy in making things.

In late 2016, a friend who knew I used to paint asked me to collaborate on altering an existing painting  That’s when I really started painting again, but that was the only painting I worked on for over a year.  I struggled and fought with myself, alternating between procrastination, putting awful pressure on myself to create a masterpiece, and finally a few bouts of furious activity.  When I finally handed it over to him in early 2018, I started to wonder what came next.

After a few false starts, it became obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.  I had learned a lot about art at university, but I hadn’t really been trained to paint.  I still confronted that pressure whenever I contemplated starting though.  The answer, it turns out was to Just Play.



An art history professor and mentor once told me, “Art is a terrible investment.  The odds against you making any money speculating are astronomical.  If you’re going to buy art, find things you think are beautiful, and surround yourself with them.”

Another teacher told me that a work of art is never complete until it’s shared with others.

A couple of quick notes about the artwork you’ll find on the site:

  1. All artwork is original, handmade, and one of a kind*. 
  2. Most of it is small in scale, generally they’re “sketches”.  Whether painted or drawn, they’re the result of my daily practice.  Though some of them do go on to become larger paintings, I don’t spend time naming them individually.  What I can do is speak about them in aggregate, as part of a series.
  3. You’ll notice that many of them have the same name, like, “Just Play“, “Progression Studies“, or, “Echoes“.  They’re all pictures where I’ve followed a common instinct, or process.

I hope you find something here you like.

*Well, almost always one of a kind.  Recently, I picked up Lincut and Woodcut blockprinting.  In many cases, I’ll be experimenting with these media as mono prints, but where there are editions of them, it will be clearly marked and with the total number clearly indicated.

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Back in 1998 I was flipping through a pile of magazines in search of material for collages. It struck me that the layout of a lot of the magazine articles – even the ads – were quite beautiful. I had objections to the subjects and messages a lot of them conveyed, but otherwise I found them really compelling.

In a moment of inspiration, I took a black magic marker to them to remove all the parts I found objectionable or simply didn’t like. I found the process really empowering and also very playful. Who but a child would have the temerity to just take apart these professional pieces of style, design – propaganda – and make them their own.

At the same time, our cultural understanding of redaction in public documents – a form of censorship – plays against this naive, childlike, interaction and creates a wonderful tension I still love to this day.

See more “Redactions” here…

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Strange Semaphore

Let’s get the title of this series out of the way.  Jill thought they looked like the flags they use on boats, so that’s what they’re called.  They’re not a secret system of signs and signals.  They’re not any kind of semaphore at all, really.

What they really are is an abuse of art paper.  I got really interested in how folding, tearing, abrading, and otherwise abusing paper affected the absorptions rate of water and pigment.  I also hate blank paper.  It seems unnatural, and it’s terrifying to me.  Confronted with a blank sheet, I develop options paralysis and have no clue how to start.  ‘Preparing” the paper is a way for me to get past that barrier.

This was also my first use of a square format.  For whatever reason I’ve always avoided squares, and this was an easy way for me to just get over that.  In folding the paper, I explored some of the geometry of squares too, sometimes using hard symmetry, sometimes the rule of thirds. Diagonals and harlequins came next.

Besides the bright colours and high contrast of these pictures, one of the things I like about them is the flexibility in displaying them:  when framed, each them have 8 different ways to hang them.  Which brings up an interesting point: I get asked sometimes why I don’t sign my paintings.  At least part of the reason is so that anyone purchasing them is free to hang them any way they like.

Anyway, take a look at the “Strange Semphore” pictures and let me know what you think.

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I’m In!

I just found out that I’ve been selected to participate in the 2018 TD Art Gallery Paint-In!  Victoria people will probably know it better as the Moss Street Paint-In.

I’m excited as heck.  Jill and Miriam have offered to help out that day, and we’ll be doing something interactive for the kids (and kids at heart),  playing with paint and paper and learning about subtractive colour theory in the process.

I’m also a little terrified.  This will be the first public exhibition of my art in 24 years.  It’ll be interesting to see what people make of it.

So, if you’re in town on July 21, 2018, swing by Moss street and come visit!

Bring iced lattes if you do 😉