Memory and reality in Alan Stein’s Georgian Bay
By Peter Wood
Entering the world of Alan Stein through the portal of his Church Street studio in Parry Sound is like entering one of his paintings. It’s crowded and chaotic but like his paintings, everything is there for a reason and the artist knows exactly where everything is. Like his paintings, his studio revealshis creative mind and the prolific spirit of a fine craftsman. The entrance is guarded by a sea of chalk pastels, handmade, fine quality, in every tone of every hue to meet the demands of his discerning sense of colour. The walls are covered with paintings, drawings and prints, evidence of the versatility of Stein’s oeuvre. There are posters from places visited, artists admired and exhibitions remembered. A library of books, many printed on site and others treasured as inspiration fills one side. In the center is an office, a control centre, like the cockpit of a ship or airplane complete with computer. And at the back, the artist’s beloved printing press and stacks of hand engraved hardwood blocks used to illustrate books of poetry. A visitor can almost hear the opera that the artist plays in the background as he escapes to his imagination.
Alan Stein took up residence in the scenic tourist town of Parry Sound with his wife Charlotte in 1988. Charlotte established Parry Sound Books, a landmark institution in the downtown business centre. Alan set up an artist studio and the Church Street Press complete with a Vandercook #4 printing press. The Steins have never looked back. They purchased an older cottage on a small island in Bayfield Inlet where they live for as much of the year as nature will allow. Alan has a second studio on the island.
“It’s the stuff around me, whatever I see,” that influences Alan Stein, but not just anything that he sees, “It’s whatever I see that day that inspires me to stop and sketch.”
Stein is influenced by his immediate environment, “stuff around me, whatever I see.”It’s not just anything that he sees: “It’s whatever I see that day that inspired me to stop and sketch.”His current inspiration comes from Georgian Bay,which he refers to as his ‘centre.’ That’s important because it’s not just seeing, it’s “understanding what you see.” Thisrugged picturesque landscape has served as muse for generations of artists. The most prominent among them of course, was the Group of Seven whose images are indelibly etched in our minds. Painterly images of raw untouched wilderness have permeated our national consciousness to such a degree that it is difficult to look at Georgian Bay without seeing it through ‘Group of Seven glasses’ which presents a creative problem for artists today. Stein has circumvented this issue by developing his own powerful personal style without reference to the ubiquitous Group. He has survived as an artist because of his commitment to his vision.In his words, “Most important is to develop your own vision, and not get caught up in trends or fashion or clever ideas.” His style is not bound by archetypal imagery but fueled by unlimited imagination.
His process begins with an onsite sketch. These images though are not strictures but are references or suggestions for the final work. He then turns to memory as a resource rather than visual reality. It is a method of simplifying the details, reducing them to a kind of shorthand. He has sketched the islands of the archipelago so many times that he can draw upon the image library in his mind to create them on canvas. He can then add details that he remembers from a previous visit or from a different vantage point; a technique reminiscent of Paul Gaugin’s‘dreaming before reality.’There is a great freedom in this because Stein can include everything that he remembers, not just what is seen in one frame at one time.
And then there is the characteristic curved horizon found in all of Stein’s paintings. It is as if the artist views the world from far away, that he can imagine himself high above the world looking down at it. It is a unique perspective sharing with the viewer the pleasure of seeing for a great distance.When he first moved to Parry Sound, he had an opportunity to fly over the area; an experience that he never forgot. When he made his first image of the town harbour, there was a yellow Beaver plane docked there. In later paintings he included the yellow plane long after it was gone from the harbour – it was remembered as was the perspective of seeing the earth’s horizon seemingly curved. It was as if “I projected myself above, looking down.” It came from memory and it creates a dreamlike quality in his painting. He refuses to be restricted by trivial matters such as physics or vision. The elements of his pictures are “all wonky,” leaning in every direction as if alive. The inanimate comes to life before our eyes.
The most striking thing about his work is his use of intense colour used not descriptively but expressively. He does not seem to mind being referred to as a Fauvist. Les Fauves (wild beasts),were a group of artists that included Henri Matisse, and Raoul Dufy who pioneered the use of arbitrary expressive colour in the early part of the twentieth century. He is also comfortable with a comparison to the great Russian/French artist Marc Chagall. “Yes, there could easily bea little bride floating around in the sky.” It seems more likely though, that the floating figure in the Stein works is the artist himself and that the little yellow airplane is symbolic of his preferred vantage point. The airplane is no longer in the harbour but persists in memory and recurs in his paintings.He uses his memory, his playful spirit and his craftsmanship to create a unique vision of Georgian Bay.
Leaving the world of alan steins studio required a period of recovery from an ailment known as ‘gallery fatigue’ it’s a condition brought on by experiencing so many intense images in a compressed time frame coupled with Alan‘s generous conversation. Reflecting on his work, I couldn’t help but wonder where the people were. Infact. I could not remember seeing a single human figure, not in the landscapes not in the cities not even in he sky. The thought triggered a follow up phone: “Alan why are there no people in your paintings?” The answer: