Old Lyme resident Brian Keith Stephens’ paintings are both playful and profound
Stepping into the gallery at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, you see two huge canvases, each painted with whales that seem to swim elegantly through the frames, as if diving deeper into the sea.
The wall text explains that the works commemorate New London’s whaling past and “the incredible beauty of these majestic, once-plentiful creatures.”
The titles, on the other hand, betray a definite sense of humor: one painting is called “Sometimes I Dream of Driving 100 mph,” and the other is “I Know the Secret From the Bottom of the Sea.”
On another canvas, a flamingo stands placidly atop a tortoise’s back in “Perfect Romance.” The accompanying wall text says that the inspiration for this came from the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” in which animals (although not these two) stand atop each other to scare away robbers and gain a happy future for themselves by working together.
These are the playful yet thoughtful works of Brian Keith Stephens, a North Stonington native who now lives in Old Lyme. His art has been exhibited and sold around the U.S. and abroad, and “Brian Keith Stephens: Almost True Tales” is his second show at the Lyman Allyn in New London.
This one is quite different from his last, a 2014 installation featuring butterflies silk-screened on scrolls of Mylar.
In “Almost True Tales,” the images and text — particularly the titles — can have a sense of whimsy, but the artistry is exquisite. Step closer to, say, the piece bringing to magnificent life a black-and-white speckled horse, and it’s almost like a mosaic or a variation of Seurat — but instead of tiles or dots suddenly discernable as you inch toward the image, they are like swatches of paint. Step back, and the various shades of paint dissolve into a striking portrait.
Some of the paintings incorporate folk-influenced patterns, many pulled from traditional Polish and Russian sources — and some even from the rug in Stephens’ studio. “Time is a Melting Ice Cream,” for instance, taking its cue from the Aesop’s Fable about the hare and the tortoise, in which slow and steady wins the race. Here, two tortoises crawl toward each other at the bottom of the large canvas, while two hares sit facing each other up top. In between is a burst of red-and-gold floral pattern.
In discussing his use of animals, Stephens says in an exhibition statement that “in many ways animals are capable of expressing human emotions in a way that is both understandable, mysterious and alluring.”
In an interview, he explains more: “Humans have used animals since the beginning of time to tell stories, depict our emotions, express other worldly energies ... They carry a lot of weight in history for us.”
In “Almost True Tales,” Stephens uses fables and folktales as catalysts for many works. The stories are described in the wall text accompanying each painting, though Stephens says, “These are starting points for the paintings, not direct meanings.” The idea is to spark thoughts and reflections in viewers.
His wife, Pola Esther, who is also an artist, says that Stephens’ use of fables reminds people of life lessons and can be heartwarming. “The answers are quite simple … Sometimes they are uplifting, sometimes they are a warning,” she says.
And they are universal, applying to young or old, she notes.
The exhibition’s wall text echoes those sentiments: “At a time when the constant and omnipresent flow of information makes it harder than ever to identify what is true, Stephens’ work encourages viewers to recall the simple human virtues embodied by animals in countless tales. These enduring folk wisdoms are a source of solace and a reminder that decency can prevail and help the world to heal in even the most difficult times.”
Hungry for art
Stephens, 47, recalls that North Stonington — where his parents, Robert Gordon Stephens and Frances Theresa Stephens, still live — was a sleepy farm town and a beautiful spot when he was growing up.
He was interested in art all along, but not to the extent that he planned to head to a college of art after graduating from Wheeler High School.
“I didn’t really have (art) around me. It was more something I explored on my own,” Stephens says.
Art, he says, “was something I understood. It just came to me. You can’t really describe it.” A person might, for instance, look at a photograph and understand it, or want to create something like it, he says.
Photography was his first outlet, and he was interested in film, too. But he eventually found himself gravitating toward painting.
Stephens spent one year majoring in business at college before leaving and deciding instead to attend the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, graduating in 1998. He didn’t seek out Lyme Academy because it was a figurative school; he just fell in love with the place and says he had a great education there.
“I really wanted to do art, and wherever I was (at school), I would have used it for me,” says Stephens. “I was very excited about doing it and very hungry for it.”
He attended the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and earned a master’s degree from the City College of New York in 2000.
Stephens says one of the wonderful things about art is it can bridge different cultures and different people.
And in discussing “Almost True Tales,” Stephens said in a Lyman Allyn statement: “At the center of my work and life are these fascinations with myth, the spectrum of human passion, our kinship to the spirit of the wild animal, and the challenges of balancing the real with the fanciful. My art has been and continues to be my outlet for exploring these themes and conjuring up new ones.”
If you go
What: “Brian Keith Stephens: Almost True Tales”
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
When: Through May 9; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun. Last admission at 4 p.m.
Admission: $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students, $7 for active military personnel, and free for kids under 12, for members and for New London residents
Contact: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org
Artist Talk: Brian Keith Stephens gives virtual talk at 6 p.m. March 31; visit lymanallyn.org to register