In the Studio: Stephen Bauman
Although first impressions can often be indelible, there are times when a continued conversation with someone reveals a different interior than initially suggested. Stephen Bauman is an artist whose smart and seemingly critical surface eventually gives way to a depth and sensitivity earned from years of soul searching. The thirty-seven-year-old painter has worked hard to overcome and prevail, and he has the street smarts and life experience to not accept everything at face value. His unique past and the strength he has developed in getting to where he is today are part of the characteristics that allow him to be a painter of high caliber.
Growing up in Miami, Bauman was introduced to graffiti writing through his older brother. While immersed in this world, Bauman’s artistic talent was recognized by high-school teachers and mentors, who encouraged him to pursue art education at the collegiate level. After attending The Florida School of the Arts, Bauman realized the skills he needed to learn were not to be found in the university system. Through Steve Forster—whom he met in 2000 and who remains one of his closest colleagues and friends—Bauman discovered The Florence Academy of Art in Italy. He began at the academy in 2004 and graduated in 2007. It was here that he finally learned the methods to move his art forward in leaps and bounds.
This past July I interviewed Bauman at The Florence Academy of Art ‘s U.S campus in Jersey City, where he and his wife, the artist Cornelia Hernes, now work as Principal Instructors. Bauman’s studio contained an interesting range of work: familiar portraits and still lifes as well as his own explorations into uncharted territory. One of those paintings, a large-scale figurative interior with strong graphic qualities titled Matilda, leaped off the wall and demanded attention. I thought this painting was wonderful to look at—excellent design and composition complemented by a well-understood color statement—and I was excited to talk to Bauman about it. I expected him to be equally eager to discuss the piece, but he talked about it with slight reluctance, almost not wanting to show partiality to this particular expression. Our interview began with a discussion around this, specifically the balance the artist has negotiated in his studio in order to have balance in his life.
AM: What is your philosophy behind the art you produce? What criteria determines what and how you will paint?
SB: When I started to think about what’s important to me about my work and why I actually make it, I had to ask some tough questions. Is it enough that I’m amused by my work? Or do I also seek to connect with other people? When you’re a student, you’re told repeatedly that your art is all about you: find what you love and paint it. But once you get past the student years you’re confronted with a world that says, wait, it’s about us too. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, and I have had to find that balance. I need to make a living from the work I produce, and just as life is full of compromises, making a living is full of compromises. I’m constantly fine-tuning my work to meet my own demands and the demands of the art-collecting world. If I can’t find a way to make everything I paint engaging and exciting, I’m not going to paint it.
AM: So would you say you were just as excited to paint Matilda as that still life or portrait or these four blue paintings on the wall?
SB: The series of paintings in blue on the wall are about exploring and experimenting with color, light, and value structure. Yes, that’s exciting to me. I might even be happier with those than this large figurative piece. There are aspects of Matilda that I’m fascinated by. But I see this painting as total naval-gazing. There’s no ending with a painting like this. I’ve been working on it for six months, and I could easily go on working on it for six more. I probably spent ten to twelve hours each on these four paintings in blue. I love the open-endedness of a painting like Matilda, but at the same time, it’s important that I accomplish and finish something. Although I sometimes have a great deal of patience, I can also be very impatient. And, unfortunately, the longer I allow something to linger in my studio, the more flaws I see and then I can no longer stand looking at it. I’m full of divergent sometimes conflicting ideas I want to explore, and it’s hard to make work I’m consistently engaged by.
AM: Are the paintings that take less time and have a definite ending, and perhaps a definite audience, paintings you feel you have to do?
SB: I would like to make larger paintings, however, if I can't derive enough income from those paintings—that means I can paint for twelve months a year by virtue of selling that work—then that’s a problem. I need to buy my time back. Let’s say hypothetically I’m a professional artist who doesn't also teach. I sell my art and that’s how I live. I know that if painted a relatively attractive woman instead of a really befuddled-looking bald guy, I would increase the potential marketability of that painting by fifty percent. Why wouldn’t I paint the one more likely to secure the income that would allow me to paint more paintings? That whole mentality of “just follow your own spirit, it’s only you that matters” created a conflict for me.
AM: Let’s talk about the ongoing series of collaborative paintings you’ve been working on with your friend, the artist Steve Forster. How did this come about, and what have you learned through the eyes of another artist?
SB: Many artists go through their entire careers and, with the exception of interviews for articles, rarely verbalize their creative process. If I do a sketch, I can look at it and try to be objective, but that’s hard to do with your own work. So I may ask a colleague, but that process does not usually produce the kind of graphic criticism that an outsider would give. When I’m working with Steve and I say, “I think we should arrange it like this,” he might say, “that doesn’t read to me, I’m not seeing what you’re seeing.” This back and forth is very eye-opening. As artists we imagine all of these feelings somehow make it into our artwork and people can perceive them. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. I do know, however, that a blunt, real response is hard to come by for an artist. Even when your work is written about, a lot of times it’s a pat on the back, not critical. I think it’s so valuable for an artist to receive a strong, honest opinion. All the things I think I’m doing, are they really coming across to the people I think I’m doing it for? When I work with Steve, I get that feedback. We both have strong opinions and are direct and honest. I imagine it’s more like what the film-making process is like.
AM: What is the actual process like for these collaborative paintings? How do two visions become one—especially with two strong opinions?
SB: When you’re close friends with another artist, you talk a lot about ideas and what is working and not working. At some point we thought it would be interesting to take our conversation into “the laboratory” sort of speak: if we think x, y, and z, let’s test it and find out if it’s actually true. As far as combining two visions, at first you just mash them up against each other, and eventually you come to some sort of conclusion. The more we worked together, the more we developed a consistent language. When I say “green,” he sees the green that I am seeing. And when he says “unity” I know exactly what he’s after.
AM: Collaboration in the graffiti world is obviously very common, but not as much in traditional fine art. What experiences from your graffiti-writing days are you bringing into your collaborative paintings?
SB: The process of graffiti art has an aspect of free association. It will start out as one thing and then become another. That’s what makes graffiti stimulating and interesting: the fact that it’s transformative. The design evolves, and at no point does it have consequences in the way that a finished painting does. You walk away from it, and it’s gone. The pressure to put something into it that’s meaningful or that defines it in some broader sense is non-existence because it’s transient. There’s a hint of that transience in these collaborative paintings. I’m not thinking about the end result. I’m concentrating on the process and finding solutions to aesthetic questions.
AM: Now knowing your journey with the creative process a little better, I’m curious about the mindset leading up to the painting When I Was Young—which has sort of become your “iconic” image. Did you love or loathe that painting when it left your studio?
SB: I remember the day I finished that painting, I had just repainted the sea behind the young girl and I asked Cornelia what she thought. She said, “I liked the way it looked before.” I was crestfallen. I walked out of the studio, thinking to myself, Ah, another mediocre painting. Fast forward to a year later, and it was the most well-received painting I’ve ever made. At the time I was painting it, I thought it was average. Maybe I thought there was some growth in it, not more. I worked on it for five months so, there again, the longer the actual execution takes, the more I’m prone to be critical. But I remember that the creative process was really intense for that painting, and I did actually enjoy it. I just couldn’t see it in the moment. I can now look at my work, however, and even if I see areas that need improvement, I can also see what’s working. I’m at the point where I can appreciate more about myself and my paintings than I ever could. I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been in the studio.
AM: How has the teaching process helped you in your own art practice?
SB: Teaching in moderation is fantastic. It keeps you in touch with driven and interesting people who are following their passion and vision. The people here at The Florence Academy are doing something they really want to be doing, and to know I’m helping to facilitate that chase for them is incredibly rewarding. Daniel Graves, Susan Tintori, and Simona Dolci did that for me, and it helped immensely in forming the person I am today.
AM: Can you remember a defining season or experience that took you from the work you were doing in your twenties, post-student, to the work you are doing now?
SB: I can’t really pinpoint a defining moment, the process was so convoluted and full of grayness. One determining factor that I know allowed me to embrace my own vision was my wife Cornelia. Whatever faith I did not have in myself, she had for me. That’s how I started to grow in confidence as an artist. Cornelia has made the biggest change in my life. Having someone who loves and supports you like that, it’s indescribable. Whenever this question comes up, I can only talk about her.
Although there were some exceptions along the way, the first painting I did where I felt I diverged from those sort of generic still lifes and works of my early years was a painting of Cornelia around 2010 or 2011. I knew how to paint the appearance of someone: the structure of the head, the features, the proportions. But I started to ask, What if you’re painting a portrait of the most important person in your life? How do you paint what she means to you instead of strictly what she looks like? I decided I would create attributes that were rather exaggerated: glistening and glittering, along with creating a magical setting. For the first time, I was depicting the world as it looked through the lens of my own vision. This is very exciting to me as a realist painter: that balance of recreating what it look likes in reality while incorporating what I see in my imagination.
AM: Let’s end with a few “lightening-round” questions. Try to answer in one word, or in a short sentence.
AM: Classical or Contemporary?
AM: Line or Color?
AM: Form or Atmosphere?
AM: Most underrated artist currently living?
SB: Charles Weed
AM: What painting do you wish you had never sold?
SB: When I Was Young
AM: What is the best art advice you were ever given?
SB: This is going to take more than one word. And the advice wasn’t direct, it was peripheral. Someone had asked Daniel Graves, “What’s the hardest thing to paint?” I thought to myself at the time, That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard, and how is he going to answer that? But Daniel, all credit to this man, replied: “Something that you’re not in love with.” And I thought, Wow, he just turned trash to gold with that answer.
AM: Best years of your life so far?
SB: These years
AM: Best artistic years of your life so far?
SB: These years
AM: Best painting you ever painted?
SB: Hasn’t been painted yet
AM: Worst painting you ever painted?
SB: There have been so many
AM: Best decision you ever made related to your life and your art?
SB: Marrying Cornelia
AM: True or false: Representational art is having a “renaissance/resurgence?”
SB: Everybody says so
AM: True or false: Art history will record or remember the realism/representational art movement that is happening amid the current mainstream “contemporary” art movement
SB: It has to. Doesn’t it?
AM: Best advice you would give to a young student considering pursing a life as a professional artist?
SB: I want to give two pieces of advice. They are not the ultimate answer, but they will not lead you astray:
1. Learn to draw really well
2. Believe in yourself