Stephen Cook – artist and owner of OneWay Gallery in Narragansett – paints his massive canvases with large, deliberate strokes of charcoal, occasionally mixed with polyurethane, Rustoleum, oil, aluminum or latex paint, graphite, and Elmer’s Glue. He’ll listen to music as he works, but needs to be careful to avoid a shift in genre that will impact the emotion funneling into his work: A change from Eric Prydz to Stone Temple Pilots, for instance, or from Rancid to Lorde ends up filtering into the art itself, as Stephen’s strokes follow the tempo – “similar to a conductor moving his arm,” he says. He will sometimes put songs or albums on repeat to avoid such disruption.
Stephen describes his own work as “aggressive” and “movement-based,” mixed media and large format. Some works incorporate vibrant natural elements like colorful petals and leaves juxtaposed with darkness; some are starkly black and white, with graffiti-style words or phrases provocatively integrated into fluid lines.
The roots of Stephen’s artistic career go deep: He grew up around art, and his mother taught classes at his high school.
“She taught me the importance of negative space, and how there are no mistakes in artwork,” Stephen says. “It’s funny how the little lessons stay with you. Once you get past the idea that you can make a mistake, it gives you more freedom.”
Other influences include Gerhard Richter and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but Stephen credits a major turning point to an offhand comment from professor Grant Hargate during his pursuit of a BFA at Lindenwood University in his home state of Missouri. Stephen already knew he wasn’t interested in drawing realistically, and that he loved foreshortening and understanding scale and volume, but wanted to do it “my own way,” he says. One day, as Stephen made aggressive charcoal marks on a large piece of paper, Hargate commented, “I can teach you about perspective, but I can’t teach you what you’re doing right now.”
Like many, Stephen dreamed of moving to New York City, but his father was from Rhode Island and he’d been visiting since infancy, so he figured moving here after college would be easier and a step closer. One day, as he ate at Crazy Burger in Narragansett, he asked his server about open studio space nearby; there happened to be a large building just a couple of doors down. There was so much space, in fact, that Stephen was able to found OneWay Gallery 14 years ago, which also hosts studio space for local artists and attracts clients from Boston, New York City, San Francisco and other major art cities.
Stephen’s new August solo show, titled Automatic, captures his approach to art and movement and his philosophy that death is an “automatic” result of being born, and reveals a connection to the automatic drawing of the Dadaists and Surrealists. It runs from August 19 to September 30 at OneWay Gallery.