‘We are made of star stuff’

PT painter Stephen Yates views the universe through an abstract lens

Posted 10/9/19

When Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, Stephen Yates and his entire generation were struck by awe and trepidation you can still see in his latest series of paintings on display in Port Hadlock.

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‘We are made of star stuff’

PT painter Stephen Yates views the universe through an abstract lens

Posted

When Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, Stephen Yates and his entire generation were struck by awe and trepidation you can still see in his latest series of paintings on display in Port Hadlock.

“It was very big in the consciousness of people,” said Yates, an acrylic painter in Port Townsend who was just 7 years old when the first artificial satellite began circling the Earth. It was anxiety-inducing as a child and then it became a symbol of pride.”

The anxiety was no stranger to Yates and his friends as they were growing up in the ever-expanding Cold War era.

“It was sort of fear instilling at that point. But, when we became prominent in the Space Race, you got the feeling, ‘This is cool. This will be OK. We are at least even with the Russians. We are not going to fall so far behind that we are in danger.’”

Then came the vibrant and psychedelic 1960s, the Saturn V rocket program and classic sci-fi TV series.

“The first one was ‘Lost in Space,’” Yates said. “That was the big one when I was a kid. Then, in my teenage years we got ‘Star Trek.’ They all sort of build on each other.”

Yates was also an avid reader of “Asimov’s Science Fiction,” an American science fiction magazine.

The combination of real life space exploration and sci-fi fantasy would have a lasting impact in Yates and his art, including his latest series, “Cosmology,” he said.

The works of Yates, Harold Nelson and Peter Juvonen are on display this month at the Old Alcohol Plant Art Gallery.

An abstract view of the heavens

Yates’ work is all non-technical, he said. “I understand the rudimentary ideas about space travel and the sci-fi ideas of time warp and black holes is all interesting to me, but I have taken a whimsical look at it through my art.”

Yates said he does not approach the realm of space exploration in his paintings in an overly dry scientific manner.

“None of them feel very serious to me. They feel like fun pokes at our collective consciousness. Things about space and time and movements and all of those things. All of those ideas, I think are sort of tied up in what I am doing but I don’t want it to be explicit.”

As such, Yates shies away from photo-like representations of stellar phenomena.

“I am not painting explicit nebula,” he said. “That doesn’t interest me too much and I come out of a background of abstract expressionism. That was just fading out when I went to art school.”

Yates received his undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and a master’s in painting and drawing at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

“During the time I was in college when I really formed a lot of my ideas it was going into more neo-figurative work and that sort of thing that didn’t appeal to me,” Yates said. “So I, for most of my career, have been using gesture and gestural type paintings and relying on intuition as a tool to help me create a piece.”

Yates said he begins each piece with a single color or shape and adds details until the painting is completed.

“It is all cumulative. I add and take away until I come up with something that seems it should be.”

Recently, Yates has been exploring a new method of adding to his paintings; spray paint.

“I just bought like 30 colors and started using that to create these drifting transitions of color that are very fun,” he said. “Once you know it is there you can start spotting it.”

For Yates, the whole creative process keeps him returning to the canvas over and over again.

“I like the discovery process,” he said. “I am not interested in replicating imagery from the world around me.”

The process of self-discovery through art ties directly back into Yates’ childhood, during which he witnessed man begin stepping into the heavens for the first time.

A logical universe

In Yates’ current series, “Cosmology,” the artist juxtaposes elements of space with elements on a micro-scale.

“A lot of earlier pieces in this series have a microbiology component,” he said. “Some of the paintings have what I would consider little amoebas or protozoa moving through them. But then, on a larger scale, it could be things darting through outer space.”

Objects, even organisms, seen under a microscope can be almost indistinguishable from those seen in the cosmos, Yates said.

“There are a lot of image references back and forth, and that always gives me a thrill. It is all interconnected.”

In other words, logical, Yates said.

“There must be some sort of connection between the nano, the micro and the macro. There are all these different levels organized around similar principles.”

That probably includes the very elements humans are made of, Yates said.

“We are stardust and that has been put into our consciousness, in a way.”

Is that an oil painting or a collage?

Nearby in the Port Hadlock show are works by Harold Nelson that can be mistaken for a painting.

“That is the cool thing about it,” Nelson said. “You look at it from across the room and it looks like an oil painting.”

In reality, the works consist of hundreds or thousands of cutouts from various magazines placed on a board and sealed with acrylic matte gel.

“If you use it alone, you can dilute it and it basically dries clear,” Nelson said. “You put a few coats of acrylic varnish over it.”

The pieces are so unique, the viewer may see something entirely different each time they look at one, Nelson said, or even mistake it for a new work.

“When Stephen comes over to the studio sometimes, he looks at a piece and says, ‘Is that new? Have I seen that one before?’ He has seen it before but it looks brand new.”

A viewer can spend an hour staring at one piece because there is so much going on, Nelson said.

“That is the fun part of it. My whole approach to wall art is it should be something you really want to look at.”

Nelson describes his work as abstract expressionism.

“My favorite artists are from that period (including) Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell,” Nelson said. “I used to go to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and stand in front of the Jackson Pollock pieces.”

For his own works, they could provide a glimpse into Nelson’s subconscious and the sometimes interconnected yet unrelated thoughts that fire through the synapses.

“The brain is such an amazing thing,” he said. “We know so little about how it actually works. The great part is when you are really into the creation of art, your conscious mind kind of shuts off. You just do things, unaware, until you step back away from it and look at ‘em.”

Nordic abstractionism

The three-man show’s third artist, Juvonen, is inspired by traditional art from Finland stretching back over four centuries.

“I was born in Finland but hadn’t been back for 60 years,” Juvonen said. “My wife and I went back for my 65th birthday and I was very heavily moved by a Finnish art form called Ryijy.”

A ryijy is a long-tufted tapestry or knotted-pile carpet hanging unique to the Nordic country. In the late 1800s, the art form was adopted as folk art.

“What is interesting to me is they have been around since the 1600s, but they were all abstract,” Juvonen said. “It is very rare to find artwork from this portion of history that is abstract.”

Juvonen said he was so inspired by the style he created about 50 ryijy-inspired paintings in the year after he returned from his trip.

“Some of them are tribal. Some of them are reminiscent of Finland with snow, and some of them are based on my imagination.”

A cosmic showing

The works of Stephen Yates, Harold Nelson and Peter Juvonen are on display this month at the Old Alcohol Plant Art Gallery, 310 Hadlock Bay Road, Port Hadlock.

The gallery, located on the second floor of the main building, is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information call 360-390-4017 or visit oldalcoholplant.com.

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