Editor's note: The name of the gallery was missing from the original version of this story. It has now been added.
Native son Robert Stephenson, a retired 76-year-old Army sergeant major, began delving into art as a 8-year-old boy when his mother took him to charcoal drawing lessons with noted American artist Alice Beach Winter in East Gloucester.
“That studio was a magic place and is, in part, why I am an artist today. It was filled with costumes and suits of armor,” he said of the studio his teacher shared with her husband, Charles Allen Winter, another noted American painter .
When he was a young man, more than 50 years ago, he painted a serpentine sea creature on a boulder at Cressy’s Beach.
In his 27 years of active duty, which took him to Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near and Far East, he kept his drawing skills quiet in his own “don’t ask, don’t tell” mode.
“I haven’t been to Cape Cod but I’ve been through the Khyber Pass,” said Stephenson of the mountain pass that connects Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When he retired, he began a second career as a painter, catching the attention of viewers for decades. Most recently, the owners of a new Rockport gallery, called iartcolony, were invited to see one of his paintings by a friend of the artist and were stunned by the originality of his work.
“We had never seen anything like it. It left such an impression on us that we knew we had to see more. The work we found in Bob’s studio blew us away— our first instinct was that others needed to see these paintings. He captured the magical and mythical aura of Cape Ann, like no other. He is a truly visionary painter,” said Bob and Jill Armstrong, the gallery owners.
Stephenson paints landscapes, still life and figures. Many works contain minute images of people, giving perspective to the painting.
The public opening reception for this show takes place at the Rockport gallery, located at 42 Broadway, on Saturday, July 21, at 6 p.m.
Stephenson grew up on Mansfield Street, attended school here and won the coveted Sawyer Medal for academic excellence.
After he graduated from Gloucester High in 1955, he joined the Army, and soonafter was shipped overseas
“I can get seasick looking at the water, but I have more sea time than some people in the Navy,” he joked.
His mother’s family has been here for more than 200 years. Her name was Cora Lincoln Douglas. “My grandfather was the first sergeant of Company G, the Gloucester Company, in the Grand Army of the Republic. He said he was going to name his first child after the president,” he said.
His recalled that his father, Charles Stephenson, was a navy commander, and a graduate of Annapolis naval academy. He later served in the foreign service, and died when Robert was 7 years old. The family had been living in Georgetown but moved back to Gloucester after his death.
Much of Stephenson’s 27 years of service was spent in the East, which sparked his interest in Buddhism. His home and studio has an oriental flair and is filled with statues of the Buddha. His picture window on Parsons Street looks across the harbor. During a recent interview at his home, he pointed up to a white circular Chinese lantern, saying he needed to hang it because everything else in his living space is square.
One item of note in his home is his color palette, which he estimates to weigh more than 65 pounds.
“The day I discovered that the best surface on which to mix paint is other paint, is the day I decided I’m never cleaning the palette again. If it fell on your foot, you’d be crippled,” he joked.
After the service, Stephenson began studying under Rockport artist John Terelak, and has been mentored by another noted Rockport artist, Tom Nicholas. He later would become a teacher himself; one of the paintings in the show was created when he was teaching a class at the oceanfront at Bass Rocks when he decided to paint the class. The resulting image shows the expansive pounding surf dotted with artists at their easels.
At one point in his early career, Stephenson became the artist-in-residence at the Fitz Henry Lane House overlooking Gloucester Harbor, and he was active in the art community. He was a member of the North Shore, Rockport and Hudson Valley art associations, The International Society of Marine Painters, and Academic Artists of America. His work has received numerous awards.
Nicholas, who earned recognition as a National Academician, said Stephenson’s style defies a name.
“He’s a very original painter and a very intelligent man. He has his own way of doing things and he improvises his subject matter. He’s so unqiue that it’s awful hard to put a label to him. He’s adventurous and will try anything,” said Nicholas. “When he studied with me, I didn’t want to get in his way. When someone has their own way of doing things, it’s best for the teacher to stand back and not intrude.”
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000, ext 3445, or email@example.com.
If you go What and who: "Visions of Cape Ann and Beyond," an exhibit of visionary oil paintings of Robert Stephenson, a Cape Ann artist and Gloucester native. When: Free public opening reception is Saturday, July 21, at 6 p.m. Where: The art colony gallery at 42 Broadway in Rockport. How much: Free to the public. Details: The show, which runs to Aug. 4, also include works of Jill Whitney Armstrong. For more information, visit iartcolony.com.