DENTON — Stephen Mead appreciates color in an intense and intimate way. Where most of us see blue, he sees myriad possibilities of blue. He also takes cues from abstract expressionism to create dynamic, non-representational portraits of people. He is more interested in what the person feels like than the mere topography of their body. And he does more than paint.
He studied art at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. And he got his master’s at George Washington University in Special Education for emotional and behavioral disabilities. He taught art to special education students who had clinical diagnoses like depression. Back when Mead was in college, he studied medical illustration, which is a super specific and detailed way of seeing form. He taught art in the DC area.
Mead had the honor of being one of only two Caroline County artists to be included in First Lady Yumi Hogan’s book of Maryland artists.
Hogan said, “’Artists of Maryland: Visual Art’ is a collection of images representing artists from every region — from the mountains of Western Maryland to the beaches of the Eastern Shore. You will notice there is an abundance of talent in our state so it was a pleasurable task to curate the work for this book. Creativity and creative people are vital to Maryland’s economy and communities and it is an honor to feature 52 works of art by 52 artists in these pages.”
“I had artwork at the Foundry,” Mead said. “They went to the Arts Council looking for two artists and I was chosen. That was it.”
One can not live on abstract expression alone. To make a living, Mead works for Walpole. The malleability of this artist is impressive. Once one medium is mastered, the following ones can be too. In a way, he is making sculpture for people’s outdoor spaces.
“We do custom outdoor structures, pergolas, fences. We design them and sell them, and it works out great. I go to customers’ houses and go over different designs as we sketch things up and come up with a plan. Then they decide to contact the work or not,” he said.
He has been at it for 19 years and really seems to enjoy it.
The precision of that job is balanced by the freedom of his huge canvases. Meade dwells in a non-representational abstract expressionist realm. For art historians out there, think Kandinsky or de Kooning. Mead’s canvases are floor-to-ceiling big and filled with vibrant brush strokes and kinetic color. They are portaits, but more about the sitter’s energy than their form. He did one of his wife, who happens to be a belly dancer.
“My wife brought belly dancing to Caroline County, which is a wild thing. They weren’t used to belly dancing when she first came. It’s a good work out, and it’s fun. She has about nine students,” he said. The students range from 20 to 70 years old.
Before moving to Denton, Mead lived in DC.
They discovered Denton in a lucky way. He had a flat tire right near the Bay Bridge. He told the repairman that he was looking for a small town to live in. He had already considered Easton, but the tire guy said, “Go to Denton’”and the rest is history.
“These portraits are inspired by medical illustration. You can see the inner working of the body. This is a portrait of my wife and cats dancing. I always felt like a portrait or self portrait doesn’t have to be an accurate depiction of what somebody looks like. Sometimes it’s a feeling. Sometimes it’s a way to express who that person is,” Mead said.
He said his favorite artist is Mark Rothko, who died in 1974 and was a color field painter. He made hypnotic large canvases of rectangles of color. They seem to breath when you see them.
“If you go to a room with all Rothkos, it is an experience. It is like going to church — like an art church,” he said.
“I like to use a lot of primary colors. They are deeper, richer colors. It’s kind of an odd thing, but I feel like they don’t lie. I like the idea of primary colors because it is a little bit more raw experience,” he said.
He hangs the canvases on the wall to paint them. He has always worked big.
“I like the whole experience of it. The larger motions when I am painting because I am not someone who paints with a lot of detail. I am more broad stoke in the way that I paint. To me I can get a little more energy and a little more emotion in something like this,” he said.
It is interesting how non-representational work can hit you in a different way. The brain wants to find order and categorize, but this artist’s vision resists that logic stream. He is more interested in rawness and feeling than empirical rendering.
Caroline County has embraced his work.
“The Foundry here in Denton, which is part of the Caroline County Council of the Arts, I have some stuff there. They carry a lot of interesting things. So it is not all more conservative artwork. They have some pretty wild stuff too. It is a neat place, and Nicholas Tindall is great. Not a lot of my stuff sells there. It is difficult to fit into a car. It is good to be out there and have people enjoy your work,” he said.
He even melds sculpture and painting together by stretching canvases in three dimensions. So the painting comes off the wall toward the viewer on multiple facets like a crystal.
“I have done some pretty tall free standing sculptures on canvas too. One was 13 feet high. I just like to challenge myself with something different. Rectangles aren’t always what I am into,” Mead said.
He even took his knowledge of human anatomy to make a skeleton chair. The whole thing is made of two by fours glued together and then chiseled. And he took a propane torch to it to give it a little more contrast.
“I was cleaning it off with mineral spirits, and then I hit it with a torch. It was like a big explosion. Life would be so boring without art,” he said.
There is a good community of artists for Mead to connect with. They are not all necessarily painting on canvas.
“I meet a lot of woodworkers. People with various art backgrounds. Not everybody is an abstract expressionist. I like everything. I can appreciate all different forms of art. It is a good community. There are lots of good people,” Mead said.
His bucket list project is to do a really big wooden sculpture. He would get a steam box so he could bend the wood.
“We have a lot of cats. We have seven cats. We love them all. My wife is a board member on the humane society. I think seven is the limit,” he said.