Stephen and Linda Hall, Tucson, ArizonaStephen and Linda Hall, Tucson, Arizona

 

 

I was born healthy with good genes and a cowlick in the bluegrass of Henry County, Kentucky on St. Patrick's Day. I am of the seventh generation born and raised in Henry County since my ancestor, David Hall, entered Kentucky in 1769 through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone from the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina.

I first knew I would become an artist in Mrs. Brown's fourth grade class at New Castle Grade School. Impressed, or maybe frustrated, with my drawings in the margins of my papers and books, she recommended to my mother that I take art lessons. At the age of ten, I began private lessons copying Currier & Ives prints. After school, I rode the bus from my hometown to the small farming community where Mrs. George Boyer taught both children and adults the fine points of oil painting.

The Boyer’s large Victorian house fronted at the end of Main Street. Their cattle farm spread out behind in the pastoral blue grass. The studio, a large sunroom, looked out onto the green pastures. In the center was a huge country dinning table. We sat around it with our canvas boards flat upon it and a lazy Susan in the center stocked with communal art supplies. The atmosphere was like a Sunday dinner with the family. “Pass the yellow ochre, please.” “May I have some of that yummy beet red ?” Sitting elbow to elbow, we learned as much from each other as we did from Mrs. Boyer.

When the weather was fair we would paint en plein air or peinture sur le motif (“painting on the ground” as my French language arts teacher would say). We roamed the farm fields looking for suitable subjects or grand vistas dotted with cattle. Generally, I would set up under a tree with my back braced against the trunk and my canvas board in my lap. It wouldn’t be long before a curious Gurnsey cow would work her way over to me and block my view or step on my tubes of paint. From this experience, I decided to become a studio painter.

I studied with Mrs. Boyer until high school. And then it happened—the best of all possible worlds. To my small Kentucky high school came an honest-to-goodness art teacher, Mademoiselle Joanna, from Paris, France. It was love at first sight. She was young, petite and beautiful with a classic French accent, yet, softer and sexier. But best of all, she could draw and paint horses.

As a Kentucky artist born in the horse country of the Bluegrass, I have always been ashamed that I can’t draw a horse. Joanna tried without success to teach me the basics of horse anatomy. Despite my love of horses, to this day I’ve never been able to draw one properly. In other aspects of French I excelled: I learned the difference between Manet and Monet; I read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, cover to cover in the original French; and, I dined on escargot for the first time—surprisingly tasty.

Feeling confident in my natural talent for art and the superb instruction from my art teachers, I applied to a museum school, the Art Academy of Cincinnati in Eden Park. This was a special moment for me and I knew it would set the course of my future life. After a nervous two-hour-drive, my mother and I arrived at the imposing Cincinnati Art Museum. We were scheduled to meet with Professor Julian Stanczak, but he was absent. We met instead with another professor of painting. The interview and portfolio review lasted all of five minutes. In a manner that can only be described as dismissive, the professor said that I had no talent for art or painting.

That rejection took the wind out my sails for about two years. Deflated, but not defeated, I transferred from community college to the Allen R. Hite Art Institute of the University of Louisville as a fine arts major in painting. My painting professsor, Mary Spencer Nay, was a nationally noted painter herself, and the wife of painter, photographer, and muralist, Lou Block. Mr. Block, along with Ben Shahn, worked with Diego Rivera on the murals for Rockefeller Center. Their work for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression era was a large influence on my future career.

U of L was expanding. Whole blocks between the university and downtown had been razed by urban renewal. In the middle of this stood the studio arts building—a very old, three-story home—looking like a postwar painting by Ben Shann. The basement contained printing presses, along with tens of thousands of metal foundry types and wood types for the graphic arts classses. Classroom instruction was held in the first floor rooms. The upper floors housed the art studios. If you walked into the building blindfolded, you would know where you were by smell alone.

Art class was nothing like I expected. It was very unstructured, and we were left to develop our own study plan. It seemed natural to start at the begining of the art making process—making my own canvases instead of store bought. Through research at the art library, I learned the old Renaissance masters’ way of doing it. To this day, my canvases made at college are still tight and square without blemish. They’re superior to anything commercially made then or now.

U of L’s art library opened up the world of art to me. My French art teacher in high school had given me a good foundation of the Impressionists, but here I learned about Fauvism and painters like Matisse and Bonnard, the “wild beasts” of color. I became infatuated with the abstract expressionsts, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. I especially liked Kline for the studied simplicity of his black and white “action” paintings. While they appeared to be spontaneous, I could see that an underlying design was present. Other painters that influenced me greatly were the Dutch painter, Karel Appel and the Spaniard, Joan Miró, along with Jean Dubuffet of France. But, the one that I connected with most was the American artist, Ben Shann. His ability to tell a story with a few strokes of the brush, has had the most influence on my visual career.

Feeling good about art again, I began to paint passionately. I even enjoyed my art history classes despite my difficulty understanding the foreign-born professors. Unfortunately, the good feeling was short-lived.

I enrolled in a printmaking class with a popular U of L teacher, Henry Chodkowski, to learn woodcut engraving and intaglio printing. At our first class, he handed out 6” x 6” greased plates for us to etch at home before the next class. I was fired up for the challenge. Using a nail, I scratched out a Matisse-like impression of a wicker rocker next to a potted plant. Happy with my little piece of art, I turned it in looking forward to the etching and printing process. However, professor Chodkowski was not pleased. He wiped the plate clean, saying “This is not art. I think it would be better if you dropped the class.” Once more into the quagmire of doubt, I questioned my artistic abilities.

Looking for answers, I sought out fine arts painting majors who had recently graduated. Our conversations typically went like this: I asked, “How’s it going? What are you doing now?” They replied, “Great, just great! I’m selling insurance.” Or, “waiting tables,” or whatever it took to pay the bills. Painting was pushed aside to the weekends or after work, almost as a hobby. No one that I spoke to was earning their living by their art.

The art bubble burst, and my great expectations were washed away.

Into this void, came a brilliant teacher, Robert J. Doherty (Bob), chairman of the U of L fine arts department. He was a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (BFA) and Yale University (MFA). In additon to his excellent academic credentials, he had made a national reputation as an expert in the use of aluminum in product and packaging design. Doherty was recently awarded by U of L the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa in recognition of his lifetime of contributions to photography, design, typography and letter press, and historic preservation, as well as his inspiration and mentoring of students, professionals, and institutions in these fields.

Bob became my mentor during and after college. The most important lesson that I learned from him was how to define and solve a problem, whether it was designing a bolt, a bridge or a brand. Under his tutelage, I was awarded the Fetter Printing Company Scholarship Award—the first of over 200 national awards for my creativity.

I had shown an affinity for book design in classwork. As a result, Bob introduced me to Carolyn Reading Hammer, a noted fine book printer, and the work of her mentor and husband, Victor Hammer. Victor was an Austrian-born American painter, sculptor, printer, and typographer. Carolyn founded the King Library Press in 1956 at the University of Kentucky, and later became the University of Kentucky Libraries’ curator of rare books.

Carolyn shared with me the print work of her husband, all of which was done on a hand press with hand-made paper, and using type faces that he had designed. He also excelled at engraving detailed mezzotints and painting iconic, classical works of art. He originally set up his press, Stamperia del Santuccio, in Florence, Italy and then emigrated to the United States in 1938.

Carolyn and Bob encouraged me to try my hand at publishing. With their support, I published The Florentine Year, a 32-page case bound book of poetry, by Madeline Cundiff in my senior year. When I say published, I mean that I did everything except author the book: I designed the layout; set by hand the foundry type; set up the Vandercook hand press for the text pages and the Chandler & Price Platen Press for the cover pages; and printed by hand a limited, letterpress edition of 200 copies on Japanese handmade rice paper.

The publishing process took six months—mostly due to logistics. Dario Covi, Madeline’s husband and a professor of art history at U of L, was on a sabbatical year in Florence, Italy. Since I only had enough foundry type to set four pages, I would pull a 4-page proof and mail it to Madeline in Florence. She would proof for typos and mail back. Whereupon, I would print 225 sheets and then distribute the type back into its case. Afterwhich, I would set another four pages and the proofing and printing process would begin again.

The success of this publishing project launched my career into graphic design and marketing. Bob recommended me to David R. Godine to head up his fine book letterpress operation in Boston. I was twenty-three at the time. David, not much older than myself, was already established as a fine book publisher. His printing operation was located in a quaint red barn in Brookline, Massachuesetts where he printed mostly limited editions on handmade paper.

In the summer of ‘71, my wife, Linda, and I drove up to Boston to look over the press and talk with David about the opportunity. Afterward, we drove up to Bob’s summer house near the coast in New Hampshire to review our thoughts with him. The next morning, after several servings of Bob’s fabulous blueberry pancakes, we started back to Lousiville in our Triumph TR6 sports car. With the top down, we cruised US 1A along the coast stopping at every beach to sunbath, swim and sketch from New Hampshire to Virginia. Despite the chance to work with some very talented creative people, I decided to pass on the opportunity. I was concerned that I would be trapped in production, and not able to use my art talent.

Bob continued to push me forward. He sponsored my application to Yale University’s MFA program. My rejection came as no surprise­ to me—it was to be expected by now. Then, another door opened. Lousiville Magazine contacted Bob looking for an art director.

Here was an opportunity to work in both areas of interest—my new found talent for publishing and my passion for creating art. I was able to illustrate covers and articles, as well as design and layout the monthly, life-style magazine. I illustrated several Kentucky Derby issues including the cover for the one-hundredth running of the Derby. Because I signed my illustrations as S. Hall, the editor, Betty Lou Amster, started calling me “shall” in our editorial meetings. The name stuck, and I continue to sign all of my work as Shall. 

Louisville Magazine was the platform that I built my creative career on. Two years after signing on, I formed my own design firm and retained the magazine as a client for the next thirteen years. In my publishing career, I was able to redesign and art direct over 45 regional and national magazines. In addition, I launched Kentucky Lawyer and Kentucky Business Monthly; consulted with Spain’s Ministry of Education and Science for over fourteen years regarding their USA publishing program; and purchased Annapolis Magazine and Eastern Shore Magazine. 

While I had been detoured from a fine art career, the foundation I received in art and business prepared me to enter the fine art world. So in 2003, to fulfill the dream of my youth, I developed a 5-year plan to transition from publishing to fine art.

Part II to come.