You’ve likely seen him marching purposefully downtown in bare feet until the first snowfall, with thick glasses and long hair, bearded and braided, in a big army overcoat brightly embellished with red fabric swatches. Hartley Stephenson is his own man, a proud man, opinionated, and wildly creative, a free spirit if there ever was one.
I was privileged to visit his studio at the Mount, where he has been working for the last four years. The walls and surfaces are covered with his art—melted vinyl records, cast-off metal and cement made into sculptures. The floor is a festive patchwork of vintage linoleum, and a large beater used in paper making sits to one side. Much of his work is a wry commentary on political and social absurdity.
His creations are wholly original. A Rube Goldberg installation created with Gillian Turnham entitled The Fall careened down the central staircase at Erring on the Mount with marbles and slinkies, paying homage to the late Brion Wagner, whose collection of ephemera Stephenson inherited. The sculpture he exhibited at Star X for the Precarious Festival’s Salon des Refusés was an intricate castle made of stitched-together reel-to-reel film strips, complete with staircase, drawbridge, and bannered turrets, suitably titled Castle Film.
Stephenson came to Peterborough at the age of 19 to study biology at Trent, but soon found himself disaffected by scholastic limitations, and also influenced by the presence of multimedia artists like Dorothy Caldwell, Joe Lewis, and Dennis Tourbin.
Stephenson became something of a citizen scientist, exploring the intersections of art and science with acts of guerilla gardening, yard art sales, and art installations, like a transitory 3-by-12-foot wall that he built of discarded television sets.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Dadaists, [and their] way of describing the world outside where the status quo is,” says Stephenson.
He works exclusively with found materials—metal mesh, vinyl records, birchbark, concrete, paper, and industrial waste. Renovations at the Mount have provided a steady stream of materials. He shows me a big piece of sheet metal, stating, “They were throwing it out at Sadleir House. There was also a big sheet of plywood but I had no way to get it here.”
Stephenson recalls, “I used to curate shows in the early 2000s with a friend of mine, Terry McCue. We had a little series called Mystic Funk. We’d get a bunch of artists to pay a small fee, rent a space, buy a bunch of food and booze, have an opening. I think the longest was for a week, usually just for a couple of days. We did close to a dozen. The worst attended was about 15 people and the best attended was about 300. It was great. We had pottery, we had illustration, we had painting, all kinds of media. Everything from high school students to people who had been doing it for years.”
His relationship with music grew as well, starting the Noise Band with former Artspace director David LaRiviere and Brion Wagner, an ongoing, open-ended jam with up to 15 musicians, which had regular gigs at the former Spill. “At one point it was just me for awhile; now it’s about three or four of us.” He played anything from trombone to a pop bottle on a stick, a hammer on a beer bottle, or a keyboard, looping tracks of old jams on a cassette player, singing and repeating fragments of songs, or breaking words down phonetically and yelling the phonemes. It was part sonic sculpture, part sound poetry, that functioned much as a religious or ritualistic experience.
As a community-minded curator, Stephenson has organized his low-barrier, anything-goes, Get Your Art On community exhibition for the third consecutive year, in the chapel at the Mount, which runs from May 18 through May 20, 10am to 4pm. For a $15 entry fee, artists can display and keep 100% of any sales of their work. Featuring 30 to 40 artists, the exhibition is an opportunity to see work that is outside the mainstream, and converse with the artists in person about their work. They run the gamut from professional to emerging to outsider artists, and Get Your Art On is an excellent way to discover local talent that flies under the radar, not the least of which is Stephenson’s own work.
“I wanted to be a scientist because I wanted to know the world and I wanted to contribute, do something meaningful. Being an artist was something I could do that was meaningful that didn’t involve prostituting myself, I could just do it.
“You don’t need any institution to make art, you can just make it,” says Stephenson. “I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m not a brand, I’m not a grant writer. I don’t see why that should have anything to do with making art.”
Get Your Art On Volume III takes place May 18 to 20 at the Mount Community Center Chapel, 1545 Monaghan Road (more info).
Photos by Ann Jaeger.