At his first one-man show, at Phyllis Kind Gallery in 1990, artist Stephen Warde Anderson was the toast of Chicago. “They put me up in a fancy hotel,” he remembers. “Had the opening and a big dinner afterward with a dozen people. They said, ‘It did well. Here’s another check for $1,000.'”
Anderson sold 30 paintings at that exhibit, but by 1992, when he had his second show, the art-world climate had begun to change, as had his opening receptions. “That time it was a smaller dinner and no hotel. And the next time, in ’95, no dinner and no hotel.
“But you know,” Anderson says, between fits of cackling, “that was a nice start. You wanted that at first, but those things aren’t important to you afterwards.”
The 1980s were bull market years for folk and outsider art. At the height of collectors’ interest the creations of self-taught eccentrics couldn’t be produced fast enough to meet demand, so gallery owners descended upon Small Town, USA, turning over every stone in the hope of finding the next Howard Finster. Anderson’s rock didn’t get kicked until 1988, right when the prospective market for his work was beginning to dry up.
Anderson is a small, frighteningly pale man in his late 40s, though he looks much, much younger. With wispy red hair and thick square glasses he evokes a goyish Woody Allen. He’s never been married, never had kids or a job, and, except for a four-year stint in the navy–spent mostly on a guided missile frigate stationed near Athens–has never lived outside the redbrick house his father built at the top of a hill in Rockford. He lives with his mother, brother, sister, and a remarkable number of stuffed animals.
He paints in his bedroom–which with its red velvet curtains and yellowing wallpaper resembles a turn-of-the-century bordello–from ten at night to three in the morning. He sleeps until noon and does pencil work during daylight hours, taking breaks for Cubs games or to watch a movie. His trademark work, which he has returned to lately, is portraits of classic film actresses (Kim Novak, Greta Garbo), female singers (Karen Carpenter, Enya), and figure skaters (Tonya Harding).
Though sales at Anderson’s recent shows have been sparse, he isn’t disappointed with the modesty of his success. In fact, if he’d been born 50 years earlier he probably wouldn’t be painting at all. “I have more talent for writing songs than anything else,” he says, “but people don’t want Irving Berlin songs today. People want ‘Songs of Cole Porter,’ not ‘Songs by Obscure Undiscovered Songwriter Who Is Just as Good as Cole Porter.'”
He isn’t returning to his earlier subject matter just because it sells. “You have a sort of menu of things you want to do,” he says. “You look through the menu and say, well, people don’t like that, maybe I’ll lay off that one a bit. People really seem to be liking this one, so maybe I’ll do a few more of those. And once in a while people don’t really like this one, but I wanna do it really badly so I’ll do it anyway.”
What people like, he says, are his portraits, rendered in gouache or alkyds and pencil–“Haunted Heroines,” he calls them, “women who have been obsessed, possessed, bedeviled, or tormented by memory, by tragedy, by past love, by the mystical…or by supernatural entities.” And what he’s after in his paintings, and what he believes people respond to in them, is not so much the physical likenesses of his subjects as the way they capture a mood.
He has a hard time knowing when they’re finished. “The last work with the portraits is in pencil, and you can infinitely work with pencil. Change the shape of that nostril,” he says, gesturing at an imaginary face, “change the shading of that cheek or chin, the corner of that mouth.
“The slightest mark,” he says, “can change the entire picture.”
Anderson’s show of new work, “Haunted Heroines,” opens Friday, September 13, with a reception from 6 to 9 PM at Aron Packer Gallery, 118 N. Peoria, and runs through October 12. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 to 5:30, or by appointment; call 312-226-8984 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ulysses Smith.