Stephen Warde Anderson is my favorite artist. He has the aesthetic of a man who is easy to imagine as a child prodigy, spending his youth playing chess with army commanders, and later piloting a single-engine airplane as a teenager.
Anderson makes his own clothes so that he can afford to look like he’s ready to sip brandy with conductor of the New York Philharmonic at any time.
He calls himself an outsider artist. Anderson sits on his bed all day and paints portraits of French nobles and New England sea captains.
When he paints fifteenth century French monks, it’s probably because, he maintains, he probably broke bread with them in a past life that he claims to remember.
I went to the home he shares with his mother and siblings in Rockford to talk to him about naïve classicism, outsider art and solving world’s problems. He is far cooler and more interesting than most of my closest friends.
Ben Majoy: Hey man. I’ve been a fan of your work for quite some time, but I’ve never been able to really identify why. I love outsider art and lowbrow art, but stuff I like usually seems to be really modern or at least oriented with modern imagery. Your work, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be an attempt to be modern as much as it’s an attempt to be classical.
Stephen Warde Anderson: Yeah. It’s kind of like a folk art attempt at classicism. Someone described my work as naïve classicism once and I thought, “Yeah that seems kind of right.” When you say classicism, you think more in terms of realism. When you paint in tempera on museum board though, it comes out a lot different than when you paint oil on canvas. You get a different look; a more saturated look on the museum board because it soaks into the surface instead of lying on top.
BM: You definitely seem to dwell on the idea of classical, but you jump around time periods. What is it about the idea of classical that is so attractive to you?
SWA: I think classical is tending towards beauty, tending towards stylized to a certain extent, trying to capture the quintessence rather than how it looks at a particular time or space. I think I try to get that in my work, trying to capture the element of what a person is, rather than what they look like. It’s a matter of harmony and balance in composition.
BM: The way I describe it to my friends is that it’s like if you went into a wealthy New England family’s home with an aging empire of old money, they would have one of your paintings above their mantle. It would be a picture of the family overlooking the seaside in 1500s France or something like that. There’s a certain kitsch to it I think.
SWA: Yeah, I don’t think it’s very self-important.
SWA: Oh yeah! The last one I did was from a guy who wanted me to paint his children. He gave me a photo. They were all on the couch in sweatshirts and I was like, “I can’t paint this,” so I made them medieval. I made the boy a knight and I made his daughter a princess.
BM: That totally rules. I would love for you to paint a picture of me. If I didn’t give you any direction, what would you paint me as?
SWA: I’d look at you and think, “Here’s a Renaissance prince or something.” You’re style is like 1500 or so. In the 1490s, everybody was clean-shaven, but they had shoulder length hair. And then by 1520, everyone had short hair, but beards, so you’re in some sort of an in-between period where they had both.
BM: When I come to money, that painting is totally going to happen. Oh, by the way, speaking of Renaissance princes, in your Web site biography, you mentioned something about remembering your past lives as a 13th century French tailor for the nobility, a 15th century monk or scribe, and a 20th century English butler on a considerable estate. Hmmm…is that for real?
SWA: That happened several years ago. I just started remembering. I’ve tried since then to remember more, but it’s like trying to remember things that happened when you were two or three years old. You just keep grabbing onto the same images and the same memories. It’s kind of interesting because each of the lives that I seem to remember, I have taken something from them. When I was young I wanted to write. I wrote voluminous reviews of every TV show I looked at. I would write with a quill pen or a nib pen, so I feel that I was a scribe or a monk. I remember it. When I was 12 or something, I made maps of old things and I would even put butter on them so that they would look old. I figure I was a tailor because I have this strong desire to make my own clothes. I still make some of them (points to his wardrobe) like this shirt and pants.
BM: Is that why your art has such a classical element to it?
SWA: I think it’s had an impact on what my interests are since I can’t trace them to anything else. All the interests that I’ve had are traceable to the lives that I can recall. I have a deeper connection with the past, because I lived there. I think that most people probably have past lives, but they just don’t remember them, probably not everyone though. You know, I think with the population of the earth being so huge, there must be lot of people who are first timers. Maybe the trouble with the planet is that there are so many people who don’t know how to live because they’ve never done it before.
SWA: I mean, you have heredity, you have the environment, and you have your peers and everyone in your life, but everything that a person is isn’t attributable to just that. I just think the other missing factor is the reincarnation thing. Look at somebody like Mozart. How was he that great genius? He just happens to have the right genes or something? Maybe he just happens to have been a musician in past lives and kept the knowledge, even though it wasn’t tangible in his brain. I just think that a lot of people are like that. Some people just seem to come out and they’re just this full-grown talent of something. I feel that it’s just a continuation of what they learned in the past.
I’d probably be a better artist if I’d been one already, but I know I haven’t done it before. Other things like the tailoring or the writing, they seem familiar. They’re things I’ve done in past lives even though I don’t have a complete and definite memory.
B – You’re an incredibly interesting person. That was way more profound than I was expecting. You’re a like a true renaissance man.
SWA – Eh…maybe a bargain basement one.