"My work springs from my heart and soul and I give credit to God. I thank God in particular for the blessing of sight..." -Stephen B. Whatley
The Immaculate Heart of Mary, 2010. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24in/76 x 61 cm. Private collection, Ohio, USA
Art Profile by Tony Galcius
The last image – to become indelibly imprinted in the memory of a young 16 year old lad – was that of his mother smiling, waving goodbye and at the same time mouthing “I love you” as the coach pulled away from the station. He was on his way to spend a holiday with his grandmother. Days later, in that summer of 1981, his mother was dead, killed in a car crash at the age of 38. For Stephen B Whatley it was a moment of utter despair and the beginning of years of struggle to keep from drowning in heartbreak.
Looking back on that moment of ineffable trauma, Stephen recalls that “Art saved my life”. Endowed with an extraordinary talent from an early age, he pursued his studies at the Ipswich and Norwich Schools of Art, and finally at the University of London. Accompanying that enormous artistic skill was also a deep sense of the spiritual. He constantly tells you that he “paints from the heart and soul” and you can quite easily and accurately exchange the word ‘paints’ for the word ‘prays’.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of the Americas, 2008. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in/76 x 61 cm.
The evolution of his spiritual life, over the past 20 years, has been chiefly within a Catholic context. This was due to mixing with fellow students who happened to be Catholics, as were the early friends he made. He loved frequenting Catholic churches and was impressed with their beauty. Stephen was attracted to the liturgy, especially the Mass, and moved by the lives of the saints, he formed a habit of prayer until God became totally central to his life. Among the different genres of his works, and they include still-life, portraits, architecture, city and landscapes, the art of the Sacred has a special place. In recent years he has created religious images, which are such explosive examples of a Catholic faith that I was absolutely amazed when he told me that he was only received into the Church at Easter, 2011. The delay was due to his grief at the loss of his mother, an Anglican, who had him baptised ‘Stephen Beckett’, this latter being her own maiden name. The initial ‘B’ therefore has a special significance.
Our Lady of Lourdes, 2011. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in/76 x 61 cm.
Stephen is known as an ‘Expressionist’ painter. According to the Oxford Reference English dictionary, expressionism is characterised ‘by a rejection of traditional ideas of beauty or harmony, and by the use of distortion, exaggeration and other non-naturalistic devices in order to emphasise and express the inner world of emotion rather than any external reality’. Early exemplars of it are the famous El Greco and Van Gogh, among others. The expressionist makes a strong and bold use of red, blue and yellow, often in contrasting juxtaposition, and later fuses them into purples, greens, oranges and browns. The operative phrase from the above definition is “express the inner world of emotion” and this is supremely true of Stephen’s work. Even as he holds the brush in his hand, he is holding his breath so that every mark of paint is exactly located where it should be. Very often, such is the intensity of his skill that he actually feels pain, but discovers that from it wonderful things happen. But above all, permeating every stroke of the brush is prayer, his personal prayer that whoever owns or sees his work of art will be moved by it. He works at great speed but as he finishes, perhaps after seven or eight hours, he is mentally and physically exhausted.
Sarah Greene at her London home in 2006, with her Stephen B Whatley portrait, painted in 1996.
Stephen recounts many incidents of how people, including an atheist art dealer, have been touched by his art. Even more remarkable was what happened as he painted the well known TV presenter and actress, Sarah Greene, of Blue Peter fame and other programmes like Going Live!, Coming Home, Collectors Lot and Doctor Who. The sitting took place in a room in a private members club and lasted three hours. During that time the only other visitor was a waiter offering refreshments. When Sarah was shown the finished painting, tears filled her eyes as she expressed her satisfaction with Stephen’s interpretation of her. Later she wrote and told him how much delight it had brought her and her family, particularly her father, who could see his own mother in the portrait, and her husband, the broadcaster Mike Smith who thought Stephen was “a truly superb artist”. A year later, she commissioned Stephen to paint a picture of her husband from photographs, as a surprise gift. In the course of conversation, Sarah asked him whether he was a spiritual person and then revealed that during the sitting for her portrait she had experienced something quite extraordinary.
Stephen carries on the story: “She revealed to me her own feeling of spirituality after she and her Husband survived a helicopter crash in 1988. She explained that whilst she sat for me, she was not only aware of all my passionate creativity going on but also of a presence around me, what she described as ‘loving arms around me’. What was even more amazing she said, was that the waiter who had called in to ask about refreshments had been overwhelmed: he had gone to his boss afterwards and told him that the room was charged with energy; and that while he could see two people – artist and sitter – he could feel three presences in the room. “I was so moved and told her that I had prayed so hard for strength as I do before every creation”. What Sarah Greene did not know was that the night before, Stephen had only 20 minutes sleep. He frequently suffers from insomnia as well as depression. But it is well hidden by his cheerfulness and lovely sense of humour.
Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, 1999. Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in/102 x 102cm. Commissioned by the Royal Collection of HM Queen Elizabeth II.
It was in 1990, when Stephen was 25 years old, that he became a professional artist. His work had already been exhibited widely but grew even more popular and the commissions rolled in. Private collectors from all over the world have bought his paintings, while the public collections exhibiting his work include those of HM the Queen, Royal National Theatre, the BBC, and the London Transport Museum. To advertise the Summer opening of Buckingham Palace in 1999 and 2000, he was commissioned to paint an exterior view of it and the Grand Staircase, both on location. These were used on posters all over the Underground. The painting of the exterior view today hangs in the Palace itself.
This is the official London Transport Museum postcard of the 1999 oil painting of The Grand Staircase, Buckingham Palace, commissioned from artist Stephen B. Whatley; and painted by the artist over two days, on location at the foot of the stairs.
The outstanding break in his artistic life, which he loves to refer to as ‘God’s Commission’ was a series of 30 paintings for the Tower of London, which were hung in its Banqueting hall at a reception in 2004 when Stephen had the honour of being presented to Her Majesty. He attributed this commission to God, because it was an answer to repeated and intensive prayer. Although he had been steadily working for several years since turning professional, he needed something really substantial, which would allow him more freedom. The commission was to promote the Tower of London and the Pool of London through a series of architectural and historical images. These works were reproduced on steel vitreous panels, lining the underpass that takes the pedestrian from Tower Hill Tube station to the Tower itself. It is a permanent monument to Stephen’s work in the capital, and is seen by the millions of Londoners and tourists visiting the capital.
In 2000, Stephen B Whatley was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces to create a series of 30 paintings for Her Majesty’s Tower of London. The original paintings are within the Tower of London; but visitors to the Tower can see all 30 paintings permanently reproduced on steel vitreous enamel panels
throughout Tower Hill Underpass, London; the main walkway to the Tower. In this view, Stephen’s tribute to St Thomas More is closest to the camera.
In 2004, all 30 original oil paintings were exhibited in the Banqueting Hall in Her Majesty’s Tower of London, to celebrate the completion of refurbishment of the Tower; and Stephen was presented to Her Majesty The Queen.
His choice of subjects to paint or to draw is obviously determined by those who commission him to do so, among whom are actors and film stars, both from the past and the present. Many of his own personal choices, however, are commemorations, perhaps of an anniversary, a birthday or some other connection with his life. For example, his choice of Marilyn Monroe resulted partly from the fact that she died in 1962 on the same date in August as his own mother. Similarly, too, when he was commissioned to paint portraits of the Princes William and Harry, he could personally empathise with them as they, like him, lost their mother at such an early age.
Stephen and Sarah Greene next to his portrait tribute, William and Kate - Tribute to Royal Love, alongside other works by the artist, at the Colomb Art Gallery in London's Marylebone area, in April 2011- just 10 days before the Royal Wedding.
One of his most recent paintings (inspired by photos) is that of the happy Royal couple William and Kate. By the use of reds and yellows it radiates their love and happiness, with the subtle introduction in blue of the famous ring, once worn by William’s mother.
When it comes to his religious work, then Stephen’s choices will be inspired by a feast day of Our Lord at some point in the Liturgical Calendar, or of Our Lady or a saint. Readers of this magazine (Catholic Life) will have seen some examples of his sacred work in recent issues. A lot of his paintings can be viewed on his website and flickr photo sharing site and are both available to buy and order as prints. He gives God and the saints all the credit for his success and hopes that his paintings will bring abundant blessings on those who buy or view them.
Catholics have written to him and told him that his religious paintings have restored their faith. Even Religious have described how his work has increased their understanding and piety. Stephen quotes two nuns, belonging to the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Mercy in the USA who came across his work on the internet and were so moved that they asked to share the paintings on their blog. Referring in particular to his Good Friday painting of 2007, one nun wrote: “The beauty of your prayer expressed in your art is a gift for all of us; it helps me personally to deepen my relationship with Jesus...the colours especially draw me to reflect more on these relationships..”, while another wrote: “The image of the Crucified…. is a beautiful painting. The vibrant colours awaken in me a renewed sense of the power & healing that come to us in Jesus. His suffering and death colour the world with healing beauty...” This endorsement of the evangelising effect of his work strikes a very encouraging chord for Stephen. Obviously as a professional, he paints to earn a living, but he is nonetheless totally motivated by his wish to share the love of God. He is a great admirer of St Faustina and has taken as a motto something said to her in one of her visions, which Stephen paraphrases beautifully: “Anything you do that is not in My name means nothing to Me”.
Father, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me...? Good Friday 2007. Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in/61 x 46 cm. Private Collection, Alabama, USA.
Not everyone will appreciate or like his style. Like classical music, it may be an acquired taste. But I have found it instantly recognisable, striking, attractive and contemporary. When you then learn that the artist prayed as he painted, then ideas of truth and thence beauty also enter the viewer’s mind. I would, therefore, urge bishops, priests and anyone looking for a work of art to adorn a church, a school or public place to consider approaching Stephen. When I asked him who his agent was, his immediate and simple reply was ‘God’. It was said humbly, modestly and sincerely and it sums him up very well. I was reminded of the beautiful words of Archbishop Montini (later Paul VI ), spoken to Fr. Alberione: “You take the Word of God and you clothe it with ink, type and paper and then you send it into the world. It is the Word of God wrapped up in this way. You give God wrapped in paper, as Mary gave the world God wrapped in human flesh. There is something similar between being wrapped and enfleshed”.
Substitute ‘oils, colours and painting’ for ‘ink, type and paper’ and this quote could aptly describe the art of Stephen B. Whatley.
Stephen B. Whatley the Praying Artist is reprinted by permission from the artist Stephen B. Whatley and Catholic Life magazine. This feature article is originally published in the September 1, 2011 issue of Catholic Life, England, UK. © 2011, 2012, All Rights Reserved.