SEASCAPES, FURNITURE, & LOVE
by McKenzie Eddy
“I said, ‘Baby I’m ready.” And she started crying. She said, ‘I’ve been waiting to hear this for 20 years.’”
It’s rare to catch an artist in the midst of discovering his or her true voice for the first time. But that is just where I found Stephen Elliott Webb as we walked through his free-standing 1957 firehouse-turned-studio where he creates massive, flowing, “reflections of human relationships” on canvas.
To be clear, this voice did not come from some spontaneous moment of artistic bliss. Stephen has spent about 30 years developing his own artistic language while simultaneously struggling to un-learn a language that was instilled in him at an early age.
As a child, Webb’s parents steered his artistic style. He was born into a Beaufort family business that produced a very different type of art than what flows from him today.
“I was brought up painting in an extremely realistic style. If it didn’t look like photography created in watercolor, I wouldn’t be allowed to do it,” emphasizes Webb. “I would say I was scarred to a certain extent being forced to paint for a living at age 10.”
Despite these lingering feelings, Stephen tries to have a sense of humor about the experience. Smiling, he adds, “You probably had to go into your bedroom and do your homework, while I had to go in my room and paint seascapes… SLS’s. ‘Shitty little seascapes.’”
That kind of perspective, however, has come with time. At age 16, it felt as if Webb’s entire artistic being was being stifled – and that proved too much.
“I broke my brushes in my mother’s face,” he recounts. “I said, ‘No more seagulls. No more sailboats.’ And that didn’t fly.”
So when he was 17, Webb left home and set out for Charleston. Granted, it wasn’t a cross-country trek across uncharted terrain. But away from home for the first time with fifty dollars in his pocket, it was a relative adventure for Stephen; and like any adventure, there was treasure involved. Webb suddenly found himself at the epicenter of Charleston’s Impressionist movement, surrounded by artists who supported and encouraged greater artistic freedom.
Inspired, Stephen wasted little time. By 19, a job at the Tidwell Art Center led to his first show at Piccolo Spoleto. It sold out in three days. Although this commercial success was not new to Stephen, the freedom was. “The people around me just wanted me to do something. Every person, let alone artist, needs to have that environment at some point in their lives.”
That liberating Charleston environment not only gave Stephen a home, but also the confidence to leave it for a while in search of more. He found it in Atlanta. In his early 20s, he left to discover Expressionism at the Art Institute. But that only lasted for six weeks of Webb being “bored out of his mind.”
Instead, he found life experience, Expressionism-via-furniture, and his wife of more than 23 years, Gail. The night that Stephen and Gail met, she asked him “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He responded that he would like to design furniture, to which she answered “Then why the hell haven’t you started yet?’’
This nudge from Gail and the couple’s subsequent marriage led to a highly successful custom furniture business. Perhaps it was simply the freedom and maturity that ensued, or maybe it was finding Gail, or maybe a little of both – but building furniture with his wife unlocked Webb’s inner Expressionist. The resulting voice is remarkable. Stephen’s paintings are vibrant, energetic, full of movement – and unmistakably free.
Stephen moved back to Charleston a few years ago, now with his wife and his new voice, and it has not taken long for the art world to take notice of Stephen’s return and his growth as an artist. Recently, The Grand Bohemian’s gallery manager Dayna Caldwell invited Webb to perform a live demonstration of one of his paintings. “Andros” is a 6x6 foot piece of abstract mixed-media that evokes a euphoric coral reef made of canvas, oil, acrylic, watercolor, ink, gesso, mineral spirits, denatured alcohol, soap, Windex, water, and coffee. It recently sold for $12,000 from the Mitchell Hill Gallery on King Street.
This building success has not detracted from Stephen’s honesty as an artist. As we walk through his workspace, he reflects: “You are looking at therapy. You are looking at biography. You are looking at me delivering my impression of the human condition, the human relationship on canvas. It’s a reflection of so much happening at once. And it’s not calm. It’s not soothing. It’s you in your worst relationship, you in your best relationship, you and your mom, you and a cat. It is you and some way you have related to someone in your life.”
That is the kind of artistic voice that takes time. The kind of time that brought Gail to tears when Stephen finally looked at her and said “Baby, I’m ready.”