Palette Knives and Positive Energy

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Have you ever felt anxious at an art gallery or unsure of what to do after you’ve circled the room three times and have seen every painting or sculpture or photograph? Stephen Batiz has. And as an artist, it might be the worst feeling in the world.

“Sometimes when I go to art shows, I’m bored,” he says, “Not that the art is bad, but I’m just walking around this room. You go to a bar because you enjoy it, you know?” Batiz, however, isn’t one to be an artist of inaction. Rather than suffer the awkward business of shuffling people around a gallery, or answer uncomfortable questions about his paintings, he likes to design an entire experience. In the past, one of his gallery events included make-your-own pizzas. Another, mini-golf. “I like doing every aspect of the show from planning to invites,” Stephen says, “but my main thing is making it so that it’s interactive, so people who attend actually enjoy it.”

Batiz also likes bringing music into his galleries to make the event more like a show, spreading the interactivity out across the space so that people can balance their personal comfort levels in the environment. He remembers one interactive sculpture: “we built a sculpture in the middle of the room out of old instruments and wood, just trees, and I took apart a keyboard, speaker, and bass drum… you could play with it in a way, but the music was coming out at weird angles.”

None of this is to say Stephen doesn’t appreciate the simplicity of art, of just viewing it as it hangs, or the quiet solemnity a painter can have with his canvas. No, in fact he loves those aspects of the craft. Given the option of working in a shared studio space or alone, in his room, in his boxers, he’ll choose the latter every time. But energy—personal, environmental, from various interactions—really matters to him, and it defines the way he works.

“I had a lot of energy growing up,” he remembers, “and then I found out that the one thing that kind of distracted me from having too much energy would be doodling a little bit.” Without doodling a recurring cast of characters—an anthropomorphized steak, a pencil, a phallic dog named Floyd—and encouragement from some of his teachers, Stephen’s unfocused energy may have gotten the best of him. But now, creating art is an ingrained part of his life that drives him forward every day. “I usually paint because it’s an urge or a feeling,” he says, ”But I can’t go too long without painting or I just feel like crap. I can’t just stop making art like ‘Okay, I’m over it.’”

Art provides Batiz balance, transference of polarity, positive valence; unfocused energy becomes focused, and negative energy becomes positive. In fact, Stephen never paints anything negative or harnesses bad energy to fuel negatively-focused work. “I have feelings—but I don’t take stuff out on people. If someone is a complete jerk, if I’m in a bad mood, I can paint and I’m fine,” he says,” That’s me using it to be creative, but I won’t paint something dark from it. I’ll twist it and do something nice.” The seasons drive him, too. Winter and its depressing cold shifts him, and he can paint like a madman through it. “It’s a lot easier for me to paint during the winter,” he explains, “I don’t really want to sit around.” He’s forced himself to paint through the summer in the past and it just screwed up his winter painting cycle. Batiz uses the summer for other things—going out, skating, planning art shows.

What does this harnessing of good energy provide Batiz as an artist, though? Two things: an immense motivation to constantly refine his craft and speed. How long does a painting take him? “Four hours. Like a day,” he says, “I pride myself in being able to paint whatever I want or choose really fast. Or as fast as possible while staying at quality.” That kind of speed is shocking, honestly, because his canvases aren’t particularly small, and the work is always striking.

Full of texture, depth, and expression from blocking out color thickly with a palette knife, like icing a cake with a spatula, the knife scraping across the canvas, his paintings are downright visceral, and his use of color is highly stylized if not borderline unconventional. “I’m obsessed with purple,” he says, “I don’t use black because… burnt umber is actually better. You get better shadows and stuff. Black is too harsh.” In contrast, the richness of his work and the speed at which he accomplishes it is due to his focus on simplicity. “Keep it simple,” Batiz says, “Keep the colors neutral enough that they work anywhere.” Once Stephen blocks out the basic shape, he might finish a full painting in ten, eight, maybe fewer layers. Which has its downside—he can’t always get a painting where he’d like it to be. Getting feedback from others, however, helps. For instance, he disliked an unfinished painting of a fox until a friend loved it. “Maybe I called it right instead of overworking it,” he reasons, “You can overwork paintings, and then you’re kind of a mess after that.”

Simplicity and positive energy: it’s sort of an unfair, almost lacking summary for an artist who loves elephants and paints portraits of his closest friends; an artist who, although not having gone to college, improves his craft constantly and works on small studies to hone his technique; who builds a mini-golf course so patrons at his shows don’t have to feel uncomfortable milling about. An artist who’d one day like to be a teacher so he can encourage others toward art in the way that he was by his teachers.

But maybe, at the same time, it is all that simple. As Stephen—a guy who’ll work in such frequent bursts that he forgets he’s holding tools, covered in paint—says, “The people who like my paintings are like me… I just want people to be able to buy art and enjoy it.”

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Feature Photo by Wyl White

This article first appeared in Issue 05

About the Author

Patrick BoylePatrick Boyle is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Lamplighter. He is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and takes considerable care when drafting e-mails. Follow him on Twitter: @PatBoyleView all posts by Patrick Boyle →