AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN WYSOCKI

Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Stephen Wysocki

09/30/23


Talent and humility are certainly not mutually exclusive, but it’s rare to find them embodied so harmoniously and amiably in one artist. Make no mistake, Stephen Wysocki is an eminently talented painter, but to speak with him you would never know it. He paints because he loves it, and he is genuinely happy when others love his work, too.

 

Born and raised in the woodlands of Northern Wisconsin, Stephen’s father worked in a veneer wood mill, a career which Stephen would join his father for a time after completing art school. As a youth, Stephen did not consider that he could have a career as an artist. His Midwest upbringing told him that he had to have a “real job,” but even his small town art teacher knew that Stephen’s talent would lead him to painting as a vocation.

 

“I fished, hunted, and went to school in a small town. My art teacher was a big cheerleader for me, but I never believed her, really. She would tell my dad, ‘If I had the talent that Steve did, I wouldn’t be a teacher.’ And I just didn’t understand how that could be a job,” Stephen said. “It was like, ‘You get a job. You’re great, you can paint, or you can draw at a very young age, but what are you going to do for a job? You’ve got to be a mapmaker or you have to get into computers and do graphic design or something.’ No one ever said, ‘You can be an artist.’”

 

Stephen would spend the next decade or so working his way toward the right job that could include his art. After high school, he attended Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design but didn’t stay long. After his small-town upbringing, Stephen found that life in the city did not suit him. So, he went back home attended a local junior college, having set his course on art education. He then transferred to University of Green Bay, where an instructor told him that he was taking too many art classes to be an art teacher. By that time, though, he had already begun to lose interest in art education, so he switched to studio art with a minor in graphic design.

 

“Graphic design in the early 80s was on rudimentary computers, and I really didn’t understand how I could make that work. I understood the basics of design, but as far as the guy who could punch out a good design on a computer, I was the worst one,” he said. “But I loved painting, and the design helped. The rules of design were interesting in graphic design.”

 

When it came time to line up an internship with a local ad agency, again, Stephen had no interest. Instead, he created a painting class to fulfill the credit he needed to graduate. It was
about that time that he met his wife, Amy, an elementary school teacher. After graduation, they married and settled back in his hometown of Goodman, Wisconsin, where he went to work at a his father’s mill until it went out of business 10 years later. When considering his next job, Stephen considered milling or truck driving, but again, he did not consider painting until Amy reminded him that he did, in fact, have an art degree.

 

“I started seeing competitions for plein air. It was a way to travel to some town in Wisconsin, paint for a couple of days, try selling something and then come home. It wasn’t a big

commitment, and it was rather successful. I started winning awards, and I’d come home with 1000 bucks, and I thought I was a millionaire. So, I started building from that.”

 

Despite this early success in his painting career, Stephen still didn’t fully believe that his art would sell because of his unusual use of colors. But it was not long before he realized the happy error of that logic.

 

“I used to think, ‘I’m not going to do so well, because my work looks so different from everybody else’s.’ And then I started realizing the reason I’m doing so well is because my work looks so different from everybody else’s. It’s unique,” he said. “Colors. I was always really excited about the complementary colors, the opposite colors. Even in college, I was known for putting greens and oranges together on the grass, and the blue and orange on the sky, and the greens and reds in the orange. I always just drifted towards that when I had to paint something.”

 

During the summer months, Stephen participated in as many plein air competitions as he could, while the weather held out. In the winters, which can be long in Northern Wisconsin, he looked around for galleries, coffee shops, and anywhere he could display his work. Through a group of like-minded friends near his town, Stephen began painting at dinner parties, sometimes accompanied by his daughter, Sophie. For the guests, it was a source of entertainment, and for Stephen it was the opportunity to practice painting and also to sell them.

 

“I would get free food and my daughter would play classical guitar, so she would get tips,” he said. “I would just bring work. If somebody wanted a painting of a bear, I would paint that on that day. … And then sometimes I did just whatever I wanted to do. I would paint an old truck and someone would buy that, because they saw it painted, and they liked the outcome, and they had an old truck like that. It was a good way to sell work.”

 

These dinner parties, Stephen said, led to gallery work which slowly led to interest from larger galleries, including Montana Trails Gallery. His road to the Bozeman art scene started with a friend of MTG, who discovered his work and reached out to him on behalf of the gallery. Stephen, however, was not initially convinced that this interest was entirely legitimate.

 

“You always get scams. I get scams from New York about being in shows. [They say] ‘It’s only going to cost you two grand to enter and another thousand for placement fee.’ And I [suspected it was] something like that,” Stephen said. “So he was going on about liking my work [and he says,] ‘Would you like to be in a gallery over here?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah whatever. What’s the catch?’”

 

Stephen was assured that there was no catch, and that his unique and colorful paintings would fit in beautifully with the other works in Montana Trails. Gallery manager Sydney Weeks said they couldn’t be happier with Stephen as a member of the MTG group of artists.

 

“Stephen has an amazing ability to take a seemingly mundane subject -- an old truck, a farm building, train tracks -- and make it beautiful and interesting through his use of light and color,” Sydney said. “His wildlife is beautiful, too, and seems to evoke a state of mind from his subjects. Plus, he is a super-nice person and a pleasure to work with.”

 

Wildlife has always been among Stephen’s favorite subjects, including birds, bears and buffalo. However, it is one of these very subjects that may be keeping Stephen from creating even more art work, despite his best efforts. Stephen and his brothers own a buffalo ranch, which demands a lot of time from him.

“Sometimes the buffalo farm takes up all my energy. … I’m always painting, but when it’s July and you come home, and you pass out from exhaustion, not much [art] is made. I usually have to tell the galleries that this is a bad time for me, and then when I am working, I’m just trying to get caught up. I think it’s draining on my time.”

 

Stephen does his best to paint and sell his work year-round, heading to Florida or other Southern States in March to participate in shows or plein air events. But winters are slow in
both the buffalo and the art business in his area. He is hopeful that a change in his situation may allow him to paint more and take advantage of more art-related opportunities.

 

Even without a brush or palette knife in his hand, though, Stephen says he is always thinking about art, envisioning, and being inspired by the world around him. When he is able to paint, Stephen describes his process as either “no rules” or image-based.

 

“[I] just make it up out of the blue and then … there are no rules. Is it a cow? Is it a buffalo? You just have this idea and you scratch in those colors in big blocks and then refine it,” he said. “Other times … it’s the way the light hits something. If I’m around the buffalo where a shadow is falling on it and everything is bright behind it, I’ll [take and] use a photo, and I will work that up.”

 

Experimenting with non-traditional colors is standard practice for Stephen, and it makes his work stand out. He also tends to rely less on brushes and more on his palette knife to achieve the looks that he wants.

 

“Everyone can paint the grass green and everyone can paint the sky blue. I like to experiment and say, ‘Okay, let’s say orange grass and yellow sky.’ I get sick of painting blue sky all the time,” he said.

 

The spectacular Grand Canyon is high on Stephen’s list of things to paint next, and he looks forward to an opportunity to get out and express those amazing colors in his own unique way. In the meantime, he takes advantage of the inspirations and subjects closer to home.

 

“There is always something I want to paint. We are starting to get wolves showing up around here, and I’m more and more interested in getting photos of wolves,” he said. Stephen says he constantly strives to represent a narrative or story into his work in order to connect on a deeper level with viewers.

 

“I’m trying to get a little more dimension in the work so it’s not just a photograph or a portrait of a wild animal. Like, there’s more of a story to it,” he said. “You’re trying to pull that emotion out of the viewer and lots of times you’re painting something that you love and hopefully it shows. It’s those days where you’re doing a commission for someone, and you’re trying to drag it out of yourself. But when you’re painting something fun, that you love and are excited about, boy, it’s not hard at all to show the emotion behind it.”

 

In a departure from his own no-nonsense, must-get-a-job upbringing, Stephen says he has encouraged his children, Sophie and Owen, as well as any other kids who will listen, to follow passion for art.

 

“I tell that to every kid now. I say, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’ve got to do something other than paint or draw.’” he said.

 

Sophie, his daughter and dinner party accompanist, started her college career in similar fashion to Stephen, studying something practical, because she thought she should, and soon finding that she hated it. With Stephen’s support, she found her way to a double major in ceramics and business, and is now completing her master’s degree in ceramics.

 

Even in creating his art, Stephen has come to learn that it’s critical to be true to himself and create work that interests and inspires him. In college, he says, professors and art students would pressure him to make his art a political or social statement, but that was not fulfilling, or even fun, for Stephen.

 

“I had a professor in college who was grooming me to be this environmental voice. A lot of my paintings were smoke stacks, leaky barrels of oil, dead trees, parched landscapes, and I started getting away from that because it was depressing after a while,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, why did you wait 10 years to start doing art work?’ I think a lot of that were those feelings where I felt in a box. Like I couldn’t do any more if I wasn’t saying something about a political statement.”

 

Stephen says now, though, he not only loves to paint, he has to paint. It is life’s work, his bread and butter, and he feels lucky to say it’s also his passion.

 

“I work to survive. My favorite saying is ‘starvation is a big motivator.’ I think I’m lucky to be able to sell my work. That’s how I feel. A few people in my small town realized that I’m actually living off of my artwork and they think it’s amazing. I guess, I feel like I’m a little bit in a dream world because I never thought I could do this,” Stephen said.

 

“I work to survive. My favorite saying is ‘starvation is a big motivator.’ I think I’m lucky to be able to sell my work. That’s how I feel. A few people in my small town realized that I’m actually living off of my artwork and they think it’s amazing. I guess, I feel like I’m a little bit in a dream world because I never thought I could do this,” Stephen said.

 

“I do love painting Star Wars. You paint Boba Fett and it’s like painting a Western scene or something. I get excited about it,” he said.

 

While Stephen says he is working to develop his ability to evoke emotion in his paintings, in speaking to him it is clear that his passion lies in the painting itself. He paints what he loves and lives to paint. And despite his relatively late start, we look forward to much more wonderful work from him.

 

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