Larry Stephenson embodies what it means to be a working artist. He has an office he goes to every day; it just happens to be a well-crafted studio in the basement of his Andover home. He travels to grow his business, and the empire of his creativity is expanded at art shows across the country. Moments on the road foster inspiration. They color canvases that eventually line living rooms and workplace spaces. He knows how to turn creative intuitions into appealing products.
“I paint to entertain,” Stephenson said. “When you buy my work, it’s like buying a ticket to see a movie. It pleases you. It makes you happy. You get entertained. That’s what art is all about.”
Stephenson focuses on watercolors. Vintage toys, rustic landscapes and fly fishing are his main subjects.
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Stephenson, 61, grew up in Oklahoma, where his grandmother’s artistic talents influenced his fascination. He began to paint in high school and earned an art degree from the University of Central Oklahoma in 1972. After graduating, he married his wife, Cheryl, and started an interior design business. What he really wanted to do, though, was paint.
Stephenson won an Oklahoma Museum of Art watercolor competition in 1978. The next year, he exhibited in New York City with an American Watercolors Society Exhibition.
“I like watercolors because they are spontaneous. It can happen very quickly,” he said. “I like how fluid the colors are. There’s a real challenge with doing watercolor.”
A 1980s venture into the oil and gas industry diverted his attention a bit. He said he nearly went broke after the industry bottomed out in 1986. Since then, he has been a full-time artist.
In 1992, Stephenson launched Third Street Art Publishing, which grew into a small wholesale poster publishing company with international distribution. The company sold to Sunrise Greeting Cards, which Hallmark later purchased. In 1994, he and his family relocated to Wichita. He continued to do illustrations for Sunrise until 2000.
“My images became quite well-known throughout the gift and stationery industries,” he said. “They were even licensed for product use worldwide. I enjoyed the work a lot, but it was demanding. What I really wanted to do was start a collection of paintings. That is how my current collection came to be.”
Reuben Saunders, owner of the Wichita gallery and frame shop Artworks, admires Stephenson’s ability to reinvent himself artistically and continually find commercial success and personal satisfaction.
“Larry has done one of the best jobs I have ever seen of being both an artist and a businessman,” Saunders said. “He has made a company and a brand name out of himself multiple times. He knows how to create quality art and market it on a wide basis.”
Nostalgic look, contemporary focus
For the last decade, play ornaments from the past have been the focal point of Stephenson’s work. His “Toyz” series, a profile of vintage figurines, is a 21st-century salute to Americana.
“I like antiques a lot. I started collecting period toys and painting them,” he said. “I like to take the figures and juxtapose them into situations. A toy motorcycle might end up in the mountains.”
His paintings are as colorful and humorous as they are ironic and contrasting. A green Hawaiian ice truck carries a hula-wearing woman into an arctic oceanfront. Spry penguins ice-skate by as lush palm trees wave in the background. Phillips 66 gas stations, comic book scenes, toy soldiers and marbles paint pictures of a bygone era that finds contemporary relevance through their portrayal on Stephenson’s canvases.
“What I like about this current body of work is the slices of humor and the nostalgia it evokes,” said Saunders, who has displayed multiple pieces at his gallery in the past. “For a baby boomer generation, they evoke fond memories of toys and comic strips and things we all had as children.”
Stephenson said he has painted 80 to 100 works in this series.
“I tend to stay on something for about 10 years,” he explained. “Then it’s on to the next venture. After ‘Toyz’, I started focusing on fly-fishing paintings. I’ve been doing that for about 18 months now.”
Stephenson started fly fishing about five years ago. He said his paintings reflect the landscapes and scenic wonders he encounters as he travels. Some of Stephenson’s fly-fish canvases are rudimentary rustic scenes of fishermen and their catch. The fish are always pulsating with color. Other works are more imaginative. A trout joins cyclists on a cross-country tour in the highlands. Men cast their nets for prey inside a sink; hot and cold nozzles replace the usual mountain view.
“I do these because they are fun,” he said. “There’s also a demand for them. People like these kinds of paintings.”
The art of travel
Stephenson spends much of his time on the road, logging around 25,000 miles a year traveling to art shows in his Sprinter van to sell his works. It’s something he’s been doing for more than 30 years.
“It’s a lot of work to get into these shows. You have to make the paintings, transport them, and set up and run your booth,” he said. “It’s also difficult to get into most of these shows. These are all juried. You could have 1,000 to 2,000 entries, and you are vying for maybe 100 spaces.”
Yet, he finds the travel and the comradery of the art show circuit endearing.
“These shows are unique parts of America culture,” he said. “They are full of people who don’t want to join the establishment and who want to make their own living as artists.”
One of Stephenson’s most recent shows was at the Bradley Fair Autumn & Art affair in Wichita this past September. He’s planning to attend art shows in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Houston in March. Some of his pieces will be on display at Artworks soon, he said.
In the meantime, people curious about his work can visit his website, which has an extensive image library of his paintings and features a blog detailing his travels. Fans can order original works and reproductions there.
“My artwork is traditional in nature, but it has a twist. It’s definitely out of the norm,” he said. “It’s not weird or contemporary. It’s just outside of the lines.”
Find out more about Larry Stephenson’s art by visiting www.lstephenson.com.