Stephen Pitliuk -June 2009

Portrait of an artist

by: Joshua B. Gray

A large part of Stephen Pitliuk’s inspiration when painting is derived from his experience on Nantucket.

A resident for more than eight years, Pitliuk is a trained artist whose work is unmistakable and has a unique way of speaking candidly about life on this small island. His piece “Nantucket Whine Festival” is filled with a combination of mediums and his diverse observations written in charcoal throughout the work. Straddling a red wine bottle are the words “How are you supposed to park at Stop & Shop?,” “I can never get into 21 Federal,” and written in what appears to be pencil “Maaatha! There’s people moving here who don’t speak English!”

These words represent only a fraction of the graphic element found in many of Pitliuk’s paintings, words that seemingly represent an attempt at social commentary. Not true, says Pitliuk.

“People don’t need to read too deeply into the work,” he said. “There is no agenda, no social commentary. It is what it is.” He said some patrons even attempt to interpret the size and shape of the letters in his writing. This is something the artist finds humorous.

Now 38, Pitliuk has painted for as long as he can remember. Throughout school growing up in Miami, Florida, he learned to paint and developed his talent, and began to include writing in his work even then, first at a special high school for the arts and then at the New World School for the Arts in Miami, where he was a member of the university’s first graduating class.

After working in Florida for several years, all the while continuing to paint, Pitliuk made the move to Nantucket.

“I was looking for something completely different from what I had been doing,” he said. “I found New England to be almost like a completely different world from where I’d been and Nantucket is another galaxy all together.”

Until moving to the island, Pitliuk had never before shown his work in a gallery. He became a member of the Artists Association of Nantucket after completing three years of residency, a requirement for members to join the organization. He has since joined the stable of artists at both galleryblue on Old South Wharf and the Cavalier Gallery on Main Street.

“The originality of Stephen’s work was what was most appealing to me,” said owner Ron Cavalier. “It relates to the contemporary world and his opinions are ones that a lot of others share whether privately or publicly.”

Cavalier showed some of Pitliuk’s work recently at a high-end art show in Miami.

“We presented some of his pieces to clients in Miami to get a reaction in an environment of high contemporary art,” he continued. “As far as the art world goes, he is young, that is not a reflection on his age, but on his experience showing his work. We will begin showing his non-Nantucket-related subject matter and see how it goes. He has an interesting story and a fresh view and talent.”

As Pitliuk has only recently begun to show and sell his work publicly, he has paid the bills by working as an MRI and X-ray technician at Nantucket Cottage Hospital for several years. He paints from his home, setting up an impromptu studio in his living room or kitchen as he feels the inspiration.

Pitliuk said he is never sure how to accurately describe his style of painting. When pressed, he says he is a graphic and pop artist who has always appreciated abstract expressionism. His greatest influences have included Henri Matisse, Lichtenstein, Picasso and the Dadaism period, a cultural and artistic movement in the early 20th century that rejected the prevailing standards in art. Pop art became associated with the movement as did Surrealism and Nouveau Réalisme.

Pitliuk finds his inspiration in a variety of places, from things he sees on the street to conversations with co-workers and friends.

“I saw a wasp on Nantucket” pokes fun at the stereotypical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) by depicting a street sign with a crossing for a wine-toting, whale-emblazoned-pant-wearing couple.

“The idea for the WASP painting came after watching people walking around the island and then I just happened to see a street sign,” he said. The painting is filled with more examples of his sometimes biting, satirical remarks, but the artist said reaction to his work is most often associated with amusement.

“A lot of my work is tongue in cheek,” he said. “Most of it just makes people smile. That is what they tell me.”

Not all his work is meant to amuse, however. His inspiration is not limited to the observations of upper-class New England life. With pieces that cover such serious subjects as racism and war, including one of a neo-Nazi in front of a swastika and another of the lynching of a black man, Pitliuk’s body of work explores darker emotions as well.

“I have been moving toward more serious work lately,” he continued. “It doesn’t necessarily pertain to Nantucket or include writing but involves a similar style.”

galleryblue on Straight Wharf, owned by artist Judith Brust, is in its third season of showing Pitliuk’s Nantucket-centric paintings.

“We’ve taken Stephen in as part of our core group of artists,” said Linda LaCroix, the gallery’s director. “Judith and he met through the Artists Association. She was really interested in his work and gave him a venue to show it. She realized he was very talented and had the potential to develop some serious collectors.

“We see all kinds of responses to his art, especially some of his serious work,” she said. “Especially people who come in who aren’t familiar with him. They get engrossed and spend lot of time reading the paintings with intense interest.”

The art of Stephen Pitliuk will be featured in an exhibition at galleryblue on Old South Wharf Friday, July 17, with an opening reception at 8:30 p.m.

Joshua B. Gray covers arts for The Inquirer and Mirror and is a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.

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