Extremely organized clutter might be the best way to describe the studio of painter George Stave. Situated on the third floor of his longtime home in Cranbury, with natural light coming in through dormer windows, there is something to catch the eye in each corner of the artist’s busy but neat space. The well-worn easels are the focal point, with cans of brushes and various tools of the trade placed on tables, as well as numerous paintings leaning against one wall. But tucked away in drawers, on shelving, and within other nooks are hundreds of objects — the lovely, unusual things that populate Stave’s still lifes.
Found in yard sales around the area, or borrowed from Mahbubeh’s Antiques and Collectibles, his Iranian-born wife’s antique haven in Hopewell, there are Turkish cigarette boxes, old Cuban cigar boxes, tobacco cans including “Prince Albert in a Can,” cosmetic cases, perfume and apothecary bottles, insignias of service clubs and countries, letters, delicate purses, all kinds of things in a rainbow of colors and an array of patterns sharing space with the artist in his studio. And he knows where each and every one is.
“My daughters bring me things, too, including from Portugal, where my one daughter lives,” Stave says. “They’ll see something and say, `Oh Daddy will like this.’ I put things away and maybe for 10 years I don’t use them, but then I find something and if I’m building up a still life, that’s when I’ll use it. But I do remember what I’ve got. People say, ‘how can you find all these things?’ It’s all filed away up there.
“I play with my things and I make arrangements, compose them until I think they’re beautiful,” Stave continues, noting that it might take a full day to position the objects. He likes to gather objects of a similar color scheme and often places them on antique quilts, also from his wife’s store.
An exhibit of Stave’s still lifes, landscapes, and interiors is on view at the Ruth Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell, through Saturday, June 13. This will be the third time Stave has exhibited at the gallery. There are four of Stave’s recent “arrangement” still lifes in the show, as well as delicate portraits of flowers in vases, landscapes large and small, and a handful of the meticulous interiors he’s known for.
A colorist with a keen understanding of light, Stave is skilled, even masterful with landscapes, interiors, and still lifes. However, at age 85, he is most frequently painting the latter, which he can set up in his studio and paint while sitting. In contrast, the interiors require long periods of standing and the landscapes require travel, which the artist still does occasionally. With still lifes in particular, he is inspired by 20th century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who painted arrangements of bottles, vases, and boxes. “I love his work,” Stave says.
Several of his most exquisite interiors are of a friend’s abode in Hopewell. Stave has painstakingly captured the cozy inner sanctum of the Victorian home, allowing the viewer a glimpse at the sumptuous antiques, lamps, window treatments, furniture, and accoutrements as well as gorgeous Persian rugs adorning polished wooden floors. He does all of this without photography, by the way, revisiting the rooms as many as a dozen times to absorb their details.
“You have to have an intimacy with your interiors,” he says. “It’s been a delicious thing to paint. It’s a fabulous house with fun stuff.”
There is something almost astonishing about the way Stave reproduces the elaborate patterns of the rugs, upholstery, and wallpaper; the filigree of the chandelier; and the texture of the beveled glass mirrors. He has even brought to life the glow of a Tiffany-style lamp.
The home Stave has shared with Mahbubeh for more than 50 years reflects this attention to detail and love for beauty. Since 1958, the family has lived in a grand, white Greek Revival house overlooking Cranbury Lake. The rooms are filled with artwork and objets d’art from his many journeys. From Bali, a wooden sculpture of a young female dancer in ethnic costume shares space with smaller sculptures of dancing Shivas from India. Several exquisite Oriental prints acquired in his travels to Hong Kong dot the walls, including a work by the late modern Chinese painter Pai-Shih Ch’I, adorned with his calligraphy. There are jewel-toned Persian rugs in every room and dozens of photographs of his wife and three daughters during various stages of their lives.
Stave is obviously proud of his daughters, and shows a visitor one especially splendid black and white portrait of his oldest daughter, Pari, who used to run the art gallery at AXA/Equitable Life Insurance in Manhattan (which, regrettably, was “downsized”). Pari is also the current mayor of Cranbury Township, where she lives with her son, George. Stave’s middle daughter, Shirin, is a dancer who lives in Portugal with her husband, also a dancer, and their three children. Youngest Kian is a makeup artist who lives in the East Village in Manhattan.
All three women were bestowed with Persian names, in honor of their mother Mahbubeh’s heritage — she came to the United States from Iran to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Stave met her in Manhattan in the early 1950s, when he was working as a scenery artist for television and theater. “I supported my family by doing the scenery work, but I also painted,” Stave says. “Since I’ve retired, my (fine art) painting has flourished.”
Born in Los Angeles, Stave moved with his family to Monterey County as a boy, where his Norwegian-born father was a merchant, selling paper for packing the vegetables harvested in the Salinas Valley. His mother was a homemaker, kept busy by tending to nine children. She noticed Stave’s artistic talent and, from an early age, encouraged his creativity.
Sidelined from military service due to asthma, Stave won a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and enrolled there in 1940. By age 19, he was an apprentice at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, creating backdrops alongside older scenic artists who probably got their start in the film industry’s infancy. “I really learned a lot from them.” Stave says, reflecting on the way he and his colleagues created everything from seascapes to mountainous countryside, tricking movie audiences into thinking the scenes were shot on location.
Meanwhile, his fine art was displayed annually at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In addition, Stave worked as a painting instructor at the Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles. In 1949, Stave took off for Paris, and later India, where he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar. He returned to the U.S. in the early ’50s, studying with abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell at Hunter College. He also took classes at the Arts Students League of New York.
“I tried abstraction but never really did anything original,” Stave says. “I’m best at representational and figurative painting.” He names Motherwell as an influence, as well as Willem DeKooning, Edgar Degas, Johannes Vermeer, Diego Velazquez, and, of course, Morandi. “Those guys are still better than me,” he says with a smile.
At first, viewers might think Stave’s works are recreated from photographs, since they are so realistic, but he insists that his paintings come directly through his eyes, imagination, and experience. He respects photography but says the medium is “one thing, while painting is quite another.”
In a 1994 interview with American Artist, Stave reflects that “A painter using photographs is too compelled to accept what’s there. That’s not the point of painting. What I’m trying to do is make you see the exciting aspects of a particular interior. If I can put down on canvas what I think is beautiful and you can see it, then you’ve experienced what I have. That’s all I’m trying to do — depict beauty.”
Art Exhibit, Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street, Hopewell. On view through Saturday, June 13. Solo exhibition of works by George Stave featuring still lifes, landscape, and interiors. 609-333-9393 or www.ruthmorpeth.com.
Gallery hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.