Stephen Stavast points to one of his oil paintings, smiling, as he almost always is when talking about his art.
A bundle of rocks – some green and layered with moss, others bare but in no way lacking color – are scattered across a small body of water. The rocks and water are adorned with leaves and a hummingbird that add hints of red, purple and blue.
The painting is three-dimensional and could easily be mistaken for a photograph. Stavast, 73, who has been painting these river rocks for over 30 years, wants to communicate a sense of peace.
“Our lives are full of all this craziness, all you got to do is watch a little political television. There’s so much craziness going on out there, we all need a little rest,” Stavast says.
It turns out Stavast is no exception; he needs rest now more than ever. His recent health complications have led to his decision to close his 27-year-old Stavast Studio Gallery in Oakhurst.
Over the past two years, he has suffered a double aneurism, a stroke and an infection in the incision wounds made to treat his aneurism, all of which posed a threat on his life.
While he survived the three incidents, he was greatly affected physically.
Today, Stavast is lucky to be able to get three to four hours in in front of an easel before he feels completely drained. He tires quickly, struggles with his memory and his dyslexia was further complicated by the stroke.
“When I was awake, I painted. And when I was asleep, that’s what I did, I slept, and I didn’t care what the hours were,” Stavast said of his schedule prior to his health scares. Stavast would work on up to 20 paintings at once, with some taking years to complete.
Art was therapy
He says he has felt his strength slowly come back this year and has increased his work hours. The work he is doing now is already a step forward from where he began when he first got out of the hospital two years ago. Stavast recalls he could barely even hold a paintbrush.
Barbara Eicker, former of employee of Stavast and a friend of over 20 years, said his artwork helped Stavast heal these past two years.
“His art, if he didn’t have that, I don’t know if he would have made it. But he had that drive to continue to paint, to get back to painting,” Eicker says. She recalls joking with Stephen that he “will probably die painting and we’ll have to pry the paintbrush out of his hands.”
Eicker’s comments are immediately echoed whenever Stavast shares one of his many stories. His smile and his laughter comes in bunches when discussing past paintings and experiences from his 50 years as a professional artist.
He tells stories of his mother – his biggest supporter and the catalyst for his move to Oakhurst – taking out 4-inch stacks of photographs of his paintings to show her friends. His plea for her to stop was met with a firm, “I’m your mother, I’m doing this.”
Others involve Stavast battling for the worth of his art with gallery owners in Carmel and Scottsdale, Arizona. Then, of course, there is the one about a man at an art gallery who told him he was painting a rainbow trout incorrectly, to which Stavast replied, “This isn’t a rainbow trout, it’s a Stavast trout.”
Stavast says this is what he will miss the most about his gallery, sharing his stories and listening to others’ – “I’m really going to miss talking to people everyday.”
He will be missed, as well.
Jon Bock, owner of Williams Gallery West and president of the Sierra Art Trails, describes Stavast’s studio as “one of the cornerstone businesses that kept Oakhurst’s Gallery Row unique and exciting.” The Williams Gallery West neighbors Stavast Studio Gallery.
“During all those times, there would always be his long-term clients, people who admired his work and they would stop in and ask about his health, and where he was and when he was coming back,” Bock says.
Stavast still recalls making his decision to move to Oakhurst over 27 years ago. His parents wanted it and the owner of the building definitely wanted it, as the city of Oakhurst had never hosted an artist of his experience and renown.
He remembers speaking to 50 other artists in eastern Madera County before deciding to move to Oakhurst.
“They all said I wouldn’t find it easy to make a living here because it wasn’t an art destination,” he says.
He was able to find financial success, both in his own gallery in Oakhurst and others where his work was being sold, but that was not what he valued most about the move.
“I got to see the first-hand reactions of people, instead of having galleries tell me what people are saying about the work. First-hand reaction is really an amazing thing,” Stavast says.
But after 27 years, Stavast simply cannot be there to watch over the gallery anymore. His health and his inability to afford an assistant to watch over it for him led to his decision to close it.
He’s ready for this next step as an artist. Before the gallery can officially close its doors, though, he needs to find another gallery to sell his work for him. The prints in his gallery currently is all being sold at a discount of at least 40 percent.
Stavast loves the art community too much to abandon it completely. He’s not exactly sure how he will continue his involvement, but he will.
“There’s a new way starting and I don’t know what that way is at this point. I’ll be working out with it, trying different things and just seeing what happens,” Stavast says.
One idea, and the most likely, is offering art lessons, a venture he already delved into a few years ago and found success.
But, in reality, there’s no telling where Stavast could go next. This is a man who never imagined moving to Oakhurst, or that he would be painting rocks and water for 30 years, or that his gallery would survive the housing market crash that began in 2008.
But Stavast enjoys living this way and it turns out he enjoys painting this way, as well.
“I just love them. When I start a painting, I don’t really know what it’s going to look like. I start the painting and it shows me. That’s what keeps me going into them,” Stavast says of his rock and water paintings.
Only time will tell what the next brushstroke in Stavast’s life will hold.