Leading by Example

A Somerset teacher inspires art at work and at home


In a small corner of Stephen Meehan’s art classroom at Somerset- Berkley Regional High, hangs a four-by- four-foot bulletin board, fastened with an eclectic array of artistic and social reminders – some animal skulls a la Georgia O’Keeffe, Beatles memorabilia, a photo of Jack Kerouac and powerful reproductions of Klimt’s landscapes, DaVinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” a Hokusai print and Durer’s “Melancholia I.”

Meehan, 35, a Somerset native and resident, began keeping a studio at school a few years back because it was difficult to separate himself from his responsibilities as father to two young boys at home. Rather than “selfishly encroaching” on his students’ space, Meehan uses his personal painting practice as a vehicle to support and inform his students. “It is a classic teaching technique – similar to the master/apprentice system,” he says.

The visual arts instructor has been teaching drawing, painting, art history and digital photography for 11 years now. His impressive landscapes are an homage to his lifelong fascination with and admiration for the effects of light on the elements and materials of the earth.

“I remember things from my childhood – the ephemeral qualities of light that coat flash-bulb memories. I remember being very young and being captivated by the way light would filter through the aluminum screen in my window during the morning or late afternoon. I still get that fascination, a sort of awestruck calm when a low-angled light crosses a marsh or bathes the dried-up boards of an old house. I am attracted to light and the infinite variations in color it can create,” he adds.

Meehan’s grandfather was “a maker;” a painter and craftsman, applying his aesthetic to the things he created – furniture, lighting fixtures and other “tinkerings.” “He died young, before I was born, but his identity as an artist, a skilled maker, was something my mother was very proud of. When she began to see my care in craft and aesthetic, she encouraged it,” he recalls.

Meehan seeks artistic truth. To do that, he produces work that lies. “I have always been interested in two-dimensional endeavors, convincing a viewer that they are looking at three-dimensional space when observing pigment on a flat surface is exciting to me. A representational painter is a great liar for that reason,” he says. “This is what has brought me to painting the landscape; it is the ultimate challenge for the representational painter.”

His works present atmosphere and a fleeting sense of place, time and light. These delicate things fail to be wholly and sympathetically described with the “structures and limitations of language. It is only with pigment that these natural complexities and relationships can be entirely explained.”

Working both in plein air outdoors and from photographic studies, Meehan’s process focuses on exposing the essential elements within visual information. While he is a representational painter, this filtering process embodies the fundamentals of ab- straction. His work is more than a facsimile, he says; it separates essential organic elements from the extraneous and distracting.

Being both an art educator as well as a producing artist, Meehan has had an interesting point of view on the development and cultivating of the visual expression within young artists.

“While teaching, I hear a lot about ‘talent’ and that certain people are ‘gifted,’ but that negates the amount of study and studio hours involved in honing an artist’s craft. Maybe that is the non-artist trying to encapsulate, justify and dismiss their lack of understanding by summarizing the artist’s language as something God-given,” he says. “The visual arts are a delicate, alternative means of communication and an artist is simply attuned to visual stimuli – whether it’s a bold cathartic statement or the capturing of a fleeting quality of light as it touches a landscape.”

Meehan uses an H-frame easel with various lights hung over it and his palette, which is glass and sits on a large taboret table. This is where he mixes color. The actual application of the paint to the canvas is fractional compared to the large amounts of time he spends judging and manipulating color.

He cannot separate art from teaching, although he would describe himself as a painter first and a teacher second.

How does one influence the other? “A farmer describing the way the earth opens up under his plow, a carpenter describing the angles of a new piece of furniture – these simple conversations are enriched by the observations and details that flow out of personal experience. Painting from the land is my experience,” says Meehan. “My students are young. They have so many options in front of them. I try to stress, no matter what they choose to do, the importance of simply staying observant, sensitive and inquisitive. For those that choose the path of an artist and head off to school, I advise them to define what success is for them and how they can keep working and live comfortably while striving to meet that definition.”