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The skin man: Stephen Cefalo 

Times readers named him best artist.

click to enlarge Stephen Cefalo image
  • Brian Chilson

Stephen Cefalo (pronounced se-FA-lo), 37, has spent two decades painting figures, his main interest "representing skin." Now, says the Times' Readers Choice for Best Arkansas Artist, "I get to not only represent skin but get to use skin as a medium." Skin as a surface, that is — for tattoos.

If it seems odd to Cefalo's many admirers that the artist — inspired by the way Rembrandt and Carravagio and Titian used paint and who is known for his classically rendered oils of voluptuous Madonnas (with his wife as a model) — has become fascinated with tattooing, it seemed odd to him at first as well. He was confounded by the number of tattoo artists who began following him on social media and contacting him about tattooing a couple of years ago. He felt pursued.

"I kept pushing it away," Cefalo said, "and it kept coming back."

At an artists' conference earlier this year, Cefalo ran into a couple of friends who are "award-winning" classical portraitists and who were going on about tattooing. They'd started tattooing and were having a great time, Cefalo said. He told the artists — Kate Stone and David Gluck — that he'd been offered an apprenticeship and turned it down. Cefalo left thinking, if their careers had not "taken a nose dive" by their new interest in tattooing, maybe he could pull it off, too.

Cefalo has begun an apprenticeship with Mark O'Baugh at Black Cobra Tattoos, where he's in what he calls "tattoo kindergarten," learning how to compose on the body rather than a flat rectangle. "Everything I knew about composition is out the window," he said.

But it's Cefalo's composition and painting that has won him the accolades of the readers of the Times.

Cefalo and his wife, Amy, didn't expect they'd be living in Arkansas longer than three years when they moved here in 2006 so the Indiana-raised artist could take an artist-in-residence position at the University of Arkansas. He thought academia was his future. The economy, however, made that a difficult proposition and he quit looking for jobs outside Arkansas to try his hand at making a living as an artist. Amy became a midwife. Cefalo teaches only part-time, at the Arts Center this summer and at UALR in fall. "Staying has helped us realize our dreams," Cefalo said. The couple lives in the country, outside Sheridan, with their six children, who range in age from 5 to 15.

Cefalo, true to his desire to recreate the look of the great artists of the past, makes his own paints from dry natural pigments and his own gesso from a product called "marble dust." He treats his linen canvases with rabbit skin glue before laying on the gesso and then sketches in the image with brown pigment thinned with gum spirits. His palette is limited to black, white, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and vermillion red. Never blue. Never cadmium yellows. "That's what gives it that ancient look," he explained.

Like the palette, the subject matter of his most recent exhibition, "The World is Flat," at Gallery 26, refers to the archetypical. It included a portrait of himself as a centaur, and nude images of himself and his wife loosely joined with a cloth, the way the bride and groom are tied with a tallis in Jewish tradition. His goal is for the work to have a kind of "timelessness," to "remove the distance between you and the painting."

Most recently, Cefalo has left the studio to paint in the bedrooms of friends: He's focusing on the "hidden messages" couples portray in their body language and expression. "As soon as you put two people in a room and they aren't looking at each other, there is a story," he said.

"I'm not as interested in the thing known as contemporary art," Cefalo said, but in creating the depth he finds in Old Masters. He counts among his influences figure painter Steven Assael, with whom he studied when he lived in New York. Cefalo says Assael and other contemporary representational painters are often seen by art critics as somehow quaint, rather than talents who are keeping painting alive.

Coincidentally, the advertising for a workshop Assael is leading in Salt Lake City in August features his painting of a woman with elegantly tattooed arms. Cefalo does not think tattoo art is quaint. Rather, he thinks had the technology been available, "I have no doubt many of the great painters of the Renaissance would be delving into tattoo and doing poignant things with it."

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