Stephen Chilton (1975-2014)

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 10.04.30‘I’ve lost a friend / And I don’t know why’ (Tim Hardin, Eulogy to Lenny Bruce (1967))

I taught Steve when he was first a BA and then an MA Fine Art student at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. At the outset, my impression of him was that of a garrulous, grinning, and ungainly young man with interesting ears and a nervous laugh, who looked like a Mannerist version of Noddy, and sounded as though he could be Lily Savage’s brother. But within that shell of brassy ebullience and conviviality lay a personality which had been shaped by long and habitual introspection, the disposition and complexity of which we now better understand. When he spoke about painting and spirituality (hardly ever the one without the other), his thoughts were sober, chaste, and uttered with deliberation. In our tutorials there were, on many occasions, uncomfortably long silences between my questions and his answers. This, I learned, did not imply that he was lost for words. Rather, that silence was a meditative space wherein he ruminated upon his options before committing one to speech.

Within him coursed contrary currents. Steve had an extraordinary capacity to be the most supportive friend you could ever wish to have, and yet nursed a neediness and vulnerability of equal measure. He was a great talker; but as good a listener. He could be dizzily optimistic and ambitious one day, and frozen by remorse and self-doubt the next. Moreover, he was often unconfident in the anticipation of making a painting, but always fully self-assured in the act. These combinations of strength and weakness, positive and the negative, light and darkness (never the one without the other) were the necessary precursor conditions for making images that gestured simultaneously towards the inner man and a higher world:

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I instructed him in painting, I saw his paintings, but I never witnessed him paint. To have done so would have been deeply uncomfortable for Steve — like being watched while at prayer. I sometimes envied the sense of fulfilment that he experienced in painting. Through it he found an intimacy of engagement, personal resolution (in terms of both a determination and a solution), and the capacity to touch the still, calm centre of his own psyche. Steve followed the psalmist’s counsel to ‘seek peace and pursue it’. Peace was the object of his desire in respect not only to his own soul but also his relationships to everyone and anyone around him. And, palpably, it was the object (if ever there was one) of the works that he breathed into being.

Steve made abstract paintings that slowly evolved through the judicious application of ethereal, luminous colour (reminiscent of the northern lights), variously stained, washed-over, poured, rolled, lightly-brushed upon, and sunk beneath the warp and weave of the canvas. The resultant images are visual metaphors that, through the process of multiple, thin, translucent overlays, evoke what the English painter Samuel Palmer (1805-81), referring to the Creation, spoke of as ‘the veil of heaven, through which her divine features are dimly smiling’. Steve’s creations, likewise, offer a partial and tantalizing vision: a promissory and an anticipation of that more perfect and satisfying ground of being that beckons from beyond. For him, reality did not consist in that which is visible and tangible only. He suspected that there was something else beyond the scene, and someone behind the curtain. Now, he has no need of faith, because, now, he knows assuredly:

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In June 2014, Steve told me that the two years that he’d spent in Aberystwyth studying for his Masters degree had been the happiest of his life. It was then and there that he’d finally found himself. His last paintings bear testimony to that. They’re mature, focused, and assured. These are among the few consolations that I’ve been able to eke out of a tragedy that can no more be understood than it can be undone. Steve, you’ve left us, as you’d say, ‘gutted’.

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