In November of 2015 Stephen Hayes was working in his studio when he heard the news on the radio: mass shootings (and a bomb attack) had killed 130 people in Paris.

Stephen had recently discovered Google Earth as a tool for creating his evocative landscape paintings. He could pick a spot on earth, virtually travel there, then create a painting from this long distance visit.

On this November morning Stephen went to Google Earth and visited the scenes of these mass shootings. “And I was really surprised at how uneventful those images were,” Stephen recalls. “Logically there would be no reason to expect otherwise, but the impact on me was profound.”

Decades of studio practice have given painter Stephen Hayes the mastery of his materials to reveal intimate, internal emotions.
 

Decades of studio practice have given painter Stephen Hayes the mastery of his materials to reveal intimate, internal emotions.  

Eric Slade/OPB

Stephen began making paintings of the sites of the Paris attacks. “And as I’m making those paintings there were shootings that happened in this country – in San Bernardino, California for instance. And so I made a painting for San Bernardino.”

In the months that followed Stephen built on this work – ending up with over 50 paintings, and a project that continues today.

The collective title of the project is, “In The Hour Before.”

“The notion being that it’s always possible to find this quality before these events have happened. It’s always possible to recognize that that quality is going to exist again potentially, given time.” For Stephen the work is a chance to respond to the “grotesque reality of an escalating physical and social violence in America.”

Last year in April, Stephen was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on “In The Hour Before.” He joins a short list of Oregon artists who’ve received the prestigious national award.

A painting from artist Stephen Hayes depicting Ferguson Mo. before the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.

A painting from artist Stephen Hayes depicting Ferguson Mo. before the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.

Courtesy Stephen Hayes

Stephen has been creating his emotionally evocative work for decades now. And across time, with his plein air paintings, portraits, prints and monotypes, he has always encouraged us to engage with the work as an object, where we can find a personal connection. And where we can find some beauty — a word Stephen is not afraid to use. He hopes that “the object itself, the painting, the print, the drawing, is on some level beautiful to look at.” Even when we’re looking at landscapes that were once the scenes of mass violence. 

“I recognize that there’s an odd marriage of beauty and tragedy in these paintings, and in this project, and I’m not a 100 percent sure why I’m trying to keep that marriage alive in the work. But I think it’s critical.”