Sympathy for the devil

Frederick artist makes monsters endearing

Frederick artist makes monsters endearing

April 10, 2003|by Chris Copley

Outside the Blue Elephant Art Center, the orange glare of sodium lights turned dark, Monday night streets into empty, urban alleys of anxiety.

The dark street scene was a suitable backdrop for the macabre scene upstairs at the art center, where artist Stephen Blickenstaff faced down a gallery of ghouls, monsters, skeletons and nightmare beasts.

This month, the Blue Elephant is displaying Blickenstaff's paintings and drawings from the past three years in a show entitled "Beautiful Tragedy." On this Monday night, Blickenstaff and show organizer Skye Valois looked over 26 head-and-shoulders portraits of monsters and ghouls, preparing to mount the work on the gallery walls.


Blickenstaff's images are monstrous but generally not hideous or frightening. The colorfully painted subjects look approachable, earnest, almost endearing - the sort of folks you might want to talk to at a party. Blickenstaff is clearly sympathetic with his subjects.

"I'm 41, and I've been doing monster drawings since the beginning," said Blickenstaff, looking over his work. "I was always a big fan of horror movies."

Blickenstaff, who was born and raised in Frederick, is an unassuming artist, an unlikely person to produce the visions of nightmare he is drawn to. By day, he works as graphic designer for Frederick County Public Schools. At night, he paints and draws.

He looks the part of a contemporary artist - black T-shirt and blue jeans, dark hair pulled into a ponytail - but Blickenstaff doesn't blow his own artistic horn. Instead, he tends to blend into the background, to disappear.

Valois put Blickenstaff's work in perspective.

"He's a local legend," Valois said. "Maybe he doesn't know how many artists he influenced. Me and all my friends were in art class copying that."

"That" is the cover art for "Bad Music for Bad People," a 1984 recording by the horror-themed punk band the Cramps. In the '80s, Blickenstaff said, he haunted the Washington, D.C., music scene. For groups he got to know, such as the Cramps, Blickenstaff drew detailed pen-and-ink monster drawings and gave them to the groups. One drawing turned out to be popular with the band.

"Bad Music's" cover, featuring a yellow, skull-like head with white eyeballs and stand-up-straight hair, earned Blickenstaff some national attention. He was hired to draw art for albums and T-shirts for other punk-rock bands. He did the inking for the comic book "39 Screams." He also drew artwork for punk fanzines.

In the '90s, technology marched on. The Frederick school system bought Blickenstaff a computer for his graphic design. The artist eventually bought one for use at home. But he said he prefers old art technology to new.

"I put a lot of my black-and-white work into PhotoShop and colorize it," he said. "But I still like working on canvas and paper."

In recent years, Blickenstaff has tried to increase his exposure and produce work for the horror-punk segment of the fine arts market. He's branched out into new media, now producing his monsters in acrylic paint.

"Over the past two years, I've been doing shows," he said. "I've been selling some on e-bay - about one piece a week. A guy opened a gallery in New Hope, Pa., and asked me to do a show. There was a story about me in the Philadelphia paper. I sold half the paintings."

Sales are good, but Blickenstaff remains focused on expressing his artistic vision. He likes his paintings. They're unpredictable, intuitive. He produces them in a quick, stream-of-consciousness burst.

"For right now, I'm happy doing these," he said. "I try to do the whole thing fast. I paint the background color, then make a black silhouette and add the image. I'm never really sure how they're going to turn out. That's the fun thing about this."

If you go

"Beautiful Tragedy," recent paintings and drawings by Frederick artist Stephen Blickenstaff

Noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through April 27, or by appointment


The Blue Elephant Art Center

4A W. 5th St.

Frederick, Md.

Call Skye Valois, 1-240-876-7650

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