‘This is my religion’: Seattle painter captures city on canvas

‘This is my religion’: Seattle painter captures city on canvas

Like a sentinel of the city, Michael Stasinos keeps watch on street corners, armed with a brush and an easel and various little blobs of pigment suspended in oil on a worn palette.

He returns, day by day, contemplating Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and he paints. He paints around the city, too, but nothing says Seattle like Capitol Hill.

The community, the culture, “to me, that’s Seattle,” Stasinos said from the dining room table of his canvas-filled apartment on a recent Friday. “It’s the pinnacle.”

Stasinos, 57, has painted scenes on the Hill — the late Rite Aid on the corner of Broadway and John Street, the City Market intersection along Olive Way, the view of downtown from his apartment rooftop — since he moved to Seattle in 1997.

Cloaked under a large-billed hat, Stasinos stations himself at the junction of busy streets or corners of quiet existence, in rain or shine. His paintings take months, if not years, to complete. But that’s why he paints, he says.

“What is important is the process, the meditation and journey.”

A stack of four finished paintings leans against a wardrobe, a pile of six sits in a corner and more works dot the walls of Stasinos’ home, chronicling his decades of painting.

Having spent his childhood in Utah, Stasinos started painting in the mid-1980s while studying theater at Southern Utah University. During a busy semester, Stasinos opted for an art class to give himself — “what I think a lot of students think of when they do art in school” — a break, he said.

He failed the class.

He kept two small paintings from those days, to prove to his students — he’s now retired, but he taught art at Pacific Lutheran University near Tacoma for 19 years — “how bad I was.”

But a supportive professor encouraged him to make up the assignments from the flunked class, which the professor then submitted in a portfolio to faculty. The portfolio gave Stasinos a scholarship to join Southern Utah University’s art program.

He went on to earn his master’s in figurative art at the New York Academy of Art. Moving to Seattle with his wife after grad school, he found the city “a breath of fresh air,” he said, its diversity “a microcosm of what I was experiencing in New York.”

He admits painting at Capitol Hill, at first, was a pragmatic decision.

Downtown Seattle from Stasinos’ apartment

Local artist Michael Stasinos paints various scenes of Seattle on street corners or from his apartment. Here is a painting made by Stasinos from his apartment rooftop, left, and a photograph of downtown Seattle. (Image on the left courtesy of Stasinos, photograph by Nick Wagner / The Seattle Times)

It was where he first taught art after moving to Seattle, at Cornish College of the Arts Kerry Hall and then at Seattle Academy of Fine Art, now Gage Academy of Art.

A pile of student debt drove him to paint on sidewalks to save money by avoiding studio and model fees.

“Since then, the sidewalks have been my studio and the city is my model,” he said.

Painting outdoors on sidewalks is not always easy, as views constantly change. When it rains, he works on smaller canvases, sheltered under an umbrella.

When people ask why he picks a particular location, he can’t answer why. 

Some strike him as interesting. Others look like “a great challenge.” But all start telling him why once he picks up a brush, he said, the reason usually hidden until invested observation coaxes a location’s personality onto the canvas.

Stasinos sees himself as a visual anthropologist, digging up bits and pieces of the culture and daily life of a place through painted notations.

“I have an interest in the juxtaposition of an urban location’s time-weathered history, or even decay, and new construction, or what I call ‘the in-between spaces,’ ” he said.

Interstate 5, for example, is an “empty stage,” nothing more than a ribbon of colored grays based on whether the cement is clean or is streaked with oil. But add in tire marks from a crash, the litter thrown from someone’s window or graffiti along a certain stretch, and “that’s what gives the space its personality,” Stasinos said.

The details he documents on canvas — like street signs and graffiti and even someone’s discarded chip bag — tell the story of a moment captured in time, and “of how a space has been used, navigated, treated and transformed.”

Ironically, capturing a moment in time actually requires thousands of moments of observation, he said, which is “part of the reason why it takes me so long to paint.”

“If I return to a location over and over again, even within the same painting, every day, something new is there,” he said.

He often works one part of the canvas at a time, sometimes spending weeks getting the detail of a bush just right or adding in new bits of personality, like that discarded chip bag he notices one day or a sign on a telephone pole. 

In the end, his finished painting of a single moment is, in reality, made of many, many moments.

A stack of paintings detailing a panoramic view of Gas Works Park stands guard by the entrance of Stasinos’ apartment. It took him four years to paint the three connecting panels, but he doesn’t mind the time it takes to make his art.

“The passion I have is for the process,” he said. “I’m much more interested in the journey of making the piece.”

Such is true for many classically trained figurative artists: Time is irrefutably necessary. Unfortunately, “that’s totally unacceptable in our culture today,” he said, which discourages sustained efforts.

“It’s kind of like, ‘We want you to work, we want a painting as great as Titian, but can you have it to me by Monday?’” he said, “and that doesn’t register with a lot of artists.”

Stasinos admits he didn’t always meditate over the details like he does now. His first landscape paintings resembled a quick and impressionistic approach favored by many plein air (outdoors) artists.

Gas Works Park

Michael Stasinos spent four years painting a composite of Gas Works Park, made of three connecting panels. Here is the composite made by Stasinos, left, and a photograph of Gas Works Park. (Image on the left courtesy of Stasinos, photograph by Nick Wagner / The Seattle Times)

Painting in the “alla prima” style — which literally means “all at once” — meant quickly capturing a changing scene like a setting sun. It’s “like shooting a dart at the dartboard and trying to get as close as possible to the bull’s-eye on your first attempt,” Stasinos said.

That didn’t work for him. If plein air painters were sprinters running to the finish line, then he aimed to be “a marathon runner challenged by making a sustained effort,” he said, passionate about the journey itself, not the finished piece.

So, he draws, then paints, then draws, then paints, then draws on top of that and then paints on top of that. His works consist of many layers, each an opportunity to make a correction, note new observations or add more detail.

“At the end of the day, I’m not going to call myself a master,” he said, “I’m going to throw darts as many times until I get a bull’s-eye.”

He often has multiple works in progress, and returns to each site whenever the weather is right. He could work on paintings forever, he said. He insists there is no such thing as overworking a painting, and it is only considered finished when “it tells me it can live on its own.”

He also often paints the same location more than once, a process that began in his early days when he found himself unsatisfied with his work. 

That drive to try again “keeps me coming back to the same locations,” he said. “I find that I think, ‘There’s a personality here, and I’m not quite sure if I’ve actually succeeded in capturing it yet.’ And that brings me back, time and time again. And in returning to these locations, I’ve been able to witness evolution.”

He doesn’t bemoan the changing city (although he acknowledges South Lake Union is much different from what it was 15 years ago). Through his eyes and on his canvases, the city is “just as interesting, if not more interesting, now.”

He hopes people find connection in his paintings, some of which are on display in downtown Seattle’s Woodside Braseth Gallery. Part of the pursuit of capturing details, personality and evolution, he said, is that he wants viewers to find familiarity in his works.

For him, painting is more than just art.

“This is my religion,” he said.

“The landscape of the city is an organism that’s evolving, and I’m just lucky enough to be recording it.”