Captain Tom Stephens with Redfish and J.P.A.

Published March 24, 2010

A day on the high seas with Sarasota artist and fishing captain Tom Stephens

Process: S/ART/Q Art Exhibit
Opening reception 5-11 p.m. Fri., March 26, exhibition runs through April 25, G.WIZ Science Museum, 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota,, free.

As he does on most days during the summer months, Captain Tom Stephens Jr. paces the deck of his 23-foot Dorado fishing boat docked behind New Pass Grill. He checks the rods, stocks bait and frees a pelican caught in a line. I probably resemble most of Stephens’ clients as I board the vessel with an itch to get fishing. The breeze is brisk as we make our way along south Longboat Key into Big Sarasota Bay. Stephens ascends to his perch to survey the shallow waters and soon locates a swirling school shimmering in the grassy flats. Anchor down — this is where his process begins.

Stephens grew up near Tallahassee in a big fishing family and his love of the sport led him to work on charter boats out of Marina Jack while attending Ringling College. After he graduated with a fine arts degree in 1997, Stephens began his professional career not in the studio but on the water. He started a fishing charter business called Top Notch Sportfishing, which he now runs with his father. “In 2001 I bit the bullet and got [the Dorado],” he says, “which was probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought in my life — $85,000, which costs more than my house. … I’ve been painting my whole life and I’ve been fishing my whole life. I just decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to do what I want to do for work.’”

Eventually Stephens established himself as a popular local artist, and these days he is able to split his passions relatively evenly throughout the year. “Spring break kind of kicks it off and I’ll be going almost every day until up around Fourth of July,” he says. “When my season is going heavy with fishing I don’t spend as much time in the studio. You have to give and take some. I just kind of change my focus. Six months, I’m really focused on fishing and getting my work done, and then I get six months off basically and I’m painting and focused on that side of my life.”

A member of the local contemporary artists’ collective S/ART/Q, Stephens displays his latest work at the group’s new exhibition, opening at G.WIZ this weekend. Appropriately titled Process, the goal of the show is to give art lovers a glimpse into the creative process artists go through from inspiration to installation.

Once docked back at New Pass Grill, Stephens shows me a picture displayed prominently on the wall in the bait shop. In it, he’s wrestling a 208–pound tarpon. “Those big tarpon, some of them will jump as high as the ceiling out of the water,” Stephens says. “That big one in that picture, that one jumped out of the water about seven times, about 10 or 15 feet out of the water. I’ve grabbed a lot of tarpon but that one was like, ‘Oh my God.’ That’s my trophy catch on the boat as of now.”

For Stephens, art inspiration almost always comes from his day job: “A lot of my time on the water has inspired a lot of my paintings. During the summer you get these turquoise blues. It’s the colors and a lot of different things that inspire me to make paintings. I’ve always been inspired by the marine environment.”

Fishing provides inspiration, and also a lot of his clients. “When I first started fishing I did not think these people that I took fishing would be interested in the fact that I was an artist,” Stephens says, “which became totally not true. A lot of my clients turned into collectors of my work. And quite a few of the people I’ve met through the years were serious art collectors before I even knew it.”

Stephens’ work falls primarily into four categories: horizons at sea, landscapes, cityscapes and colorful abstract paintings. As we peruse Stephens’ home studio after the boat trip, he points to a huge cityscape taking up his entire living room wall. “That piece right there was the first piece that had any noticeable buildings or perspectives like that,” he explains. “The piece was inspired by being on the water at night, especially when you’re near downtown. When driving a boat at night you have to be really careful and you have to have your attention on the water so you’re noticing all these reflections. So that piece led me to doing cityscapes.”

Another characteristic of Stephens’ work is its three-dimensional quality, with globs of thick oil paint stacked high off the canvas. “I like my pieces to have a texture and a surface that’s real interesting and a full array of color,” he says. “That’s what makes them unique I think. People always comment on the texture and the linear quality to them. They start to search around in all that paint and they find little spots they like. … Those are the pieces that everybody’s interested in. My focus right now is on the abstract pieces. And they’re going to change. They’re going to become more organic in the future.”

The future is a big preoccupation of Stephens these days. He shows me the plans for a new 500-square-foot studio he’s erecting in his front yard. “Things are really progressing,” he says. “I want to get this studio built and then things will really change for me. I think my work is suffering because I don’t have the right setup. I don’t have the space. So I’m painting differently than I would if I had the right facilities. So I’m really, really stoked.”

As my long day with the captain winds down, I ask him for his best fishing story. He doesn’t disappoint. “I caught a 15-foot tiger shark one time,” Stephens says, then backtracks. “I don’t know if I caught it, but I fought it for two or three hours. We got him up near the boat and then he took off and we never saw him again. It was a huge tiger shark. We were in a 17-foot boat and it was just short of the boat. Me and my dad caught that fish.”

Photos by Tim Sukits

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