Chapel Hill: Opinion

Blair L. Pollock: The painter’s power of place

Steve Hessler and I agree that we love Impressionist paintings and care little for modern abstract art. The difference between me and Steve is that he, for the past 20 years, has been painting his images in that style while I can barely wield anything but a house painting brush.

Like the impressionists, Steve often works in ‘plein air’ – that’s outdoors for us non-Francophones. His business card says “plein air oil painter recording … textile mill village images” and the other side shows a now almost famous image of his beloved Carrboro mill houses.

Those mill houses and southern Piedmont landscapes have captured his imagination and drawn him to at least the perimeter of the historic preservation movement in North Carolina. His saying is, “The brush is mightier than the bulldozer.”

Hessler realizes the ephemeral fabric that helps create our sense of community is formed partly from its local architecture and when that’s as unspectacular as mill houses, it can seem insignificant. When you look at his simple, pleasing, well composed small canvases of these modest but now coveted homes, or the façades of Carr Mill Mall or of Johnny’s Gone Fishing, the power of place becomes more evident. Since the time of Mike Nelson’s mayoralty, Steve’s work has begun to populate local galleries, homes and private collections and reflexively helped strengthen the sense of community by showing its imagery to itself.

Steve works mostly in a small format because he says he likes to finish a piece in two to three hours and if he’s painting outdoors, the light changes after a couple of hours, making it harder to capture the image as it was at the start. He expresses his love for this area where he’s lived now for over 45 years through the mill house work and local landscapes. We have a Hessler landscape of the east side of Cliff’s Meat Market in downtown Carrboro, complete with the slightly listing truck. He painted this unspectacular view simply because it was raining that day of his painting class at the Carrboro Century Center and he found shelter under the overhang at the Carrboro Century Center where the view across the street was the side of the market.

But sometimes the subject is more compelling. To quote his web page: “You’ll be walking or driving along and a scene will catch your eye ... sometimes it is only a glimpse ... but it will be right compositionally and tonally.”

So, be it Carrboro, Ireland, France or rural Orange County, Hessler has to stop and paint or take a photograph to paint from later. Other favorite subject matter includes working boats along the North Carolina coast, Maryland shore and various European rivers. As he’s no plein air purist, Hessler’s work also includes imagery from the ether. There are quadrant guidelines painted directly on the old Dell monitor.

His interest in art began early when his mother would take him to the Philadelphia Art Institute and reward him with a nickel for each Impressionist painter he could name while standing on the other side of the gallery. His grandmother dabbled on canvas and his maternal grandfather was a sign painter who made part of his living painting large-scale advertisements on the sides of barns for the likes of Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco.

Self-taught mostly Steve picked up the brushes as an adult after “borrowing” an unused paint set from his older brother. He keeps his very first painting of sheep dog trials in England in a gold colored frame in prominent spot on his studio wall. He says “I got lucky with my first picture and liked it. That encouraged me to continue.” He likes working in oil, noting how hard water color is because you have only one chance to get the image right.

Steve is not shy about marketing and notes that many talented artists don’t succeed commercially mainly because they fail to market well. He has a website like himself, straightforward and unpretentious ( organized by categories of subject matter including an engaging bio sketch. His work is on display at the N.C. Crafts Gallery in Carrboro, the Little Gallery in Raleigh and Carteret Contemporary Art in Morehead City.

For a retired psychotherapist, whose daily subject was people, face-to-face, intensely one-on-one, there’s a bit of irony in the lack of people in Steve’s paintings. He says without a trace of sarcasm, “People are just too hard to paint.”

But as a genuine people person still, you may find him working out of his pochade box in downtown Carrboro and he’d gladly talk to you while the paint dries.

You can reach Blair Pollock at