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Painter Gregory Stone seeks to turn bad news into beauty

  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • "Seeking Shelter", oil, is in a show of new works by Gregory Stone, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    "Seeking Shelter", oil, is in a show of new works by Gregory Stone, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • "Seeking Shelter", studies in ink, is included in "Journey of the Thumbnail", a show of new works by Gregory Stone on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    "Seeking Shelter", studies in ink, is included in "Journey of the Thumbnail", a show of new works by Gregory Stone on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gregroy Stone, right, talks about a self-portrait in oil, "It Takes Three", included in his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Gregroy Stone, right, talks about a self-portrait in oil, "It Takes Three", included in his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Doodles and thumbnail sketches by Greg Stone are on view at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton.

    Doodles and thumbnail sketches by Greg Stone are on view at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25. At upper right is "Ron at Smokin' Caboose", oil, and the oils "Breaktime", lower right, and "Saxman" with their respective studies.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25. At upper right is "Ron at Smokin' Caboose", oil, and the oils "Breaktime", lower right, and "Saxman" with their respective studies.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • "Night Fisherman", oil, is accompanied by its ink study in Gregory Stone's current show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    "Night Fisherman", oil, is accompanied by its ink study in Gregory Stone's current show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25. At left is "It Takes Three", oil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25. At left is "It Takes Three", oil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "Seeking Shelter", oil, is in a show of new works by Gregory Stone, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "Seeking Shelter", studies in ink, is included in "Journey of the Thumbnail", a show of new works by Gregory Stone on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Gregroy Stone, right, talks about a self-portrait in oil, "It Takes Three", included in his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Doodles and thumbnail sketches by Greg Stone are on view at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton.
  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25. At upper right is "Ron at Smokin' Caboose", oil, and the oils "Breaktime", lower right, and "Saxman" with their respective studies.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "Night Fisherman", oil, is accompanied by its ink study in Gregory Stone's current show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", on exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25. At left is "It Takes Three", oil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Gregory Stone talks about his show of new works, "Journey of the Thumbnail", at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton through May 25.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

A few days after tornadoes hit Springfield June 1, 2011, painter Gregory Stone drove to the west bank of the Connecticut River to find the place a water spout had been captured on video.

Stone saw mangled guardrails. They told him he was standing where spinning winds that seemed to toy with the river came ashore, packing destruction.

In his sketchbook, he recorded the skyline across the river and other details. Back in his Holyoke studio, Stone sketched and painted. Answering his call to art, not news, he shaped images no photographer managed to capture that day.

Another night, Stone ended a painting class he was teaching in Florence and hurried to Holyoke to watch crews fight a mill fire. He photographed and sketched as smoke billowed into the night sky.

He noted the way water cascaded from ladder trucks onto the fire, the white streams intense as lasers.

In the painting that later emerged in his Canal Gallery studio, just blocks away, two firefighters stand facing the fire, seemingly resigned to their duty to keep this disaster from getting worse.

Behind them, the blackness of water in a canal reflects flames. Clouds of poisonous smoke pack blues and greens. Sparks fly about, red hot.

Stone stood that night alongside news crews — people there to show what happened. When a gas line exploded at a strip club in Springfield last fall, Stone grabbed his cheap camera and sketchbook.

What is this draw to disaster? Why is a painter there?

Stone, 66, is used to the questions because his elderly aunt Marge once asked him the same thing. He told her he finds beauty, wonder and possibility in destruction.

“There’s always hope that something replaces it,” he said of death and ruin. “You don’t know what it is.”

‘Thumbnail’ journey

In a conversation at the A.P.E. Gallery this week, during one of the final days of a major exhibit of his work — his first in Northampton in more than a decade — Stone recalled a comment attributed to the French artist Auguste Rodin, which he remembers as this: There is nothing more beautiful in a thing than its death.

Until it ends Sunday, this 44-piece exhibit allows viewers to see not just what the celebrated Northampton artist chooses to paint today, but how his major works start with small moments that capture his interest.

“Journey of the Thumbnail,” as the show is titled, displays finished oil paintings alongside charcoal and pencil and ink sketches Stone rendered first, as he sought to explore the motion, material or moment that made him stop and look.

We see a firefighter hunched over a stream of water in one sketch. In a tiny space on a large white envelope, Stone drew two furtive figures that star in the painting “Seeking Shelter,” one pushing a shopping cart of belongings. “Cassandra with Child,” a large nude portrait of a pregnant woman, hangs beside a small sketch of the same model, in which her hands sit idly in her lap. In the finished work, she holds baby shoes because Stone decided, between sittings, she needed something to do with her hands.

Lisa Thompson, the gallery’s associate director, said Stone pitched the idea of showing a sketch’s journey to finished work.

“I just think they’re wonderful, the way they refer to the paintings, and how the paintings refer to them,” Thompson said of the thumbnails.

“He had definite things he wanted in the show,” she said of Stone. “There was a fair amount of editing (of possible exhibit items) to illuminate it.”

First things count

Stone likes to protect his creative sparks as he progresses with a painting. They live on in sketches. “You have to try to capture that first thing that was so important to you.”

And you have to protect it, he says, from getting lost as a work grows more complex.

He recalls a former teacher telling him it takes two people to sculpt: one to work the material and another to say stop.

Stone plays with that internal dialogue in the exhibit’s largest piece, “It Takes Three.” The self-portrait shows the artist at work while two other Gregory Stones sit on either side of him — shoulder angels ready to second-guess his artistic decisions.

Beyond holding on to what first inspires him, Stone knows it is essential to let that moment happen in the first place.

Consider the back story of one of the exhibit’s most appealing works, “Breaktime.” Stone noticed a crew working in Holyoke and was struck — in the seconds a glance allows — by how all five men gathered at the edge of the job, dressed in yellow safety vests, were smiling. He drove on, then those internal voices started up: You are too busy to stop and explore that, said one. That voice won, until another spoke: You may never see this again.

Stone returned to the work site, double-parked and took photos. He explained to a cop he wasn’t there to get the guys in trouble, just paint them.

“Breaktime” captures the rock-solid camaraderie of a crew and leaves the viewer wondering, pleasantly, what they found so amusing.

The exhibit shares many street moments — for life in public has always drawn the artist. “Ron at Smokin’ Caboose” is a portrait of a Route 5 lunch cart owner.

“Saxman” captures a Northampton street musician and an accompanying sketch — the thumbnail here — suggests that it was the way the saxophone player was leaning back in performance that caught Stone’s eye. The artist worked, in the painting that followed, to capture that man’s body angle and to convey the motion of music by softening the player’s back and to avoid painting too many details around his hands.

“The less you put in, the more motion you’re going to get out of it, if you do it the right way,” Stone said.

In all of these pieces, he seemed to be working to allow that looseness.

Despite “Saxman,” there are far fewer scenes that depict Northampton than there used to be in Stone’s work. “It’s a different city than it was,” he says, then uses the word “gentrification.”

“It’s a little on the gritty side,” he said of Holyoke. “Which is fine with me.”

Holyoke’s streets offer more of the moments Stone likes to chase. “Seeking Shelter” shows two apparently homeless people moving across an inhospitable sidewalk, toward no certain relief. “Loneliness” capture a tiny figure atop a railroad bridge. Will he jump?

A far happier scene comes in “Porch Party,” a moody scene of an overflowing party. People dance outdoors as a band plays under porch lamps that glow like a ship’s running lights. The scene enables Stone to marry a streetscape with something sweetly domestic.

It’s not a scene of disaster. Then again, the police might arrive any minute.

“Journey of the Thumbnail,” new works by Gregory Stone, continues through Sunday at A.P.E. Gallery at 126 Main St., Northampton. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. daily and until 8 p.m. Friday. For information, call 586-5553.

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