How and where local artists discover the muses to feed their need to create
by Sharon A. Shaw, Jocelyn Murray and Bill Donahue

Art may be subjective, but all artists—regardless of their medium, training or background—can agree on one thing: Inspiration is as necessary an ingredient as, say, brushes and paint. (Some would likely say even more so.) Here, in the Philadelphia suburbs, local artists derive their work from an abundance of so-called muses, from Chester County’s idyllic hillsides to the historic farmhouses of Bucks County, with countless other striking subjects, whether person, place or thing, that could be found anywhere. For most, it’s simply a matter of opening one’s eyes—and one’s mind—and having no fear to pursue a means of bold self-expression.

Contradictions—city and suburbs, art and science, light and darkness—shape the works of “vibration” artist Nathan DiStefano

For many, a painting is something static to be viewed, but Nathan DiStefano wants viewers who see his art to feel as moved as he did creating it—and, in short, to simply feel it.

“My paintings are places I still felt after I had been there,” he says. “Certain environments stand out over time. I want to capture how these places made me feel. … I want to show the vibrations.” DiStefano uses this vibratory feeling to create lines that give the viewer a sense of movement. “I want to capture a few seconds to minutes, to take it in and recreate it.”

Each of his most recent works commands a large canvas—6 feet or taller—because he wants to feel he is “inside” the painting, adding that his body “comes out in the brush strokes.” According to DiStefano each stroke has “weight” and forms a line—“a complete abstraction.” Together, however, they form an environment.

A personal family trauma drove DiStefano to this style of art, pushing him to earn a Master of Fine Arts from University of the Arts. For him it was a kind of therapy. “I needed to connect to something to create my environment back again,” he says.
He draws inspiration from impressionist, post-impressionist and abstract impressionist artists, also relating these styles to the scientific theories of each era.

“In the 1880s the point was an idea used in physics and the dots get stretched to lines in the 1940s, then again in the ’60s and ’70s when the string theory was proposed and you began to see it used in art.” He enjoys the parallels that art and physics share and observing the way painters throughout history have used these principles to depict motion.

A Doylestown native, DiStefano began practicing this style in the woods of Bucks County, first with paintings of leaves and trees. “A lot we feel we cannot see, like the weight pushing on the branches and leaves,” he says. “The wind has weight, but we cannot see it.” He soon graduated to the hustle and bustle of life on the streets of Philadelphia and Manhattan. “In cities, there is so much going on,” he says. “To capture the feeling is difficult to do.”

Recently he has returned to his hometown, though he admits it took some time to adjust to the slower pace. In fact, it took him “a couple of years” before he could paint locally once again.

His work “Morning Jog,” which this summer was chosen for a place in the town’s highly competitive Bicentennial Juried Exhibition, is the only one of several Bucks County depictions with which he has been happy. The painting, which now hangs in the Doylestown Courthouse, captures the moment as a jogger crosses in front of the town’s iconic County Theater.

Lately he has focused on other Bucks County scenes, creating a series of 15 works to be displayed at his in-progress gallery in New Hope, including several that feature the local music scene, where he finds plenty of vibrations to move him. —SAS

Patrick Walsh finds expression in hometown landscapes and national icons

It is seldom a human life passes without a major tragedy or change. So when such a thing does occur, people often look for an outlet, cause or activity that enables emotional expression as a way to understand and cope with this new reality. Local artist Patrick Walsh is no different.

Since getting sober in 1991, Walsh has used drawing and painting as his catharsis to maintain his sobriety. “I would take this reward, this ability to paint,” explains Walsh, “and do it every single day of the rest of my life if [God] would keep me sober.”

And, ever since he made that commitment to himself, Walsh’s artistic career has blossomed not only in the Philadelphia area but around the country as well. His inspiration to paint comes not only from his commitment to sobriety but also from his own family’s creative past. His admiration for the masters of art—Cezanne, da Vinci, Dali, Degas, Michelangelo and van Gogh, to name just a few—is apparent.

“It’s not that I ever thought I was going to be one of them, but it’s nice to strive for that to make yourself better as an artist,” he says. And, with his artistic foundation in drawing—something to which he credits much of his success—the 66-year-old Walsh has let his art dictate his life without being intimidated by it.

“I’ve never been aggressive,” he says. “I never wanted to push [my art] out on anyone. I’ve always basically painted the way I want to paint on my own. I never thought about, Well, how many paintings do I have of this?”

Walsh tends to paint things that “move” him, that he holds dear, both realistically and abstractly: Bucks County landscapes, primarily, but not the ones most people would expect. “I paint these quiet little places. Most people wouldn’t necessarily notice them but I love them,” he says. Many of his most memorable paintings, even though they were pivotal in his development as an artist, have been donated to local businesses and organizations.

While Walsh may not (yet, some might be tempted to say) be in the same strata as da Vinci, his talents have allowed him to feel comfortable and accepted in the artistic world. He hopes to one day serve as an inspiration to other young, aspiring artists. And even though he now lives his life “one day at a time,” not really contemplating his future too much, Walsh does admit to at least one other aspiration.

“One of my wishes [is] to have one of my paintings end up in the Whitney Museum of American Art,” says Walsh, a Vietnam veteran, “because I’ve always thought of myself as an American artist.”

It is fitting then that Walsh’s most recent work touches on a subject he is more than familiar with: American pride. He started the patriotic mural in Northeast Philadelphia this past February and completed it at the end of August, featuring national icons and monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, in addition to representations of the American flag. Most importantly, though, the mural represents Walsh’s own sentiments about America.

“I love this country,” he beams, “and it’s about the freedom of being able to create art.”
Perhaps there is a future for Walsh at the Whitney after all. —JM

Bill Sloan, “the kid who could draw,” hits the mark by combining fine art with commercial graphics

Bill Sloan was born in Philadelphia to a boisterous and supportive family, which was critical because “every artist needs a cheering squad,” he says. “We each think the other is a genius. … I was always the kid who could draw.”

This distinction inspired him to attend Tyler School of Art at Temple, where he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts. “It was a great place; I loved it. I had the ability to explore … and a personal goal to do it all. I never understood how other artists can do the same thing over and over. I would find that boring.”

It was this goal—and variety—that led Sloan into the dual careers he maintains to this day as a fine artist and commercial illustrator. Not only is he successful painter whose work can be found on display at the Timmons Gallery in Doylestown, but he is also creative director of Posner Advertising in New York. “I’ve always done both,” he says. “They feed one another; abstracts make my graphics better and vise versa.”

His inspiration is as diverse as his art. Among the sources he cites are Winslow Homer, Giotto di Bondone, the Russian constructivists, John Singer Sargent, Annie Lennox and good jazz “with bounce and beat,” he adds. “They have rented space in my head.” Also in his head are patterns, colors shapes and quotes. “I have a friend I am crazy about. The words she says are so beautiful.” 

Both his life in the city and the pastoral parts of Bucks County provide ample inspiration: the curve of a leaf, the line of a tall tree, the city lights, etc. Sloan keeps sketch books to document and cross-reference all these sources. “It comes from everywhere,” he says, “if you are open.”

Sloan also feels his commercial career has enhanced his abilities as a businessman: to meet deadlines and satisfy the requests of his fine-art clients. “I understand the value of production as well as the value of the creative. It’s one thing to own the creativity; it’s another to hit the mark,” he says.

“Sales [skills] are important,” he continues. “Creative talent is useless if it cannot be shared.” He enjoys sharing his talent by collaborating with clients on mural and portrait commissions. “I think everyone should have a portrait [done]. Everyone is drawn to them, but most are too modest to sit for one. A person on canvas is not the same as a person in a photograph. … If they want to be grand, you can make them grand. If they want to be funny, you can draw that out.” —SAS

Through oil and canvas, self-taught painter John Pompeo brings Chester County landscapes to life

There’s something organic—something alive—about John Pompeo’s best works. Considering his start in life, it’s easy to understand why.

“I’ve always been into art since I was kid—it was a hobby and a passion,” says Pompeo, now based in Phoenixville. “At 17 I had to pick a major, and everyone else was picking something like lawyer or engineer—big-time careers—and I had to compete with that. I liked biology, so I started looking into science and medicine.”

Years later, while working in a laboratory with his biology degree on the wall, he sort of “woke up,” wondering in the familiar refrain that tends to leave people shaken and motivated to change: How did I get here?

“I was unhappy and physically sick,” he recalls. “My wife and I bought a house in 2000 and were looking in design magazines, looking for something to get me out of the lab. I started exploring that and taught myself how to paint.”

At first it was decorative painting and murals, which taught him the physical act—the mechanics, the technique—of painting. The experience also provided other benefits, in that it showed him how to interact with clients and “be more of a businessman,” he says. Pluses aside, the work lacked the creativity he’d been craving to let loose.

By 2008, when the U.S. economy was approaching the morass it would soon sink into, his mural business had dried up, which “forced” him into the world of fine art. He quickly discovered he had a gift for it, and his work ultimately found a home in local and regional art festivals and small galleries, such as Beauty Art Gallery in Newtown Square, which showcased 20 or more of his paintings earlier this year.

A self-described “Chester County guy” who grew up in Malvern and studied at Devon Preparatory School, Pompeo draws inspiration from the area’s idyllic landscapes, including places in and around Valley Forge, as well as photographic references. His preferred subjects: animals and other natural scenes.  His preferred medium: environmentally friendly, water-soluble oils.

“A lot of people do barns and stone buildings,” he says. “With architecture, you lose some of the spontaneity; it can slow you down with details. You can suggest details with brush strokes. I’m more drawn to the design; I look for the angle or something that has a strong sense of design, like a photographer would.”

He counts the French impressionists and post-impressionists—Monet and van Gogh, for example—as well as American impressionists such as Bucks County great Edward Redfield among his heroes. Mostly, however, his muse comes from the subject before him, and the challenge of turning a blank canvas into something remarkable.

“The most important lesson I’ve learned, with every painting, is that it’s very intimidating to look at a blank canvas, so just start,” he says. “Every painting is kind of like a person; it goes through an awkward teenage phase. … You push through that, fixing, fixing, fixing, till there’s nothing left to fix.”  —BD