Hanging in Stefan Duncan’s studio in Charlotte is a large canvas called “Blaze in the Twilight.” The painting, from the artist’s personal collection, depicts a shining red tree against a distant, gray forest.
“The world is so cold to it that it can’t even get its roots in the ground,” Duncan says, describing the tree. “But over the horizon, its eyes are on the Divine. No obstacle can keep it from that. That’s its strength, what makes it radiant and glow.”
It’s an image that describes Duncan’s own life.
Duncan, 54, has degrees in English and in art from Fayetteville State University. He paints in a distinctive style that he calls “Squiggleism,” and cites Van Gogh as a major influence.
David Wolk of the Van Gogh Gallery (www.vangoghgallery.com) calls Duncan the leader among “contemporary impressionists,” describing his style as “Neo-Gogh.”
Duncan says that visitors to his studio are drawn to the striking red tree. “What I try to show in my painting is that no matter how dark the world can be, the light is always there,” Duncan says. “People need hope.”
He calls his artistic mission “Illuminism,” which he characterizes as a way to counter the “dark depression that’s settled over all of us because of the economy and world affairs.”
Duncan grew up in Fayetteville. In his early life, he was groomed to be a writer, not an artist.
“My father was a sports editor for the Fayetteville Observer, and my first present I remember as a child was a little toy typewriter,” he says. “I was trying to write stories that would awaken you to the value of things.”
As a young man, he felt that literary success was in his grasp – he even signed a contract with an independent movie company in Wilmington to make three of his stories into movies.
But in October 1990, just before he turned 30, Duncan was in a car accident. He broke more than a dozen bones and fell into a coma. Doctors didn’t think he would live.
When he awoke three weeks later, his fiancé left him, he lost his job and his dog was put to sleep (“like the country song,” he says). And because of a head injury, he no longer had the concentration to write.
It took Duncan two years to learn to walk again. He moved back to his family home during recovery.
“One day my mom goes, ‘Let’s get you out of here and go to an art gallery,’ because I kept thinking about everything I lost before; I wasn’t moving on,” he says.
As they were leaving the gallery, a goose walked up to him from a pond behind the building, flapped its wings, quacked at him and tried to follow him into the car as though it had a message, Duncan says.
“It became such a spectacle,” he says. “People were coming out of the gallery and watching this goose talk to me.
“And then from behind me, my mom goes … ‘That’s God talking to you through that goose.’ ”.
“And I go, ‘What? Where did you get that from?’ She goes, ‘I don’t know, (but) I never heard anything so clear in my life. … That goose is saying you’re supposed to be an artist.’ ”
That night, he drew a picture of the goose. “It was the first time in two years I didn’t feel pain.”
Duncan began to draw every day at a local art gallery in Fayetteville.
“One day I drew this tree with swirls, and it looked like it was just bursting with light,” he says. Passers-by began commenting on the picture, something that hadn’t happened before. “And beside the tree I did this big, beautiful, glorious sun, and it had these rays of light radiating (onto) the tree, and I go, ‘That sun is God, and that tree is me,’ and then it hit me: This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Duncan moved to Charlotte 15 years ago to begin his career. He teaches weekly painting classes in acrylics, oil and prismacolor at Cheap Joe’s art supply store in Charlotte and at the Arts and Cultural Center in Huntersville. He paints every day at the studio he maintains at the Charlotte Art League, a gallery and art association in Charlotte’s South End.
In his work, he strives to bring a slice of the divine back into the city. “I feel we’re the closest to God when we’re in nature,” he says. “Today, in the cities, we never touch the earth because of the concrete; we never see the stars because of the streetlights. We’ve removed ourselves from the … natural with God.”
Duncan, who was raised a Southern Baptist, does not tie the divine in his work to any religious tradition.
“I have my own beliefs, but I’m trying to find common ground for everybody,” he says. “If we can all just acknowledge that one source, maybe there could be a little peace.”