Art Tag: Stephen Frew is making his mark

By Andrea Stokes – 

In the last instalment of Art Tag, the wonderfully talented Alison Smith-Welsh chose Kitchissippi artist Stephen Frew as one of her favourite artists from our neighbourhood. I headed over to Stephen’s home studio to talk with him about his work.

Stephen works in the basement studio of the Ross Avenue house he shares with his wife Colleen. The main floor is overloaded with art by local Ottawa artists with whom he has traded work. (At the very least, it demonstrates an appreciation for a broad range of styles.)

I sat in Stephen’s basement studio and talked with him about his work and what’s informed it over the years.

Kitchissippi artist Stephen Frew found his way to art via a physics course at the University of Calgary. Photo by Andrea Stokes
Kitchissippi artist Stephen Frew found his way to art via a physics course at the University of Calgary. Photo by Andrea Stokes
Detail of a painting by Stephen Frew called “Take Exception” (Oil on Mylar)

Stephen has always made art, always drawn, and despite never taking art classes in high school, was always winning art awards for his drawings and was constantly being recruited by teachers to be the one whose artwork graced a poster, yearbook, or whatever project required an image.

Despite the accolades and a clear love of making art, Stephen enrolled at the University of Calgary and began his first year studying physics, calculus, math and science. His father was an engineer and had encouraged him to follow in his footsteps. While at U of C, Stephen decided to take an evening photography class. That regular saunter over to the arts building opened up a world of possibilities to him, felt infinitely more comfortable, and prompted his switch to the Fine Arts program, where he spent the next four years exploring all sorts of media and majoring in printmaking. He discovered his favourite medium was Intaglio – which involves carving metal plates with an etching tool and running that plate through a printing press. He found the medium “super seductive” and says he “fell in love” with both the precision and the element of surprise in creating prints this way. Thus was born a love of mark making, lines, and the beginning of an ongoing interest in self-portraiture.

I asked Stephen if his initial studies in math and science has informed his artwork, and he acknowledged that it had definitely impacted it in terms of  “the rhythm, patterns, structure.”

After his BFA, he spent an unsatisfactory year at the Vancouver Film School, still feeling the lure of printmaking at his core. The feeling was so strong that he enrolled in the MFA program at Concordia and spent the next three years working on figurative portraits, culminating in a thesis show that comprised 120 prints of his own face.

During his last year, leading up to his MFA thesis, Stephen moved in with a friend here in Ottawa and fell in love with the city. But there are few accessible printing presses in the city, and so he began the painting oeuvre for which he is now held in such high esteem. Stephen now paints loving, intimate, highly emotionally charged portraits of both himself and other models. At any showing of his works, you are sure to overhear people talking about his incredible use of line and colour. He has an incredible ability to know what to leave out and what to include in a portrait. Like knowing the importance of silence or quiet in the spaces between the musical notes. He has just recently made a departure to landscape abstraction, which he is finding very enjoyable.

Stephen has tagged artist Jeff McIntyre as one of his favourite local artists because he admires Jeff’s “tenacity and execution of ideas” in working towards a large-scale installation which is so different than the way Stephen works. Look for that profile in the next issue of Kitchissippi Times.

In the meantime, you can get a peek at some of Stephen’s work online at and on Instagram. Check out his work in person at A Modern Space (1116 Wellington St. W.), and at Fauna restaurant (425 Bank St.) One of Stephen’s designs was commissioned for a jewellery project called HARD METALS by Heist Jewellery (343 Richmond Rd.). The rings, designed by six local male artists, will be for sale beginning June 25.

Art Tag is a special series by local artist Andrea Stokes. Each artist she profiles for KT “tags” their favourite artist to be profiled in the next issue. Find the others in this series right here


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