Tim Stapleton: Call and response with paint

After a diagnosis that at first sounded like a death sentence, the Portland theater designer decided to live without fear—and return to painting

Tim Stapleton lives these days in a little house set back below an out-of-the-way Portland residential street not far from the Columbia Slough. Despite the years worth of blackberry vine overgrowth he’s hacked away, he’s still surrounded by vegetation, and the tiny runnel a few yards from the front door just adds to the sense of being in the country. He refers to the place only half-jokingly as “the holler.”

That nickname is a fitting reminder of his upbringing in southeastern Kentucky, in a hamlet known to the locals as Haymond. It also underscores how far he’s come in a lifetime, from one holler to another: In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of seven children in a coal miner’s family, poor, gay, and at a certain point, sexually abused. Now, he’s one of Portland’s most respected and beloved theater artists—best known as a scenic designer of what might be termed poetic efficiency, but also liable to show up as actor, writer or teacher—the recipient of a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for decades of work with the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects.

Tim Stapleton’s set designs have been evolved into spare but intense distillations of their plays/Photo by Gary Norman

However richly deserved that award, its timing owed something to an unwelcome development. In March of 2017, Stapleton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron disease that leads to progressive weakening of the muscles and loss of body control. Near the end of a particularly busy 2016, he’d noticed some difficulties working on a set for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A bit later, he was at the home of his friend, the photographer Owen Carey, when another bad sign appeared. “Owen and I often trade Negronis [gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth] for painting. So I was over there, up on a ladder doing some texture work or something, and I couldn’t raise my arm up.”

“I went from diagnosis to acceptance immediately,” he said in April of last year, sitting in his cozy holler home. “I refuse to live for the end. I refuse to live in fear.”

Instead, Stapleton has continued to live for, or at least through, his art. He continues his theater work, including the scenic design for Artists Rep’s current production of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You. Perhaps more importantly, he’s rededicated himself to his first love: Painting.

The Hem of the Robe: dragged through the mud of my childhood, an exhibit on view through Sunday in the Artists Repertory Theatre lobby, is Stapleton’s approach to healing—relating, in an abstract yet visceral way, to both his current neurological problems and the traumas of his past.

“All of your emotions, your insides, go into the canvas,” he says, talking recently in the Northwest Portland studio he’s worked in since last July. “I feel really—I don’t know what the word is—complete, maybe, having done these.”

With the help of his assistant, Samie Pfeifer, formerly his student at Portland Actors Conservatory, Stapleton has adopted a new style of painting. He still has enough strength in his hands to sometimes use large brushes, like you’d use for house painting, but mostly his new approach involves propping up the canvases and dripping acrylic paint across them, turning the surface and adjusting angles to create patterns that look like both woven fabrics and expressionist landscapes.

Tim Stapleton, “Holes to the Sky”, 4′ by 4′, acrylic on canvas

“It’s the first time I’ve had call-and-response with the paint,” he adds. He may set the canvas and drip the paint with a particular intention, but the flow can go in unexpected directions. “You can catch it, and then it says, ‘No, I wanna go over here.’”

This working method is a productive response to the progression of his neurological disorder. But that he has found a way to continue painting is only part of the good news. In October of last year, his neurologist proferred a revised diagnosis, which was affirmed following another check-up this spring: that Stapleton has what’s sometimes called a regional variant of ALS, brachial amyotrophic diplegia, its effects largely isolated to the upper limbs.

“What my doctor told me is, ‘It will take your arms, but it won’t take your life.’”

Receiving the new diagnosis “felt hopeful,” he says. “It meant that, if it does go that way, I have more time to do more stuff. I’ve never felt I was working against the clock, but it’s made me appreciate the minutes of my life, the details of my life.

“Every day is another loss—some of it in my body, but also things I can’t do. If you don’t go to acceptance, you’re delusional,” he says, echoing his response to the earlier diagnosis. “I’m not living for the end; I’m just living.”

The muscles in his shoulders have atrophied. His arms increasingly hang limp at his sides. With a few exceptions, he can no longer feed himself. His sense of humor remains unaffected.

“I would be a really good Riverdancer now,” he deadpans. “I mean, I already know how to clog, ‘cause I’m from Kentucky.”

“Life is so serendipitous,” he said in that 2017 interview. “It’s amazing to me sometimes that I’ve just walked this path, without having any idea where I was headed. I’ve been able to go to all these places that have informed who I am, as a man and as an artist. And I try to live every moment, so I just soak it all in. My life and career have been feast or famine. But when you have the feast you forget the famine, because you love what you’re doing.”

The path began, in one sense, when he was 10 and a teenage neighbor (who would later marry one of Stapleton’s brothers) would sit on the porch drawing comics and paper dolls. When he sat down next to her and started drawing, too, she was the first to encourage his creativity, to tell him he had a gift. That was when he first recognized the artist in him.

After studying visual art at Morehead State University, then teaching high school for several years, Stapleton helped a friend in Lansing, Michigan, mount a production of “Carmina Burana.” That led to a job offer from BoarsHead Theater in Lansing, where he stayed for eight years and essentially taught himself the art of scenic design. “By the time I was done there I’d designed 97 shows for one stage. It was me, a lighting designer, a props guy, and a technical director. And we had $400 budgets. We’d open a show, go have a beer that night, and design the next show at the bar. We were constantly working.”

One of the paintings in Tim Stapleton’s exhibition at Artists Repertory Theatre, “The Hem of the Robe: dragged through the mud of my childhood,” which runs through Sunday at Artists Rep.

He also earned a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, getting to choose four theaters (he picked the Goodman, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Lanford Wilson’s Circle Rep in New York, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and spend a couple of weeks at each, working with their designers.

In the summer of 1986 he visited an older brother in Estacada. “I understood right away why my brother liked it here,” he recalls. “It’s like taking Kentucky and blowing it up bigger—there’s a little more majesty here, in these mountains compared to those mountains.”

Driving into Portland with his resume and some slides, he soon met leading local directors such as Storefront’s late Ric Young and Artist Rep’s Allen Nause, and began working regularly.

Whereas he once went for elaborate and realistic sets, over the years he’s refined his approach. Of his design for Northwest Classical Theatre’s 2015 production of Waiting for Godot, Bob Hicks wrote, “Tim Stapleton’s set is a masterwork of minimalism, dominated by a driftwood-built tree that sweeps back on itself like a Japanese ukiyo-e print or a stylized Arts & Crafts stained glass window or a coastal scrub pine braced against the wind, and which creates ample space for the actors to roam around.”

(Stapleton calls that perceptive review the sort he’s been waiting for his whole career; though he also loves an early one in which a critic called him “a disconcerting madman.”)

“Scenery can be distracting,” Stapleton says. “My style has evolved to where I’m really more about the abstract, the metaphor. I go to the heart of the story and try to pull out what it’s all about. I pride myself on that.

“I came up as a visual artist. I remember telling the managing director at BoarsHead how I wanted to be taken seriously. ‘I want my art on gallery walls. I want people to walk in and see my art and know that I have a voice.’ And she said, ‘Are you fucking crazy? 4,000 people a weekend see what you’ve created, with a story along with it. You may never know how they’re affected by your work, but they are.’”

This article has been adapted from a profile written for the 2017 Drammy Awards ceremony program.

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