Self-taught, nocturnal Illinois painter talks art, process and feeling like an outsider in advance of Lindsay Gallery exhibition opening this weekend

In one of artist Stephen Warde Anderson’s paintings, a family is gathered in what looks like a living room. A man sits on a couch watching TV next to a bag of potato chips. A woman primps her hair while staring at her phone on the end of a selfie stick. Kids talk and text on their phones.

But it’s not entirely typical. Behind the family, a group of blue aliens peers into the scene through metal bars, above which hangs a placard: “Earth Exhibit — Homo Sapiens Family.” 

It’s not the people in this painting with which Anderson identifies. It’s the blue aliens. “The humans and their behavior there is inexplicable to me,” Anderson said recently by phone from his home in Rockford, Illinois. “Human beings are a mystery to me in how they act. I’m kind of an eccentric, idiosyncratic type of person that doesn't fit in any place.”

Anderson began painting more than 30 years ago. “I didn't start with the idea that, ‘Oh, I'm good at drawing. I'll do this.’ I wasn't good at it, but it was like, ‘I'm going to keep going at it until I get to be good,’” Anderson said. 

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Initially, Anderson used the type of tempera paint found in grade school classrooms, but he let the paint harden and then re-liquefied it with saliva and applied it with needles and plastic styluses. The unusual technique attracted the attention of folk art collectors, and over time more and more people began paying attention to his whimsical tableaus and brightly colored portraits of historical figures in a style often referred to as “naive classicism.”

“I've been aware of Stephen's work for many, many years, and I was just drawn to his completely consistent worldview. You really feel like he is creating images from an alternate universe in his mind,” said Duff Lindsay, who is currently exhibiting “Stephen Warde Anderson: Neoclassical Naif” at the Lindsay Gallery in the Short North, with an opening brunch reception on Sunday, Sept. 8. “In my world — the world of outsider and self-taught art — Stephen is very well known. He's got work in the American Folk Art Museum, in the Smithsonian. … But here, people really don't know who he is.”

Over the years, Anderson refined his technique and began using gouache paints, brushes and acrylic paint. “But generally, I think my work always looks different than anybody else's. I can't figure out why,” Anderson said. “I'd like to make it look like the old masters. It just never turns out that way.”

Anderson lives in the same house his father, a bricklayer, built when the artist was a toddler. On a typical day, he sleeps until 11 a.m., jogs in the afternoon, takes a nap from 4 to 6 p.m., eats dinner, then stays up painting, writing and watching movies from his 5,000-plus DVD collection until about 5:30 a.m. (After checking his meticulously kept catalog, Anderson revealed that he has watched the 1962 film “Carnival of Souls” 129 times.)

Recently, Anderson has spent his nights working on a series of “biographical sampler” books filled with short chapters about historical figures, which he also paints. "I like taking something and synthesizing it into something shorter and more interesting — taking something big and making it into something small and jewel-like,” he said. “With painting you do that, as well. It's eliminating the superfluous. Somebody said that beauty is the expurgation of the superfluous. There's some truth to that. You have to figure out what not to paint and work that up into a composition that says what you want to say and nothing more.”

Several of Anderson's recent historical portraits are featured in the Lindsay Gallery show, and while you may recognize a figure like Albert Einstein (paired surprisingly with a cello), others, like Harriet Quimby, will likely require an explanation. “Harriet Quimby was America's first aviatrix. I just happened to run across her name and said, ‘Wow, this is interesting. This is my kind of gal here,’” Anderson said. “I like figures that are heroic.”

“Whether he's doing historical figures like Tecumseh or Alexander Hamilton or incredibly obscure people, the attention to detail and the obvious love and care that he puts into it [is consistent]," Lindsay said. "But there's always this twist. It's almost tongue in cheek, but I think Stephen respects these people too much for it to be any kind of put-on or irony. I don't think he has an ironic bone in his body."

Even aliens and other creatures get the full, heartfelt treatment from Anderson. In “Invasion of the Clueless Gray Aliens,” also currently on view at Lindsay, almond-eyed beings from outer space hang from trees and naively approach dangerous wildlife. “I'm interested in UFOs, fairies and mermaids, things like that. I believe in all those things, so they're more than fantasy to me,” he said. “I like to be able to do a picture where I'm not copying things. I like to be able to draw from my imagination.”

“You could look at someone like Stephen,” Lindsay said, “who wears bow ties and a top hat or an ascot or a smoking jacket, and you can think, ‘This is a persona that he's put on.’ [But] it's just Stephen. There's no shtick involved. This is the real thing.”