By Steve Hubrecht

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A Windermere man is spending October in Siena, Italy where his drawings are being displayed in a renowned art show.  

Stephen McGarva grew up in the Columbia Valley before moving to southern California as a young adult. He still lives there now, with his wife and daughters, but returns to the valley (which he still calls “home”) at least several times a year, most recently this past summer for his 40th high school grad reunion. It was as a boy in Windermere that he first developed a love of art, influenced by the valley’s many artistic residents. 

That talent earned him a scholarship to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design upon graduating from David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS), but guidance counsellors persuaded him to choose a more practical career path. He became a mechanic instead, but the desire to create stayed with him, and he would sculpt and create in his spare time. Eventually, he began devoting more time to art, a move that ended up with him in Tuscany this month.

The show — the Cavalli d’Autore — has a horse theme, and that’s no coincidence, as Siena’s main public square is the site of the famed Palio horse race. McGarva’s younger daughter Ella, 11, has long been drawn to horse and rides competitively in dressage. Beyond that, Ella seems to have a unique ability with horses. 

“People will say, ‘oh, that horse can’t be ridden, can’t be tamed. But then Ella will ride it. She seems to have a connection with horses,” said McGarva. That connection inspired him, and he began drawing horses. He posts images of his art on his social media accounts, and one day, out of the blue, he received a call from one of the Cavalli d’Autore organizers, asking him to be part of the show. 

McGarva hesitated at first — his life is full and family is his first priority. He explained he was too busy, thanked the organizer for her interest and hung up. His wife, Pamela, asked who had called and he explained. Pamela told McGarva he was crazy, that very-well known artists can go a whole career trying to get into this show and not make it. So McGarva called the organizer right back and sheepishly explained he would in fact be delighted to be part of the show.

“Luckily they were still interested in having me,” said McGarva. In fact, of the 18 artists in the show this year, McGarva is the only one to have more than a single piece of art featured.

McGarva’s drawings of horses, including the two in the Cavalli d’Autore, are not ordinary drawings. They are instead a type of art called ‘stippling’. To create them, McGarva uses an ultra-fine pencil (just 0.1 millimetres thick, about 1/10 the width of a dime) to make dots. Quite a lot of dots. He makes eight to 12 dots per second, and then continues making them at that pace for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. The dots together form an image that has a vivid, photo-realistic look. In fact many people who see his art initially mistake it for photography.

His main piece at the Cavalli d’Autore, for instance, took 180 hours to make, and is composed of — by conservative estimate — 5.4 million dots.

“Horses are a really unique subject. They are very difficult to draw . . . you really have to study them, to understand them, before you can draw them,” McGarva told the Pioneer. “I feel each subject requires a different medium. For me, when it comes to horses, this (stippling) is mine.”

McGarva explained that black and white stippling, which he’s done for about three years now, was not his first choice for a medium. “In fact, my mind tends to think in vivid colours and three dimensions, totally different to what I’ve done for the show,” he said. 

So how did he end up stippling?

“I’ve always been fascinated by black and white photography, by Ansel Adams. But I didn’t want to do photography. So I found a different way to create a similar effect. The dotting is quite interesting in that respect — you can create all this shading, from the deepest darks to the lightest highlights, all with dots,” he said. “But, yes, it is insanely time-consuming.”

A typical day sees McGarva wake up early and work on his art until his wife and daughters are awake. After breakfast, McGarva whisks the girls to school while Pamela heads off to work. McGarva comes home, working on his art until mid-afternoon, when he picks his daughters up. In the evening, after dinner, he’ll spend a few more hours on his art, and then some more time on the weekends.

“I can easily lose a whole Saturday. I will go in the morning and start (drawing), and then next thing I know one of the kids is walking in telling me it’s suppertime, and I will reply ‘wait, what – suppertime?” he said. “I guess you know you’ve found your calling, when it’s so absorbing that you miss a whole day without noticing.”

McGarva has a fascination with horses, seen here in this unique stippling art medium.
(Photo submitted)

McGarva travelled to Siena a week before the Cavalli d’Autore’s opening day (Friday, Oct. 5) to get prepared and he will be there until even after the show ends on Monday, Oct. 30. The Pioneer spoke with him the day after the grand opening and he was in a buoyant mood.

“It’s been fantastic,” he said.

The opening gala was an event “true to form of the Italian way of life. A party just like you’d expect Siena to have,” complete with large crowds and local celebrities, explained McGarva. “There are some really heavy hitter artists here. I just feel honoured to be among them.”

But the best part so far for McGarva has been having local Tuscan school kids come visit the Santa Maria della Scala museum to see the show. He has been giving talks to the kids, with the aim of getting them interested in art and in horses (animal welfare).

“It’s been really fun, it’s a way of giving back and I love it,” he said.

McGarva’s road from Windermere to the Tuscany art show has been anything but straightforward. But a winding route is perhaps not surprising, given that he has always followed his heart.

After graduating from DTSS in 1983, McGarva spent three years in Southeast Asia working and volunteering in refugee camps, first on the three-way Laos-Cambodia-Thailand border and then in a massive garbage dump in metro Manila in the Philippines. The dump site was home to kids who had lost their parents and were living on the streets and in the dump, in informal street gangs.

“Those kids were tough but welcoming. They were usually apprehensive about grown-ups, but when I turned up, I had a skateboard and a guitar — I was sort of a big kid myself, so they welcomed me right in,” said McGarva. 

He also spent time in Singapore (in a hospital, recovering from malaria), China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Eventually he returned to the Columbia Valley, where he stayed several years working as a mechanic.But he grew restless again, and headed south to California, which has always held a special meaning for McGarva. When he was still young, his father passed away. His grandparents bought McGarva, his mom and McGarva’s two brothers tickets to California — part of a way to help the family heal.

“Even at the time, I remember thinking, I’ll come live here one day,” said McGarva. “So many years later, that’s what I did. I didn’t have much with me, and I crossed the border without a green card, but somehow I made it work.”

In southern California, McGarva carved out an existence cobbled together from cash-in-hand employment. He worked odd jobs (“anything I could to make ends meet,” he said), before getting a steady mechanic gig in an auto shop. He got into rock climbing as well as paragliding and hang gliding and became an instructor in both those pursuits. And on the side, he dabbled in art.

“I was working in the car shop during the day, and the owner let me do sculpture in the back of the shop in the evening. It was actually a pretty great life — fixing cars during the day, doing sculpture at night, then climbing and flying on the weekends,” he said.

It was while instructing rock climbing that he met Pamela one day in 1994.

“I was teaching, she was paying,” said McGarva. As he was walking the group out to the rock climbing site, he could feel the person behind walking too close to him (“tailgating” as McGarva put it). “I turned around to say something and in doing that, I accidentally clocked her,” he remembered. “Of course, I felt awful so I went to help her up. I pulled down my sunglasses, and as I did, we locked eyes, and, well, that was happily ever after.”

Smitten as he was, McGarva couldn’t bring himself to ask Pamela out. “I was way too shy for that. I was a non-dater. So, of course she was the one that had to ask me on the first date,” he explained.

They were married in 1995.

Pamela is involved in cancer research and the biotech industry, and her work took the couple all over the world – from California to Bavaria, to Italy, to Boston, to Rhode Island, and eventually back to California. Along the way Pamela convinced McGarva to return to school and finally get an art degree.

“I think our marriage works because we are both willing to take on new adventures,” said McGarva. The couple had kids later in life, when McGarva was already well into his mid 40s, and he was happy to become a stay-at-home dad. Their elder daughter Frejya is 14, three years older than Ella, and McGarva said he is constantly amazed by what he learns from his children.

He also gave credit to many different valley residents for helping him on his life’s path, specifically mentioning former Akisqnuk First Nation chief Alfred Joseph, who taught McGarva how to lead trail rides and handle horses. 

“I never did drugs and I’m not a drinker or big partier. Working with horses kept me out of trouble. It was huge,” said McGarva. He also referred to the Bavin family. “They were a great influence, both artistically and in terms of getting me into outdoor sports. I still remember John Bavin teaching me to roll a kayak,” he said.

McGarva noted that he is “forever indebted” to the influence of the Columbia Valley.

(Photo submitted)