'THREE HEARTS': Signature piece by Stephano.
Stephano — that’s what he goes by — does not believe in coincidences. With the wrong date for the 2005 Heart Ball in mind, Little Rock’s pop artist got to work on his painting that would be the signature piece, and almost finished it. His own heart, however, nearly met its end, thanks to a disintegrated mitral valve, and he had open heart surgery Aug. 20.
If he had known the correct date for the Heart Ball — Feb. 19 — he may not have been able to complete “Three Hearts Beat as One” in time for the December art auction that sets the Heart Association’s annual fund-raiser beating.
Stephano’s known for his large close-up pop portraits, work that’s popular enough that he makes his living doing it. His apartment in the West Side Lofts is hung with paintings of Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Marlon Brando. His portrait of Bill Clinton hangs in an office of the former president.
So “Three Hearts Beat as One,” a piece in which the hearts are set in a painterly and abstract background in which the paint has been dripped and flung and striped down the canvas, is a detour for the hard-edge portrait painter. While his heart was in the work, it is portraiture that is his true love. “Faces are my thing,” he said, as are people “who made a difference.”
Stephano said he hoped that it was his work, and not his bad heart, that made the Heart Association choose the painting as the piece to be sold at the after-dinner live auction at the ball. But there’s no denying the poignancy that he’s alive to see his work help the Heart Association because of advances made in the treatment of heart disease.
Stephano, who came to Arkansas in 1995 and got a job as a sketch artist for CNN during the Whitewater trials in Little Rock, would tell you that he was meant to survive his August operation. God, he said, has “got a big stick he likes to poke me with” — giving him the gene that made his heart fall victim to viral cardiomyopathy in 2000 and a couple of near death experiences. He wouldn’t have cheated the reaper, he said, if it were time for him to go.
Stephano started painting seriously after his work with CNN, and after an encounter with a woman stranger who approached him in, of all places, Home Depot, called him by name and told him he needed to do three things. “ ‘You’ve got to give back what you’ve taken from the universe,’ ” was her first piece of advice, Stephano said. He was also to “accept what’s happening” and “be nice to everyone,” he paraphrased her.
He listened to the stranger. Stephano regularly donates work to the Youth Home’s Eggstravaganza art auction; the annual Heart Ball; Aurora, the organ donation organization; art program fund-raisers such as the Pulaski Heights Picassos, and so on. “You’ve got to give back to the community. It’s part of paying your dues,” he said.
The community — his church community — gave to him when he was sick. In 2000, Stephano was on his way to a legislative event when he started having chest pains and could not climb the Capitol steps. He went to the Little Rock Veterans Administration hospital and confused a few doctors until Dr. Eugene Smith stepped in, put a catheter in his heart and found an infection of the Coxsackie’s B virus. The artist had only 30 percent heart function. Stephano was placed on a heart transplant list and continued to decline until he was using a cane to walk and had only 18 percent heart function. He felt every day might be his last, Stephano said.
In September 2001, four days after New York City’s Twin Towers were hit, Pastor Sheilar Clark of Eaglesaints Outreach Ministry in Southwest Little Rock and other women of the church began a three-day prayer and fast for Stephano and others in the church. Within days, his heart function returned to 60 percent, and his nearly two-year hiatus from painting was over. “She’s my miracle worker,” Stephano said.
Today, Stephano believes his viral cardiomyopathy is gone. He’s got a new mitral valve. On the blackboard that runs the length of his former classroom-turned apartment wall he’s written “My heart kicks ass!”
The Heart Ball starts at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Statehouse Convention Center. Other Little Rock artists, including Ellen Hobgood, Kevin Kresse, Ashley Saer and others, have donated works to the event’s silent auction. The live auction follows dinner, and dancing to the music of the Rockets caps the evening. Tickets are $250; call 375-9148 to reserve.