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Stephen Shoel Wachtel

Captain Stephen Shoel Wachtel at 15,000 feet over San Antonio, 1965.
Artist Stephen Shoel Wachtel and his wife.
Stephen Shoel Wachtel and his saxophone. Photo by Jeff Williams.


A graduate of Kenyon College and former Air Force jet pilot, Stephen Shoel Wachtel earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania for studies in medical genetics. An international-award-winning photographer, Wachtel turned to painting in 1990.  His style is characterized by mature composition and by the use of vivid color and dynamic brush- and knife-work. Although he is a neo-cubist, Wachtel is equally comfortable with conventional portraits and landscapes. His canvasses have been exhibited in one-man shows at the Darlington Fine Arts Center outside Philadelphia and the Shainberg Gallery in Memphis, and his paintings hang in significant private collections, including the Belz and Cooper Collections in Memphis, the Guardsmark Collection in New York  and the John H. Murphy Collection in New York

In Memphis, his paintings can be seen at the Belz Peabody Museum and in several commercial establishments including the offices of Belz Enterprises at Pembroke Square, the law offices of Holland and Associates, and the Pro-Active Heart and Vein Center. Wachtel lives in Memphis with his wife, Gwendolyn. He plays blues and jazz with bands on and around Beale Street in Memphis, and in venues in and around Clearwater, Florida.

Artist's Statement

The drive to create is primordial. People have been making art since the dawn of history—hence the cave drawings of Spain and France, the paintings and sculpture of ancient India and Egypt, the frescos of medieval Italy.  Surely, creative artistry is a singular and enduring trait of the human race and surely, there is something of the artist in each of us. My uncle, Simon Wachtel, was an artist of note. As a child, I sat on his knee and watched him sketch pictures of Mickey Mouse. Uncle Si had special “artist’s pencils” and he would give me one after each of these sessions. It didn’t take long to find out that the magic was in my uncle’s hands, not in the pencils. Years later, while serving as an Air Force pilot, I learned of his death. The painter’s brush had been stilled, but the memory of him evoked warm colors and shapes, canvasses full of morning light, lush trees and vivid flowers, futuristic industrial landscapes, lines of men carrying tools into factories. Sitting alone in my apartment off the end of the runway, I myself began to draw—faces, fishes, barren landscapes with broad setting suns. My sketches took on a consistent form—a cubist form—even though I’d had virtually no contact with cubism or the cubist painters. As the years passed, I became more and more competent with that style. I began to visualize common household items—clocks, telephones, tables and chairs—as angular structures, perpendiculars, squares. Faces and figures could be rendered in the same way. And this contributed to a sense of order and balance.  On leaving the Air Force, I entered the University of Pennsylvania where I received a doctorate for my work in genetics.  As a geneticist, I had the chance to visit cities around the world. This gave me the chance to study the great masters first-hand. I have often been asked about my formal education.  “Where did you learn to paint? Who were your teachers? Where did you study?” In fact, I studied with the masters—Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Modigliani. I’ve spent hours in front of a single Picasso canvas.  And it’s amazing how much we can learn from these experiences.  We can deduce the artist’s palette—the colors that were used. We can often make out the undercoats—the colors used as primers under the final coat. We can see the kind of brush that the artist used, the nature of the strokes. We can even tell the mood of the artist as he laid down his colors—light-hearted or intense, harried or serene. 

Although I'm equally comfortable with conventional portraits and landscapes, I’ve come to emphasize the cubist aspect of my work. This format best represents who I am and what I am trying to express—my sense of order and my sense of self, my personal eye, how I see the world around me. I think my uncle would be proud of me.  He signed his paintings Simon M. Wachtel or S. Wachtel. His canvasses still come up for sale. To avoid confusion, I sign my canvasses with my middle name, Shoel.  

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