· How did you get your start as a professional artist?
While I’ve made art my whole life, I’d never made an attempt to market and sell my work until a few years ago. I really don’t know what inspired me to get serious about my art at that time. Mid-life crisis? Turning 40 looming around the corner?
I was confronted with a pile of birdhouse gourds I’d grown the year before taking up space in my garage. Throw them out or do something with them? I cleaned them up, drilled holes in them, and used my wood-burning tool to “draw” some simple designs. Needless to say, I quickly tired of making birdhouses, so I bought some other varieties of hard-shell gourds and began experimenting. I bought a Dremel and played around with relief carving, I messed around with dyes and painting techniques, and I even taught myself how to coil pine needles. Eventually I got rather adept working in this medium, turning plain old gourds into bowls, vases, pitchers, and masks. Pushing my fear of rejection aside, I contacted Mike Miller at Gallery 319, showed him a few of my pieces, and asked him if he’d be willing to display and sell my work. He agreed, and for the next five years I made and sold—at Gallery 319 and Longbranch Gallery in Mineral Point, Wisconsin—a lot of gourd art.
After about five years of gourd art, I grew increasingly bored with the medium. Around that time I ran across a website called Loving Mixed Media, an educational site devoted to nurturing artists through technique experimentation. By way of LMM, I discovered assemblage and collage, and I’ve been working primarily in those mediums ever since.
• How long have you been working as a professional artist?
• What are you currently working on?
A good portion of my summer was devoted to building up a small body of assemblage work for a show I’m doing this fall (September 7-October 20) at the Plymouth Congregational Church gallery in Des Moines. Lately, though, I’ve been working on experimenting with collage.
My assemblage work can be fairly time-consuming, which generally translates into me needing to set higher prices for that work. A lot of people have shown interest in my assemblage pieces, but that interest, lately, hasn’t resulted in sales. I’m not naïve; I understand the times are tough and people don’t want to plunk down a lot of cash for an assemblage.
That said, I spend significantly less time creating my collage pieces. In fact, the process is a refreshing change; I purposefully work quicker, more playfully, allowing the collage elements to sort of come together on their own. Hopefully, in a few weeks I’ll have a small collection of collage pieces ready to go. They’ll be more modestly priced than my assemblage work, so I hope people will take them and give them a good home.
• Your current body of work depicts?
Currently I’ve been using a lot of human-based imagery, such as vintage photos and anatomy book illustrations. I try to depict the relationship of humans to the environment around them, whether that’s the natural environment or human-created “environments” and conditions. I like to also incorporate images of the man-made, such as machinery or maps, in my work; I’m attempting to depict humanity’s love affair (and I would say, an oftentimes unhealthy love affair) with technology.
• What materials do you work with and why?
For my assemblage work, I’ll work with pretty much any material I can get away with. My “studio” (really just a corner of my basement) is heaped with stuff—cigar boxes, old frames, rusty tools and other metal bits, bones, porcelain doll parts, old game boards, and the like—that I’ve collected. For my collage work, I love vintage ephemera: old books, photos, advertising, and the like, much of it over 100 years old. It’s not just the images that catch my eye; it’s also the paper itself.
For the most part, the materials are readily available and relatively inexpensive—although with the popularity of all things vintage and “retro,” this is becoming less the case. There’s just something about the patina of old stuff—rusty metal, chipped paint, stained paper—that delights me. I like the thought that I’m giving it, a la Dr. Frankenstein, new life.
• What excites you about using the materials you work with?
It’s the transformation process that excites me. I really geek being able to take some mundane piece of rusty junk or an old photo or a page out of some out-dated biology text and transform it into some it was never meant to be—a work of art. Two of my passions are art and history, so I guess my work is simply an intersection of those passions.
• Tell us about some of the processes you do in your work
One of my favorite processes—I use it quite often in my collage—is image transfer. I use a photocopy, either on paper or on a transparency, and transfer it onto another surface with matte medium. It’s a cool technique because it offers the ability to create layers in my work. I can transfer an image over the top of another image, but the bottom image is still visible.
• When you make a piece where does the inspiration come from?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Honestly, I don’t know. It may sound like a cop-out, but most of the time I really don’t know where the inspiration comes from. There are corners of my brain where stuff is stored that only sees the light of day when I sit down at my worktable. It comes across as goofy-sounding, but the junk I gather for my work “speaks” to me; I just let it tell me what to do.
• Do you make art every day?
Sadly, no. I’m a high school special education teacher, so in the two-and-a-half months of my summer, I do make art pretty much every day. However, during the rest of the year, I’m lucky to make art once a week.
It’s a Catch-22 of sorts. My art is my lifesaver; it’s a much-needed catharsis to the stress and frustration of my “real” job. However, for the nine-and-a-half months of the year when I most need it, I’m too worn-down and burned-out to do it consistently.
• What other artistic interests do you have?
I do enjoy writing. Over the years I’ve had a couple of short pieces published in some Midwestern magazines. Lately, though, my “writing” has been reduced to my blog—and the occasional Facebook rant.
• Tell us something that most people don’t know about you that they would find interesting?
Growing up in Northeast Iowa—just 20 miles from the Mississippi River, where I loved watching tugboats guide huge barges through Lock and Dam #10—one of my first career goals was to become a tugboat pilot.
For me, my art is the metamorphosis of clutter. First, it’s about literally transforming clutter. I gather seemingly mundane objects and ephemera and bring them together to form works of art. My art is also a figurative transformation of clutter. I use the clutter-of-life that occupies space in my head and harness it to make art. “Ask questions and seek answers,” a friend once advised. At its core my art is an attempt (often dark, usually satirical) to ask questions and push the viewer to seek answers—and every so often butcher one of society’s sacred cows.
Even though art's always been a big part of his life, Steve still has a difficult time calling himself an "artist." Other than the two years spent as a frustrated graphic design major at Iowa State University, he's a self-trained artist. Steve received his bachelor of science degree in history in 1989 and took a job as a museum technician at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum, where he was involved primarily in exhibit design, construction, and maintenance. In 1991 he returned to Iowa State to attend graduate school, eventually earning a master's degree in education. Since 1992 his "real" job (that which supports his art habit) has been as a high school special educator, a career choice that requires the much-needed catharsis provided by his art. In 2005 Steve began creating vessels and masks made from hard shell gourds. However, in the summer of 2010 Steve turned his creative attention to assemblage and collage, mediums he continues to explore.
"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." --Pablo Picasso