Why on Earth would anyone choose to be an Artist? Well we don’t choose it really, art chooses us. Kind of like being gay or straight, we are born artists and we couldn’t stop making art if we tried. But especially in America, choosing art as a career is, for many people, synonymous with a vow of poverty. Things are tough all over, but in many older cultures the average citizen encounters so much great art, sometimes centuries worth, on a daily basis that the essential role of the Artist in society is never questioned. Artists may not get paid much more but they are not infantilized by the general public quite the way they are in the US of A.
Whether you realize it or not, art defines human culture. It defines nations, neighborhoods, ethnic groups, individuals, worldwide events, and personal daily experiences. Every second of every day an artist is out there somewhere expressing some little slice of what it means to be human on Earth, right here, right now. Just as there are paintings of astronauts walking on the Moon, there are paintings of someone you’ve never heard of sitting on the toilet, as there are of all the other moments in between. What we are up to, you see, is getting you to stop for a moment (look up from your phones) and recognize how extraordinary it all is–this thing we call life on Earth. Sometimes the imagery is gloriously attractive, sometimes ugly, or scary, but one way or another art is about who we are: Human. And that is beautiful.
Artists know their cause is noble, and yet the career of art can often be thankless, the recognition, appreciation, and reasonable income, rare. So why keep plugging away, “pearls before swine”, and all? Because every once in awhile another heart is moved, a life is enriched, by what we do… and we find out about it! Sunbeams glitter around us, birds sing, and sweetly-scented flowers burst into bloom. That’s exactly what happened to me last week!
I was in the process of developing a Horse Scribble sculpture project and couldn’t stop thinking about the client who first commissioned me to paint a horse: Kurt Steinmann.
In 2010 I was living in Morro Bay, having just finished a Bike Scribble mural in Atascadero California (just north of San Luis Obispo) when I got the call. Kurt Steinmann was an artist and architect from Switzerland, 83 years young at the time. He had seen the recent press from the mural at K-Man Cyclery. Kurt turned out to be not just a client but a patron. He didn’t want a realistic horse but a horse interpreted in my style–a Horse Scribble! And that was not all; over the following two months I would paint five separate walls on his property including Scribble and graffiti styles.
The Swiss architect was passionate, kinetic, mischievous, and spoke the language of art with a heavy accent. He told wonderful stories! He told me he had once bred thoroughbred race horses with his family both here and in Switzerland “..some time ago, but my brother does that now…” he waved his hand and the thread trailed off and onto the immediate task: emphasizing, articulating and drawing (in heavy, confident, charcoal strokes) the exact pitch and importance of the horse’s jaw “…It’s where the bit goes. This controls everything, you see. You see?” Yes. Thank you! Now I see.
In Morro Bay there were many houses with horse corrals, including one right across the street, but no thoroughbreds, so my equine model was in fact my Neigh-bor! I didn’t discover until much later that Kurt’s brother is Heinz Steinmann who is still breeding champion race horses. I hope they can forgive me for using an old, retired Andalusian for my drawing.
The horse was not the only Scribble Mr. Steinmann wanted. “Can you draw the Virgin Mary as an angel in your style?” He showed me a pastel he had drawn of exactly that. I am not a religious person, partly Jewish by birth and Taoist by choice but a big believer in religious freedom, plus, the Scribble is about the joy of motion and I suspected angels had that in spades. Sure, challenge accepted! Eventually I arrived at an image that pleased him.
Kurt’s ranch was nestled into the pass between Morro Bay and Atascadero surrounded by avocado, oak and eucalyptus trees. I loved riding my bike over the scenic, six-mile commute. Part of the project included exterior walls. Getting to design and paint an exterior residential wall was rare enough but in that environment it was sublime. One day Kurt came out to check my progress and started waving his big hands and yelling angrily “No, no! Stop! Come down!” (I was on a scaffold) “That’s not you!” He said. “You’re trying to paint what you think I want you to paint. I know what I would paint. I hired you to paint like YOU!” He actually wanted to pay me for the time I had spent, paint it out and start fresh. Clients don’t DO that in my world. I cried happy tears.
Shortly after the project concluded I left the area to do a public project in Colorado. Fely and I stayed in touch for awhile via facebook but the connection faded as these things often do. The memory of the powerful Artist, Architect, Horseman, Teacher, living life on his own terms stayed with me over the years, but when I thought about checking in… he was advanced in years to begin with, and I was afraid to find out… Now I was back in horse country and couldn’t stop thinking about it so I gathered my courage and made a search. Fely’s page was no longer active but I followed some names I recognized there and soon came across a photo. It was of Kurt in his home, in a hospital bed, surrounded by family. The Horse Scribble was behind him, which meant the Madonna and Child were by his side. I would discover that he’d had a stroke and after related complications, transitioned to the next adventure from that spot.
I was stunned. I got chills. The Blessed Virgin was truly a sacred figure to Kurt. I hoped that the image and its exuberant colors gave him joy, comfort, and peace during that time, that he knew she would guide him safely Home.
Subsequently, messages with family members confirmed as much, that he indeed had loved my work and it added great value to his life on the ranch, and that he had passed surrounded by loving family. News more bittersweet cannot be had!
I add this experience to a handful of memories of unexpected appreciation, spontaneously offered, sometimes by unexpected sources, and will write those down here soon, because it shows what art is really worth.
Dedicated with love and gratitude to Kurt Steinmann – 1926 – 2017.
May you fly forever with all your favorite angels.