12. The Breaker

The Breaker, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

The Breaker, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

Yet another painting that is part of my upcoming solo exhibition, H U M A N / NA T U R E, at Angela King Gallery in New Orleans. The show runs from September 25 - October 24th. The opening reception happens on Saturday, October 7th from 6:00 pm - 9:00 pm with an artist talk at 7:00 pm.

A breaker can be defined as either "a heavy sea wave that breaks into white foam on the shore or a shoal" or " a person or thing that breaks something." In this case, both definitions are illustrated in the same painting.

As with many of my paintings, the composition is based on various images found on the internet; altered and combined. The trick, of course, when working with found photographs is to create a seamless image that appears to have been formed spontaneously.

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The Breaker, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches (detail)

The Breaker, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches (detail)

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11. The Tornado

The Tornado, 2017, oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches

The Tornado, 2017, oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches

As I write this, Hurricane Irma is two days away, predicted to work its way up the west coast of Florida, passing right over St Petersburg. So it seems appropriate that I reveal The Tornado, the next painting in the group that will be included in my upcoming solo exhibition at Angela King Gallery in New Orleans.

I've been in big storms before. When I was living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia a blizzard kept me stranded in a 100-year old cabin at the end of a mile-long dirt road for four days. Power miraculously stayed on. The only neighbors within sight had evacuated (without telling me) leaving me to tend to their two dogs and one rabbit. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when a front-end loader appeared in the middle of the night to clear the road. If artists create work from their life experiences, no snowy landscapes were inspired by this blizzard. However, in retrospect, that was a relaxing vacation compared to what may be ahead.

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The high winds that are predicted when Hurricane Irma arrives are beyond my experience and understanding. As it stands, she may descend as a category four storm which potentially brings 145 mph blasts causing "catastrophic damage to property, humans, and animals. Severe structural damage to frame homes, apartments, and shopping centers ... long-term power outages and water shortages lasting from a few weeks to a few months." Let's see if I give birth to a storm-related painting in that aftermath.

After the Flood, 2016, oil on canvas, 36 x 28 inches

After the Flood, 2016, oil on canvas, 36 x 28 inches

The last time I was inspired by the weather was in 2016 (see After the Flood above). The summer rains seemed relentless. So constant and heavy that a leak developed not only in my studio but on the front porch of the house as well. To repair the leaks meant waiting weeks until the rains actually stopped. Only after things dried out a bit could the roofs be addressed.

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This is how my studio looked this morning. All doors and windows clad with plywood. It was built five years ago to the latest codes intended to withstand a strong storm. In the walls are steel rods, spaced at three-foot intervals, that connect the roof to the concrete slab foundation. We'll see how that works. However, our house (not shown) was built in 1925. It's a bungalow like almost all the other homes in the Kenwood neighborhood where we live. When constructed, none of the strict building codes were in place yet, but the house stands proudly after experiencing all the storms since then.

Irma will be on her way out on Monday, three days from now. Let's see how this experience affects me. I'm curious to see what sort of images it will inspire. Hopefully, I'll still have a studio.

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10. The Flower Girl.

The Flower Girl, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

The Flower Girl, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

Here's another new painting that will be included in my October solo exhibition at Angela King Gallery in New Orleans.

Over the course of my career children have often appeared as protagonists in my paintings. I am fascinated by how oblivious they can be to the consequences of their actions, especially when innocently going after the things they want. In this case, a little girl is alone with a pair of clippers in a rose garden. The idea of making a dress from the blooming flowers occurs to her and she immediately and joyfully acts on that impulse. The fruition of her desire is both creative and destructive at the same time.

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9. The Little Wagon

The Little Wagon, 2017, oil on panel, 20 x 16 inches

The Little Wagon, 2017, oil on panel, 20 x 16 inches

Since the details for my October solo exhibition at Angela King Gallery in New Orleans are falling into place, I can begin revealing my latest paintings that will be included in the show. I'll start with The Little Wagon and give some insight into how it evolved. This can be considered the second in a series. The first was The Carriage which is now part of the permanent collection of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, FL. It had been popular and drew considerable attention so I wanted to create another version.

The Carriage, 2014, oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches (Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art permanent collection)

The Carriage, 2014, oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches (Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art permanent collection)

The figures in both paintings are based on found black-and-white antique photographs. For The Little Wagon I chose the photo below.

My intention in both pieces was to combine realism and abstraction into a single painting. I like the idea of using children, little girls in this case, for their uncorrupted earnestness and willingness to engage. They haven't yet learned to discriminate based on adult prejudices.

For me, these paintings are metaphors for the art world. There is a large antagonism towards abstract painting in the general public, and even among many representational artists that I speak with. However, these girls have accepted, are proud to display, and are not intimidated by the otherness of the companions they enjoy associating with.

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8. Inspired by Children.

One of my stated objectives when applying for this grant was to "give back to the community by helping to educate students and the general public about the value of art in their lives while encouraging them to become personally involved in the Arts."

For the second year I am involved with the Florida Sherrifs Youth Ranches (www.youthranches.org) Summer Art Program at the Museum of Fine Arts here in St Petersburg, FL. The mission of the FSYR is to "develop young men and women who, because of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, are able to face the future with a sense of direction, ability and hope." Every other Saturday 30 at-risk children come to the museum to learn art skills from local professional artists.

Yesterday was my turn to lead the class. I chose to introduce them to a version of the Exquisite Corpse Game which was invented by the Paris Surrealists in the early 20th Century. The goal of the game is to create an imaginary figure or animal that would not otherwise exist in nature. The students were supplied with three sheets depicting a fish, monkey, and eagle. After cutting them apart and rearranging the pieces the students then colored them using markers.

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I was amazed at how quickly and easily they understood the objective and then expanded upon the concept. I never expected them to subdivide the pieces even further but they took it upon themselves to take every advantage to explore all the creative possibilities. They even experimented with the properties of the markers and used them like paint by adding water.

One of my struggles as an adult artist is to retain that childlike sense of adventure and freedom. As Picasso said, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."

All the finished pieces are shown here. Enjoy!

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7. Work Status Update.

One intended purpose of this blog is to provide updates on the projects we (the grantees) are working on. So far, I haven't done that.

The main reason I've been tight-lipped has to do with two large upcoming solo exhibitions planned for later this year. The first, HUMAN / NATURE, is scheduled to open on October 7th at the Angela King Gallery in New Orleans. The second, Internal Landscapes, opens January 21st at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, FL. I've been hard at work on new paintings but have been hesitant to reveal them until I knew for sure which venue they wind up at. The full paintings will be revealed soon, I promise!

Until those decisions are made the best I can do is offer a few tantalizing teasers. See if you can figure out which painting details go together.

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6. Was Sisyphus A Performance Artist?

The Fracture, 2006, oil on linen, 28 x 22 inches.

The Fracture, 2006, oil on linen, 28 x 22 inches.

There have been so few times when a painting of mine was a pleasure to create from start to finish. I can count on one hand those times when the image seemed magically to reveal itself on my canvas before my very eyes with little effort on my part, painting itself as I watched in wonder as if a mist was being slowly lifted.

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Typically, however, that's not the way it goes. In the vast majority of cases, the first three-quarters of the process is a dirty, sweaty, frustrating slog through a seemingly endless creative quagmire in an attempt eventually to arrive at that distant, shining image I hold in my mind.

A better metaphor is that of climbing a mountain. The going is hard and tiresome, requiring frequent stops to rest and check the compass or map to make sure I'm on the right path. I call this part of the painting process "the ugly phase." The painting bears little resemblance to the idealized finished product. It's an irritating mishmash of tentative, searching, probing, clumsy brush strokes. Putting one foot in front of the other requires sheer bare knuckle determination.

It's at these times that Truman Capote's quote comes to mind: "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended for self-flagellation solely." I don't mean to imply that the creative process is sadomasochistic, yet, his statement certainly rings true. Reaching the top of the creative mountain often requires the artist periodically to apply a stick to one's stubborn mule to keep it moving toward the top.

The good thing, though, is that I've scaled this mountain many times before. I faithfully trust that something good is waiting for me at the end of the journey if I persevere.

Unlike Sisyphus, I do eventually reach the top. In every case, the pinnacle appears unexpectedly. When it does, the work suddenly becomes effortless and joyful as I start down the other side of the mountain.

Unfortunately, the path to the finish line at the bottom passes very quickly and the enjoyment is relatively short-lived.

Short, perhaps, but intensely sweet and satisfying. Orgasmic! And it's that blissful sensation that keeps me returning again and again to scale the creative mountain. Thankfully, it's a different mountain each time so the challenge and reward are always new.

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As in sex, so in art. It can be said that foreplay begins the day before. So true! Actually, depending on how you look at it, three-quarters of life is foreplay. Might as well enjoy it!

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5. Don't Eat Your Art. Play With It!

My oldest surviving drawing with helpful explanatory notes added by my mother.

My oldest surviving drawing with helpful explanatory notes added by my mother.

Play is an essential part of my job as an artist. Sure, some aspects of what I do can feel like drudgery at times but, for the most part, what I do is deliriously fun. So much so that I actually feel guilty admitting it openly!

Honey Bee, pencil on paper, circa 1969, signature added by my mother at a later date

Honey Bee, pencil on paper, circa 1969, signature added by my mother at a later date

 

Personally speaking, making art has always been the default way of entertaining myself. As a child, sitting alone and giving my full attention to each new creation was the most rewarding way I could think of to spend my time. Compared to any other activity, making art was by far the most alluring. There was no doubt in my mind that art was what I most loved to do.

Hippo, pencil on paper, circa 1969, signature added by my mother at a later date

Hippo, pencil on paper, circa 1969, signature added by my mother at a later date

 

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that most of us who go on to become artists unconsciously decide to do so at a very young age. Like me, they discover the joy and pleasure of creativity in early childhood and that siren song never stops ringing in their ears. Remember that childhood feeling of learning something new? I’m referring to those times when two unrelated ideas came together in your mind for the first time to form a new and wondrous revelation. That’s what happens when we make art.

North Pole, pencil on paper, circa 1970

North Pole, pencil on paper, circa 1970

 

In those instances the world, and myself, suddenly grew larger and more exciting. That’s still what happens when I make art today. There’s a pleasing, euphoric sensation that occurs. Sound familiar? Art is my drug and my lover (after my wife, of course). This phenomenon is the “zone” spoken of by athletes where all awareness of the outside world fades away and time passes unnoticed.

Snamachibahipigilieca, circa 1971, pencil on paper, signature added by my mother at a later date

Snamachibahipigilieca, circa 1971, pencil on paper, signature added by my mother at a later date

 

Plato (429-347 B.C.) is quoted as having said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychologist, also understood the value of play and designed a mode of therapy around it. He believed that play therapy provided a way to express thoughts, experiences and feelings through a natural, self-guided, self-healing process. It becomes an important vehicle for achieving self-knowledge and self-acceptance through symbolic identification. That’s art!

Old Man, 1972, pencil on paper

Old Man, 1972, pencil on paper

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4. Studio: Sanctuary and Prison.

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My current studio, St Petersburg, FL, May 16, 2017, 24 x 26 feet. (Scroll down to see images of past studios.)

If you look at the center of the above photo you may be able to make out an easel and the back of a chair. That's where I work. Well, more precisely, that's where I paint. The rest of the 624 square foot space serves as office, photography studio, gallery/showroom, art library, packing and shipping station, entertainment facility, framing depot, and napping alcove (very important).

I guess this is how the place looks most of the time although, in my mind, it's usually a lot neater. All aspects of it are constantly in motion. Paintings coming and going, constantly being taken down and rehung. Supplies being brought out of storage and put away again. Giant 5x9 foot sheets of cardboard being cut up, folded, glued, and taped to make shipping boxes. Camera and tripod set up and windows darkened to provide required blackness for photographing paintings. New canvases being stretched and prepared. It never seems to end.

As often as the arrangement of the room changes, so does my psychological attitude when working in it. Thankfully, most often it feels like a delightful, life-sustaining oasis. Yet, other days, it can feel like a threatening waste land. It all depends on a volatile mix of inspiration, sales (or lack thereof), stress, creative flow, schedule, and a hundred other factors.

Like many other artists, I'm basically an introverted loner who loves spending time by myself. Since childhood, solitary art-making has been my primary means of entertainment. I thrive on it. Going on vacation away from the studio for any length of time must carefully be planned to include some sort of art activity, typically a visit to a museum, or else I get the jitters.

Over the years, I've had a wide variety of shapes and sizes to work in. Only once did I rent a commercial space separate from where I lived. Needless, to say, each has felt like a home away from home. And, like most, homes, each had its share of joy and drama.

Below are photos of some previous studios (inside and out) I've had the pleasure of working in over the years.

My studio, Warwick, NY, 2011, approx 20 x 30 feet.

My studio, Warwick, NY, 2011, approx 20 x 30 feet.

Exterior of my studio in Warwick, NY located in the church annex on the left.

Exterior of my studio in Warwick, NY located in the church annex on the left.

My studio, Flint Hill, VA, 2007, approx 10 x 12 feet.

My studio, Flint Hill, VA, 2007, approx 10 x 12 feet.

Exterior of my studio in Flint Hill, VA. It was on the top floor of this 100-year old farm house. The studio ceiling was just over 6 feet high.

Exterior of my studio in Flint Hill, VA. It was on the top floor of this 100-year old farm house. The studio ceiling was just over 6 feet high.

My studio, Little Washington, VA, 2005, 22 x 24 feet.

My studio, Little Washington, VA, 2005, 22 x 24 feet.

Exterior of my studio in Little Washington, VA. It was originally a garage. I had just finished staining the exterior which explains the respirator.

Exterior of my studio in Little Washington, VA. It was originally a garage. I had just finished staining the exterior which explains the respirator.

And, finally, some other artists in their studios ...

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

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3. The Beauty of Mistakes.

The Carriage, 2014, oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches, permanent collection Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art (copyright Steven Kenny)

The Carriage, 2014, oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches, permanent collection Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art (copyright Steven Kenny)

Except for the wildest physical deformities, we rarely see what most consider to be Nature's mistakes. Yet, on the unseen chromosomal level, millions of mutations are occurring every moment. Those so-called aberrations are the foundation of evolution and all living things would lose the ability to adapt and grow without those 'mistakes' of Nature.

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I grew up in a family of perfectionists. Mistakes were to be avoided at all costs. In many ways, perfectionism has served me well. However, it's also been the cause of a great deal of frustration. It's taken me many years to arrive at the conclusion that perfection is a myth. Any amateur woodworker learns this quickly. There's no such thing as a true right angle in cabinetry. The best one can do is come close to the abstract concept of 90 degrees. So, over the years I've tried to accept and embrace a way of living and working that allows for unexpected deviations from what I might consider to be the ideal norm.

Sketch (left) and final artwork (right). Copyright 401k Company.

Sketch (left) and final artwork (right). Copyright 401k Company.

Reluctantly, I began my artistic career as an illustrator. In that field, commercial clients rightfully want to see what their illustrated advertisement will look like before they pay for it. It's an illustrator's job to supply the client with a detailed sketch for approval before proceeding to the finished artwork (see above). No problem there. But, after transitioning from commercial art to fine art I continued to use the same approach even after the client was no longer part of the equation. I would work out all the compositional elements of each painting prior to picking up a brush in an attempt to eliminate any 'mistakes.' Over the years it slowly dawned on me that the external client I was still trying to satisfy was imaginary and the only person I really needed to please was myself.

At that point I began looking for ways to disrupt my perfectionist tendencies. This meant going against all my predilections and venturing into an uncertain artistic place. I have the utmost respect for those artists who achieve this on a much grander scale than I am capable by continually pushing their boundaries of personal expression. The advancement of art history rests on the shoulders of those artistic giants who lived on the creative edge, so to speak. I accepted the fact a long time ago that I am not cut out to be listed among them. Artists can only do what they can do---and do it well. Still, I believe discomfort is a necessary ingredient in any artist's individual growth.

Preliminary sketch (left) and finished painting (right). The Beach, 2015, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches. (copyright Steven Kenny)

Preliminary sketch (left) and finished painting (right). The Beach, 2015, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches. (copyright Steven Kenny)

These days, when beginning a painting, I start with just the main element of each composition (see above). I do not know in advance exactly what the finished image will look like. I plunge in and allow time and my intuition to do their work. Pictorial elements will be added or removed as deemed necessary during the painting process. As reckless as this may seem to some, it is a deeply satisfying and invigorating way of working. Rather than attempting to make all the creative decisions in advance---stopping my own conceptual dialog at the beginning in an effort to eliminate mistakes---I allow the internal conversation to continue. The result is a creation I could not have imagined until the moment it is actually finished.

That's life.

website: www.stevenkenny.com
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2. Imagination and sin.

Flora with Snake, oil on linen, 20 x 18 inches (copyright Steven Kenny)

Flora with Snake, oil on linen, 20 x 18 inches (copyright Steven Kenny)

William Blake (1757-1827), the English poet, painter and printmaker, had a lot to say about imagination. He believed that the world we desire and create is better and more real than the world we see. To put it very clumsily without going deeply into his personal philosophy, Blake believed that God's essence is creative, we are inseparable from God, so we are creative by nature. If there is such a thing as sin, Blake believed, it would be sinful to live an unimaginative life. Luckily, our creativity comes naturally. To live otherwise would be unnatural. I'm not a practicing Catholic but having been raised one I have an inbred aversion to sin. I may not agree entirely with Blake's views but I do take comfort in the idea of creativeness being our natural state.

Treelady, 1998, oil on panel, 25 x 16 inches, private collection (copyright Steven Kenny)

Treelady, 1998, oil on panel, 25 x 16 inches, private collection (copyright Steven Kenny)

I've spent a lot of time thinking about, looking at, and drawing inspiration from Nature. In truth, Nature is ALWAYS in the act of creating. For instance, as a child it was a revelation to learn that trees in winter are not asleep; their roots are still busy below ground, albeit at a slowed pace. Unfortunately, in today's fast-moving world, we often tend to evaluate "slow" as unproductive. When we are unable to perceive change we assume that nothing is happening. Yet, mountains are constantly being eroded while seeming immutable. Deserts appear lifeless but are teeming with activity. Likewise, artistic creativity continues at all times regardless of the number of hours spent in the studio.

Death Before Birth, 2013, oil on canvas, 38 x 24 inches (copyright Steven Kenny)

Death Before Birth, 2013, oil on canvas, 38 x 24 inches (copyright Steven Kenny)

Death also plays an important role. I've come to believe that death is as creative an event as birth. Without it life wouldn't move forward or evolve. It's just one of many points on that unseen wheel that continually spins. So many of my artistic ideas lead to dead ends and are never brought to fruition. Still, they have real value and help me grow as an artist.  The only "sin" in art is to believe that you are not being creative at any given time. Now, take a little creativity-building advice from Einstein, Aristotle, and Salvador Dali and go take a nap.

website: www.stevenkenny.com
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1. No beginning. No end.

The Circle, 2008, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches (copyright Steven Kenny)

The Circle, 2008, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches (copyright Steven Kenny)

Artistic freedom can be paralyzing. The responsibility that comes with creating a new work of art (or blog!) can be overwhelming. What helps me avoid getting bogged down, and gives me a sense of reassurance, is the concept of the circle. (Side note: I have no tattoos but have thought long and hard about what my first one might look like and I think it would be a simple "o".)

For me, creativity is like a merry-go-round. There is no beginning or end and I'm free to hop on or off at any point. At times I think of each of my paintings as a single frame in a long roll of film. Each differs from the one preceding or following it but all are interconnected.

Ouroboros

Ouroboros

Like Ouroboros, the mythical serpent forever swallowing its own tail, I am simultaneously devouring myself and growing at the same time. By holding onto the conceptual tail of my last painting, I'm pulled into the next one. That circular thread acts as an artistic lifeline. The trick is to make sure that each new work, while related to the last, is not simply a reiteration of it. No going back. Only forward! In my case, I've always been able to work on only one painting at a time. Otherwise, I lose focus and my momentum slows to a halt. Stagnation can be deadly.

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So, between now and December, I intend to keep moving. Each blog post will be related to the last in some way, perhaps only apparent to me. My plan at this point is to touch more on the conceptual aspects of my work and less about technical issues (but that may change). Stay tuned to my Facebook page where I'll announce each new blog post. Thanks!

Steven Kenny, Untitled #8, 2016, mixed media, 11 x 11 inches (private collection)

Steven Kenny, Untitled #8, 2016, mixed media, 11 x 11 inches (private collection)

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Steven Kenny

Steven Kenny was born in Peekskill, New York in 1962. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1984. His final year of art school was spent studying independently in Rome. This direct exposure to European art (especially the Baroque works of the Italian, Dutch and Flemish schools) had a significant effect on his painting style.

First settling in New York City, he gained notoriety as a freelance commercial illustrator. Clients included Sony Music, Time Magazine, AT&T, United Airlines, Celestial Seasonings, Microsoft and many others. His illustrations repeatedly received awards from the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts Magazine and the Art Directors' Club of New York.

In 1997 Steven turned away from illustration in order to devote his full attention to the fine arts. Since that time he has lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and his home state of New York before settling in St Petersburg, Florida in 2011. His award- winning paintings are exhibited in galleries across the United States and Europe. Honors include grants from the Virginia and Franz Bader Fund, the Joyce Dutka Arts Foundation, and fellowships from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Creative Pinellas. His paintings can be found in the permanent collections of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, Museo Arte Contemporanea Sicilia, and many private collections around the world.

From an early age the beauty and mystery of nature have deeply influenced his chosen subject matter: surreal compositions that most often combine the human figure with elements from nature to comment on our interactions with the environment while symbolically alluding to the multi-facetted dynamics of human nature in general. Stylistically, Steven employs Old Master oil painting techniques to create images that are visually reminiscent of the Renaissance and Northern Baroque periods while being firmly rooted in the realm of Contemporary Art.

With regard to this Creative Pinellas Artist Grant, I intend to continue to 1) challenge myself and grow as an artist while refining the quality of my artwork, 2) participate in solo and group exhibitions locally, nationally, and globally, 3) promote my work by the most effective means possible, 4) give back to the community by helping to educate students and the general public about the value of art in their lives while encouraging them to become personally involved in the Arts.