The most recent show at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery houses the works of Justin Orvis Steimer, ‘cave paintings of a homo galactian’ September 8- October 9, 2016. I was first introduced to Justin’s work during a group show called ZIG ZAG ZIM. I was immediately drawn to his pieces because they seemed to capture the core of his subject without creating a sort of obvious replication of that subject. As I began to learn more about his work I found that he was capturing energies rather than physical beings. This idea while explored in other ways by a number of artists has not been executed in the way Justin Orvis Steimer has. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him further about his process, how he began to develop his craft and all of the factors that impact his work. He is a humble, soft spoken artist with invaluable insight and understanding of the human existence. Our one hour chat moved in an organic direction which left me more enlightened, curious to explore my own existence and the basis there of.
RM: Where to start?
JOS: Let’s start at the beginning…
As a kid, I used to paint birds. I spent summers with my grandparents in Pennsylvania. My cousin who was the same age lived next door and as children we would do a lot of drawing replicating birds we would see in these nature books we had. My uncle would also do a lot of paintings of birds and geese and somehow that trickled down to us. My uncle took us to museums and art galleries often. He took us to Pittsburg and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. so I was always exposed to art. I always had a special feeling about art, like it would be something great to do if it were possible.
RM: As a career?
JOS: Yea, as a career. It always seemed simultaneously possible and impossible at the same time. In high school art class always felt like home territory, like I was in my element. I never had any doubt about what I was doing.
RM: So did you feel like you’ve always been pretty confident in your work?
JOS: Yea, with the exception of school making you do life studies and figure drawings. That was always extremely frustrating for me. The idea of taking something that already exists and then reproducing it to me felt very academic, like I was just a robot producing something that already existed.
RM: I see, so you didn’t feel like you were creating anything?
JOS: Yea, exactly. I always thought, how am I going to draw this better than it already is? I also didn’t necessarily have any desire to make my own version of this real life object. Except not painting anything based on the physical at all, which is where all of this stuff came from [referencing pieces in the gallery]. At a certain point, I realized I could just scribble, make marks and in a way I am still drawing this thing. I’m not drawing the physical thing I’m drawing it’s metaphysical representation or the essence of the object. To me that was fun, it was freedom, like playtime. Now of course I didn’t realize what I was drawing as a kid but now I have a different understanding.
RM: So you were doing these types of drawings at a younger age before you knew what it really was?
JOS: I always scribbling, doodling, making patterns of geometric layers and shapes. It wasn’t a conscious thing, like I’m going to do a scribble of like this person or this tree. It wasn’t that, that all started to evolve later. It’s been an organic progression.
RM: Going back to the bird paintings for a second, it’s interesting that at that age you were interested in painting your environment in a sense. Do you feel that subconsciously you were always connected to drawing something about your environment? Whether it be a bird or doodles?
JOS: When we were drawing the birds, we were drawn to the habitats and migration patterns of the ones in our area. So yes, on some base level we are drawn to something about what was home, what was familiar and what was connecting us.
RM: This all makes sense. My theory is that at some level we are always building on what our purpose will be. For you, maybe that meant first starting to draw things in your environment, then progressing to doodling and now painting the metaphysical representation of things.
JOS: I agree with that but paramount to all of it is somehow being lucky enough to have had this sort of confidence to do what made me happy.
RM: Is that what keeps you going?
JOS: Certainly yea. I get a tremendous sense of affirmation in the process of painting something and feeling great about it. I think that when you’re doing anything and there are multiple sources that are affirming you but they aren’t necessarily connected is also helpful. I love to paint and other people seem to really enjoy it. I get much more positive feedback than negative and that’s encouraging. The idea of this work opening up new ideas and creating new awareness is another affirmation. All of these different sources are saying this is a good thing to do it helps me move forward. It feels like it’s own thing and it’s own life at this point, and I feel great to be part of it.
RM: You’re talking about affirmations and the fact that you’ve gotten so much positive feedback. It’s interesting to see how people react to the work of artists. At times I sit and observe people’s reactions in art spaces rather than the art itself because it’s really interesting. Do you ever do that at your own shows?
JOS: I’m confident in the work and proud of what I’ve done but then to have someone looking at it makes me nervous. But then when they start saying oh I like this or I like that about the work and we can begin to engage in a conversation about it, that’s when I get really excited and the nerves go away. The main point of all of this is to open up that dialogue about who we are as humans, our existence, where we are going, all of those kinds of things.
One of the really basic primal functions of art is to open up those types of passageways and conversations. Art should open minds and should be expanding consciousness.
RM: This dialogue is of particular interest to me. The idea of metaphysical is an idea that has been around for ages but only certain people have really tapped into it. At it’s core it’s really just understanding people’s energies. That’s why I connected with your work so much.
JOS: In art from a physical standpoint we’ve done a lot but what I feel like what we haven’t explored is this fully metaphysical existence and using that as a stepping stone for art. Each object is its own universe of energy and the possibilities are infinite to explore.
RM: Months ago you went to Zimbabwe, how did that trip impact your work?
JOS: Traveling is important to expose you to new ideas. Whenever I travel the lines and shapes in my work change. The community that we stayed with there were a group of artists and musicians who are still very in touch with their native an indigenous practice which focuses on the metaphysical. One main belief is their belief in spirits. The spirit of an old ancestor, a patriarch of the village we stayed in was still very much alive and was being channeled through the village Shaman. For me, to visit places where people are already operating on this belief of the metaphysical existence is helpful to my practice. I was able to have access to things I otherwise would not have had because the community was very open to sharing which allowed me to experience something different. I asked if it was ok for me to paint as the Shaman was channeling the ancestor, he said that I could because it was my gift to see things through this unique lens.
RM: You’ve been evolving your work and now have come to this show, ‘cave paintings of a homo galactian’, before we wrap up our time together can you tell me a bit more about this show?
JOS: This was an old boat sail [pointing to the canvas] that I used to do all of my older paintings. I sewed a bunch of pieces together and made a canvas. When starting, all I knew was that I wanted to use this material and I knew the choice of color for my base, Aquamarine. It progressed from there. As I began to paint, this bird emerged [pointing to his painting] as well as other shapes. From that I moved to the next painting and built on the shapes from the first, that process continued for a number of paintings.
This football eyeball shape is something that has come up in the past in my work. One thing I’ve tried to focus on recently is this idea of simplifying things in an effort to try to understand it. So, the process now is that I pick a specific idea and then focus on that idea in my work.
RM: It will be interesting to see how that process impacts your work going forward. What are you working on next?
JOS: We did another trip to Zimbabwe which allowed me to dive deeper into my own practice. We visited the same village and experienced the Shaman channeling the patriarch of the village again. I was able to focus and draw my interpretation of the energies in the room and I’m now working on refining those pieces.