Thomas Steyer, who produces Abstract Expressionist works, is passionate about his art. “What a bleak place the world would be without art,” he says. He's right all the way. Thank you Thomas Steyer for the colors and forms you have added to our lives.
Interview by Ummuhan Kazanc
Dear Thomas Steyer, you have an impressive artistic education. What was your motivation to study art? How did your story as an artist begin?
Art runs in my family. My father was a sculptor and my mother a ballerina.
You had a difficult time after your art studies. You contacted the musicians you most admired and borrowed their guitars to enlarge them on canvas. What would you like to say about this period of life?
At first I was looking for shiny objects that I could reproduce on canvas in all their reflective glory. It started with all sorts of stationary (my pencil sharpener is a good example of this), then kitchen utensils (cutlery, whisks, egg slicers, etc.) bicycle parts, car emblems, ball bearings and microphones. Eventually I mustered up the courage to contact my hero in the music world, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. His gleaming steel guitar was just perfect to turn into a colorful picture. I enjoyed meeting other guitarists like BB King, Pete Townshend and Hank Marvin to paint their guitars as well. As exciting as it was to paint great guitars, it also took me away from super-reflective objects. The whole point of painting shiny objects was the abstract nature of their reflections. They were the forerunners of my abstracts. Finally, I steered in a completely different direction.
After a ten-year career as a painter, you decided to become a freelance illustrator and then emigrated from London to Sydney. An interesting career change is at stake here. How did this reorientation come about and what did you experience in Sydney?
I met an illustrator named Tom Stimpson who bought some paintings (paper-clips from my Stationery series). He worked with airbrushes and I was so fascinated watching him that he gave me his old airbrush and compressor as a gift. I was allowed to watch him at work a few more times and then became an airbrush artist myself. Shortly thereafter, I got my first commission in advertising. I had never planned to become an illustrator, it just happened. Suddenly I was able to make a lot of money, which enabled me to pursue some of my dreams, one of which was to immigrate to Australia. I arrived in Sydney when there was a great demand for illustrators, particularly in advertising. It meant no change in my career and I really enjoyed the warm climate.
Thomas Steyer: “Expressing ourselves in any way gives our existence meaning in this world. I express myself through art. I paint abstract because that's the best and most direct way to express my feelings. Thus I record my emotions that describe my life with all the influences felt in this world.”
Twenty-seven years later, after numerous exhibitions and countless illustrations you returned to Germany to settle in the south-west near Freiburg. Did your love of painting push you towards this change?
Not really. My illustration career had slowly declined as I focused more on painting again. This time I was really free and able to immerse myself in abstract art. Then I met a nice German woman with whom I moved back to Germany.
You state that painting doesn't always come easy for you. Can you elaborate on this?
I think if painting was easy I wouldn't do it for long. It's a part of my life that has its ups and downs. I don't paint to enjoy life, I paint for a passion that gives life the spice it needs. Then it happens every now and then that art itself gets in my way.
Do you have hope that art will make the world a better place?
I know it does. I cannot imagine a world without art. What a dreary place it would be. Can it stop wars? I don't know.
You are an Abstract Expressionist. What do the words expression and abstract mean to you?
Expressing ourselves in any way gives our existence meaning in this world. I express myself through art. I paint abstract because that's the best and most direct way to express my feelings. Thus I record my emotions that describe my life with all the influences felt in this world.
Do you believe that the emotional bond you establish with your painting creates the dynamics of your work?
Most definitely. It is pure and simple. If you can read and interpret the dynamics, you can identify my emotion.
What do you think about the spontaneous combination of color, color tones, line and pattern in painting?
It's often the unintentional that makes the difference. In retrospect, it may even have been intentional, for whatever reason. I rarely remember all the steps it took to produce a painting. Choices of colors, lines or patterns usually come naturally. Spontaneity is mostly good, except when it's not, then I need more spontaneity to improve something. Fixing something on purpose is a very bad idea.
What social sensitivities that you take from life do you reflect in your painting?
There was a time when socially critical statements were relevant to me. Now I'm more relaxed and distant. I see how too many people have strong opinions about everything and want to make themselves heard with their half-knowledge. However, I currently have a travelling exhibition of paintings about dying insects to raise awareness of insect mortality.
Do you think that you have to have life experience and attitude to be a good painter?
Attitude is important to being a good person, and experience makes you better at almost everything. However, Picasso would have advised to revert to the innocence of a child in order to create real art. I agree to a certain extent.
At what moment do you decide that a painting is finished? When is the painting completed?
I try not to finish my paintings. I want to leave room for the viewer to connect the dots. If I notice that a picture doesn't get better by doing more with it, I have to be careful that it doesn't develop into something else. Unfortunately, I have to admit that this happens quite often.
Finally, I would like to know more about the American artist Joan Mitchell and why she is an important role model for you?
Joan Mitchell was an active participant in the New York School of artists in the 1950s and is known for her emotionally intense style and its gestural brushwork. I admire her less for her emotionally traumatic life, in which bad relationships and alcohol played a big part, but more because she was one of her era's few female painters to gain critical and public acclaim, which didn't seem to have an effect on her. She was very prolific and did what she had to do. She just did it and she didn't give a damn.