Artist Profile Story by Amy Newman
Twenty two years ago, a stroke of seemingly bad luck propelled Anchorage artist Steven Gordon into life as a full-time painter.
Steven was the part-time director of Alaska Pacific University’s art program, and spent his off-hours painting out of his home studio. His wife, Karen, had recently resigned from her teaching job in order to spend more time with the children. Steven was hoping that the APU job would turn into a full-time position. But less than two months after Karen submitted her resignation, APU gutted its humanities program, leaving Steven without a job.
“So now I have two kids and a wife I’m supporting with just painting sales,” he says. “I felt like I was in a financial freefall, and it was scary because I’d never been in a position quite like that.”
A friend helped him realize that God was in control of the situation. So rather than panic, Steven says he focused on what was within his control – the painting. He had a gallery show scheduled for that upcoming August, so he spent the summer painting – and praying. His hard work and faith was rewarded when he sold every piece in the show.
Now a full-time painter, Steven’s brightly colored, richly detailed Alaska landscapes grace the walls of museums in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, and are popular sellers at gallery shows. Steven says he’s lost count of how many paintings he’s sold over the years.
Yet despite his success, Steven didn’t set out to paint professionally.
Growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, Steven says he was surrounded by creativity – his father was an architect, his older sister an art major, and the house was always filled with art supplies – and artistic expression was encouraged. Summers were spent at his grandmother’s northern Minnesota cabin and, with no diversions, Steven painted landscapes to pass the time. He sold his first painting in high school to the president of a local bank his father had helped design.
Steven’s “Plan A” was to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. He took art classes to counter balance the organic chemistry and biology courses required of a pre-med student, getting straight As in all of them. But life took a “complete 180, sharp left,” he says with a laugh, when he wasn’t accepted into a single medical school. He used his art as a fall back, earning an MFA in painting from the University of Iowa.
With no job prospects in Iowa City, he and Karen moved to Anchorage, where her family lived. He loved that Anchorage gave him quick accessibility to nature, and took advantage by hiking his way around Southcentral, photographing locations that inspired him and trying to “recapture and express” the beauty he found in his paintings.
“I’m drawn to images with dramatic light, saturated color or interesting spaces,” he says. “I like drama and energy in a painting, so I’m a little more drawn to intimate landscapes where you’re right in it.”
Steven puts that intimacy on canvas with his “painterly realist” style – while his paintings look realistic, especially when viewed from across a room, the visible brush strokes keep them from being photo realistic, he says. His paintings evoke a sense of immediacy – the bubbling surface of rushing water or the texture of a leaf twisting on a tree – that draws the viewer in and makes him feel part of the landscape.
“I like straddling that balance between the two,” he says. “The brush work conveys the energy that went into the making of it, and it kind of, in my mind, gives it a bit of life.”
With his youngest daughter heading off to college this fall, Steven is beginning to feel the twinges of empty nest syndrome. He wants to travel – across Alaska, the United States, and perhaps Europe – in search of interesting locations, and possibly expand his paintings beyond Alaska landscapes.
Reflecting back on his career, Steven says that the sudden loss of his job at APU all those years ago was actually a blessing in disguise.
“It was the shove out of the nest that I needed at the time, and it worked,” he says.