Lisa Steffens grew up along New York’s Hudson River, and her mother studied fashion design at the area’s prestigious Pratt Institute for a year or two. “She was an amazing dressmaker and designer,” says her daughter. But a promising career with any number of major fashion houses was given up for traditional family responsibilities — a decision Steffens’ mother later admitted she regretted.
By the time she heard the confession, Steffens had been living in England for some years — and “this intimate exchange changed my life,” she says. “I decided to follow providence and take a throw at the coconuts.” This meant selling her house in the UK and moving to Manhattan to embrace formal training in painting, sculpture, and drawing.
Her wide-ranging body of work reflects an even earlier exposure to art studies during the 23 years she lived in England, working in graphic design for the BBC. It was at Solent University, Southampton, that she learned printmaking, especially monotypes.
“Monotypes are really paintings, and although you’re making a print, you’re making just the one,” she explains. “My monotypes are sometimes informed by family photos imbued with memory. There’s something about black-and-white that I find haunting, further evoking a feeling of another time.”
The pieces begin as paintings on Plexiglass, but the resulting image on paper can seem completely different in emotional content from the original image. “Part of what I love about the process is the results can often be surprising,” Steffens says. “This is a major attraction for me.” The immediacy of the painting, with little time to step back, consider, and retouch is another advantage, making the resulting print, she believes, “more felt and real.”
Color comes more into play with Steffens’ landscapes and still-life prints. “Part of what makes the landscape so special is color, but it isn’t necessarily true in the figure,” she notes. “Black-and-white can capture the mystery and awe of the figure without the addition of color.” Still, the figure of a young woman in a white dress flecked with a botanical green, seated against patches of aqua and deep blue, evokes a sense of tranquility and repose. In a beach scene, one can sense the sea breeze in the broad yellow, purple, and blue strokes.
Steffens’ compelling works in oil, particularly her heavily textured portraits, are boldly colored and forceful in their tightly framed perspective. The landscapes on canvas, on the other hand, can be softly diffused and delicately rendered. The stylistic differences reflect the artist’s debt to a wide variety of influences, from Lucian Freud to Matisse, and contemporary artists like Elizabeth Peyton and Jenny Saville. Now working on a series of larger paintings inspired by life in the mountains, Steffens continues to explore new avenues of expression. She can’t rest artistically in one spot.
“I enjoy changing things up.”
Lisa Steffens, North Cove Township, McDowell County, lisasteffens.com. Steffens’ studio is located upstairs in the Red House Studios and Gallery (310 West State St., Black Mountain, svfalarts.org); her work will be shown in the gallery’s Living Things exhibit through May 16. Steffens’ monotypes can be viewed at Asheville Print Studio, Riverview Station, Studio 224, in the River Arts District (ashevilleprintstudio.com). Steffens will also have work in the New Faces exhibit at Upstairs Artspace (49 South Trade St., Tryon, upstairsartspace.org), through May 7.