On September 14, 2017, in anticipation of the upcoming Ralph Steeds retrospective art exhibit; in times of anxiety, we sat down with the artist for a few minutes to discuss his work and career.
Adam Cave (AC) – Ralph, thanks so much for taking time today to talk with me. There are so many interesting aspects to your career and your artwork that I want to discuss. Let’s start with the “elephant in the room.” Many of your lithographs and engravings are stridently anti-war. I know you served in Vietnam. Were you making this kind of art before the war? Or has this all been a reaction to that experience?
Ralph Steeds (RS) – I was a committed artist well before I went to Vietnam. Even before I graduated from University of Central Oklahoma (1966) I had a professional studio in Oklahoma City. A local lawyer had converted an old Sewing Machine Factory into artist studios. The building was called the Contemporary Arts Foundation and I had a studio there at age 19. It cost me $30 a month but the lawyer would often take artwork in trade for rent. I was one of the youngest artists there and learned a lot from everyone else. At the time I was primarily a painter and most of the work was abstract expressionism. The figurative work and the anti-war work came later.
AC – Vietnam obviously interrupted your career. Were you drafted?
RS – I was going to be but I joined the Navy instead hoping to stay out of the worst of it. I served on a destroyer for a year off the coast of Vietnam. Then they sent me to jungle survival school and I ended up on gunboats in the Mekong Delta. So, in the end, I was in the thick of things.
AC - Did the impact of that experience come out in your artwork right away?
RS – Yes and no. When I got out of the Navy I went right to graduate school and the faculty really discouraged realism and figurative artwork. I focused on color field abstraction but my concerns about war and other issues did show up in some of my personal drawings and early etchings.
AC – I think calling your work anti-war might be a gross simplification? There are certainly other themes and ideas at work as well.
RS – Let me be clear about this. Both my grandfather and my father served this country in wars. I was the third generation to go to war. The level of anxiety that the world continues to experience, over and over again, is very distressing to me. I am not anti-soldier. I just want them to come home, whole. I am also not anti-religion but I am against the fundamentalism that would rather kill than allow everyone to peacefully co-exist. This is all very personal to me, which is why these themes are often combined with my own dream imagery.
AC – Tell me more about the imagery you use. There is a sort of layering going on in these pieces and I am curious if it is all planned out ahead of time?
RS – There is not a lot of planning. I usually start a piece with a central focal point. Sometimes it is an animal; other times it is an archaic symbol or figure. These are often metaphors that I like to use and sometimes the same figure can be a metaphor for different things in different pieces. After I put this idea on paper, the rest of the artwork develops intuitively. And, often I make decisions that are based purely on the aesthetics of the piece. “It needs more red in this corner,” for instance.
AC – Do any of your figures or symbols have specific references?
RS – Occasionally. In “Business as Usual” I have a figure in a gas mask that was a reaction to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad on his own people in Syria. Drones reference newer techniques of espionage and warfare that are post-9/11. But, again, these images speak to broader senses of anxiety as well, so they work both ways.
AC – I have noticed that you often include images in your piece that appear to be drawn by a child. How do these fit into the overall concepts that you are exploring?
RS – The children’s drawings, the realistic figures, and the more abstract symbols are like three different alphabets that I am writing with. Each is a different level of visual communication and I enjoy using them in combination. The archaic symbols have long histories and deep meanings that the viewer is aware of even if it is unclear what they mean. For example, I have used horned goats as references to the devil, or evil in many forms. On the other end of the scale, the children’s drawings are direct and honest and have no history – they are simply reactions to the world.
AC – Thank you so much for talking with me today Ralph. It has been so nice to dig deeper into your work and career. I am very proud to be presenting this retrospective in our Raleigh gallery and can’t wait to see all the work up on view.
RS – Thank you Adam. I look forward to seeing it all up as well.
Ralph Steeds / in times of anxiety opens on Saturday, September 23rd with a public artist reception from 7:00 – 9:00 pm. The exhibit and sale of over forty works will be on view during regular gallery hours through the end of October. Click HERE for an artist vitae and list of collections. Adam Cave Fine Art is located at 2009 Progress Court, Raleigh, NC 27608. Regular hours are Wednesday – Saturday, 10:00 – 4:00 pm.