Thursday, August 5, 2021

WALTER STEDING: Essence of an Artist [1983]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1983 / 2021
mages from the Internet

WALTER STEDING: Essence of an Artist [1983 Interview]

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #11, dated 1983. It was written by Julia Masi.

Currently, Walter Steding is a painter and actor who writes film scores and is in the group Crazy Mary, based in New York City where he resides. This is a companion piece to one Julia wrote in Issue #10, reprinted HERE. – RBF, 2021 


His special loft on the Bowery is littered with the canvases of his labor. Portraits of pop-culture aristocracy, like Andy Warhol and Deborah Harry, sit on the chairs and sleep on the floor. A painting of a bright blue chair rests against the wall. The furnishings are sparse: a table, his synthesizer, and a clock. In the corner, he’s sectioned off a rustic little bedroom, so neat and compact that it looks like it was built for a movie set, furnished mostly with things he’s found in other people’s garbage.

Simplicity is the essence of Walter Steding’s style. His music and his art, like his loft, are uncluttered. There is a child-like wonder in his work. Some of his paintings show cheekbones or eyes much wider than God would mercifully bestow on anyone. And his songs and performance style are as unpretentious as entertainment can get. Yet, there is great sophistication in how every line, note and color is calculated to transmute his feelings.

“To be a musician and live on the Lower East Side, there is a kind of feel about society, about the way things are. Graffiti artists or whatever, there is always a movement that suggests how people are. That’s always the way it is with art,” comments Walter. “The paintings come from the same kind of thought that I live and experience what is happening. I try to express the way things are through the music and the painting so they’re similar in the sense that I see colors. Like green – a typical industrial restroom color. It really doesn’t say much, but in not saying much, it says a lot. And the same thing with my tunes. I try to keep them really simple. I work with a really simple formula. Even though the format is simple and I only use a few colors it’s the combination of those colors that create the music. Maybe I just use the standard 4/4 beat, but it’s what I apply to that.


“I’m painting portraits but I’m not painting portraits in the same way as (John Singleton) Copley (d. 1815) or any other great portrait painter painted because they wanted to create a likeness. I’m painting portraits in an era when photography has existed for almost 100 years. And it’s easier to take a person’s image and have that image reflected on chemicals that separate various tones of light and create an image instantly. Then why do a portrait? It’s much easier to take a picture. But what I am is a portrait painter working with paints in the year 1983, and that’s what it is. It’s me, the portrait painter. It’s not the portrait itself. The painting is insignificant compared to the fact that I’m doing it. And by the looks of my paintings, that’s immediately revealed.

“I try to make it look like there’s a background. There’s no portrait there then – flash – someone is there! And they are portraits that you can see are done after the invention of photography to help me get a likeness, but I really work from a mental perspective or how a person would appear.”

Actually, Walter doesn’t even need a photograph to create a mental image of a person. He has that special kind of sensitivity that gives you the impression that he can read a person’s face as easily as he can read a letter. And when he reads letters, he absorbs every detail and nuance of a person’s personality so fully that he’s able to create a convincing character on canvas. Some of the faces in Walter’s exhibit at the Semaforte Gallery last Spring were inspired by a box of letters that he found in the garbage. Some of the letters date back to the early 1800s. Most of the correspondence in between three men – Jordean, Matheson and Dent – the families who set up the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, the institution that, in this day, sets the standard for gold prices in the Western world. These letters document the beginnings of our economic system, the common market, opium/slave trade and economic crash.

It’s doubtful that anyone who has attended Walter’s exhibit really knows exactly what Jordean, Matheson or Dent looked like, but Walter’s images are so strong you believe that they’re accurate.


And just in glancing around his loft you can see what he’s learned from the letters and get a clue to his perception of the evolution of America’s society.

“In the olden days, even though you didn’t have any dollars, you had opportunity because you could go out West, meet some savage Indians and give them trinkets for furs and sell them and get cash for it. And if not cash, you could take those furs to a foreign country, like in China, because furs became fashionable, so they could take those furs and trade them for tea. And then they could take the tea and bring it back and sell the tea here.

“People came to this country with nothing, like John Jacob Astor and Steven Gerard and Vanderbilt. Individuals who could actually go out and make a fortune.

“In today’s world, an individual can no longer go out into the wilderness and start a trade. It’s all tied up by those original families who have kept their money and survived the crash, ‘cause they never had it to lose in the first, since they were the ones who were causing the crashes. Today, for anyone to accomplish any achievement monetarily, the only thing you can sell is a kind of software, and that’s selling an idea that’s selling yourself. You become a famous actor. You become a famous pop musician. You can start from nothing and make a lot of money. But you can’t go into the world and dig up Uranium and convert it into nuclear energy on your own. You have to have a whole team of physicists and a whole complex of other people. The only way you can do it today, the only field, is this kind of mental activity.”

In the not-so-distant future, Walter worries that history will repeat itself. When he reads the daily newspapers, he often notices how certain events are similar to situations cited in the letters. For instance, a recent report claims that the U.S. government will be printing more money to counteract inflation. When this situation was tried in the past, it had quickly led to an economic crash. He feels fortunate to have found these letters and to have learned so much from them.

“Because I have this knowledge, I see my position as being a communicator, even through my music. My music is part of my art. It says on my contract ‘recording artist.’ It doesn’t say ‘pop star’ or anything like that. It says recording artist because that’s what I am. I write all of the songs. I produced them. I carry the records on my back and take them to the stores. And what’s in these songs is what I feel. What’s in these songs is a kind of message. They’re not saying ‘Let’s revolt’ or anything like that. They’re saying, ‘Let’s have compassion for one another, ‘cause we’re all in this together.’

“That’s why I don’t want to stand up there and create an antagonistic mood. The whole punk thing was great because it made its statement, but now let’s definitely go on. You have to find compassion for your audience.”

If there is any gift Walter could give his audience, it would be “non-violence. Just getting along with each other. There’s always a way for people to become one with their environment or nature or whatever.

“I always try to be close with nature. I make sure I get in the woods.” His basic philosophy of life is “not to believe in anything except what exists. It’s not my will to believe anything. Whenever you say, ‘I believe,’ you don’t believe. Because it’s not your will to believe anything. It’s your position to accept what is correct. And then you leverage your mind open for that source to come direct and without your will interfering.

“It’s when you start to think that these ideas are your own, that’s when they stop. What I do, I don’t feel is my own (ideas). I like to get ideas out and perpetuate. Let someone else take over. Just set it down. I feel that there is a never-ending source. The more things that you can express and you put out, the more ideas you will get.

“I hope I can paint now, and if I get discouraged with the painting, I can be a writer or play music.”