“Geometry is like music,” artist Marlene Steele recently told a group of high school students, gathered around an exhibition of her work at the Richmond (Indiana) Art Museum. The students looked surprised but interested. “Drawing is a basic artist skill,” she went on, and showed them her sketch book.  It is small, perhaps six by nine inches, and will fit into a pocketbook without a problem.  “You need an emotional memory when you’re painting in the studio,” she explained.  “Also, the sketch book helps you understand the world. Leonardo had one. They are a tool for anyone.”

The gallery we were gathered in was lined with her work, city scenes familiar to Cincinnatians.  We know the face of the Union Terminal building, the streets of the west end where she lives “one neighborhood away from Over-the-Rhine” she would explain to me later.  Geometry, as she talked about it to this audience, took on an aspect some of them may never have suspected.  “Architecture reflects it,” she told them. “The rectangle, though, is the artist’s problem,” she added, but went on to point out that “juxtaposition creates interest.”

Although the handsome facade of the Union Terminal is clearly a favorite sight for her, she also likes undistinguished buildings.  A garage, a shed, utilitarian structures in general have changing aspects in various lights, she told her audience. It occurred to me that a visual artist looks at things the way a musician listens to music. “What’s going on here?” is the question each wants to know. How are sounds (for musicians) or colors, shapes (for visual artists) relating to each other? Listening and looking have some significant shared goals.

Steele told the students that although she has worked in a department store and later in a design studio, she has had her own studio space almost all through her life. “I’ve been drawing ever since I was a little kid,” she said.  She also offered some friendly advice: talk about “art works,” not “art pieces.”  Pieces, she implied, is a demeaning term.

Steele, who is tall and slim and wears brown-rimmed glasses, addressed her listeners with the certain knowledge that some – perhaps all? – would like to know how to make art.  She showed them how she does it.  Her paper is slightly sanded – she passed a piece of it around.  She doesn’t work on pure white paper – too stark, was the implication. She demonstrated with a few sketch marks, which at first could be prelude to just about anything but suddenly converged into meaningful shapes.  She drew their attention to three of her paintings, all centered on a particular garage/shed, with a chain link fence a nifty addition to one of them. Her point: shapes themselves are a pleasure to look at.  “I am excited about painting and drawing what I see,” she told her audience.  In working she doesn’t ask herself “will it sell?” but responds to the questions that interest her: “How do shapes and colors affect one another?”

The trip to the Richmond Art Museum was a bonus to writing about Steele, who suggested it when I got in touch with her for Aeqai. She would be speaking in the exhibition there, she said, and I could see the show as well. The exhibition (closing April 7) presents two Cincinnati artists whose works, I discovered once there, are interestingly compatible with each other and fit perfectly with the title of their show:  Hassard & Steele: Concrete Dreams. The two artists themselves proposed the exhibition to the Richmond museum, she told me, “as an example of revitalization of American infra-structure.” Ray Hassard’s work here, like Steele’s, reflects a city in action, a sense of motion and change, city views beyond a doubt. Hassard reversed the usual artist journey: born New York City, worked there, some thirty years ago moved to the Midwest and has long been a Cincinnati resident.  The Richmond Art Museum itself is a pleasant trip from Cincinnati. Just reopened after a considerable renovation, it was established more than a century ago, in 1898, and is the second oldest art museum in Indiana. Its collections are strongest in American arts. The Museum is located at 350 Hub Etchison Parkway.

Going and coming we talked about Steele’s art and her life. “I always enjoyed old lathes and other manufacturing articles,” definitive enjoyments for someone becoming a visual artist.  She came into her current neighborhood in the 1980s “when it was derelict. I loved geometrics, the architecture of Cincinnati, and this area – west of where the ballet is, west of Findlay Market – I was inspired by the local scene. Experience of place is powerful in my work.  I want people to get that sense.”

Once there, she found that “my brush work, surface treatments, other things changed.  Tools and brushes differed from before.  I was aware of graffiti, of the lack of window dressing, I fell in love with completely different visual opportunities.”

Steele is an artist who embraces change, who feels that her work has evolved over the last 15 years as “an investigation that gathered momentum” mostly because the neighborhood itself was undergoing alteration.

Union Terminal, that Art Deco masterpiece, became a favorite building.  She told me she spent much of the last six months looking at the terminal daily, sitting on a lawn chair on the sidewalk, “drawing whatever I saw that day. I learned a lot, observing. Worked in the morning, when the sun was on the face of the Terminal, because I wanted the facade as an element.”  Sunshine was necessary, because she was using pastels – “you can’t do pastels in the rain.” But when it wasn’t raining she took her generous canvas (13 to 14 inches by 25 inches), worked on it on her lap, from 9 or so in the morning for about a two and a half hours before the sun moved behind the terminal. “It took one to two days to complete a canvas.”  The building itself was what drew her in, she said, but gradually the men working on it and the processes they employed “got to me.”

Her own processes are well in hand, long honed. She works in both oil and pastels, is drawn to the oeuvre of the Austrian painter (and writer) Oskar Kokoschka, and clearly has never gotten over her  deep-rooted pleasure in the act of looking.

–Jane Durrell

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