Yet spend some time with these large-scale paintings, and they do end up an extension of what led Steffen to follow a 21-year career as a public school art teacher into a life filled with painting. They're all about big brushstrokes and the emotional resonance of colors - as well as about their creator's need to define herself through expressions, no matter the nature of what exactly she's trying to express.
Steffen charts her life in terms of several milestones. First came her realization that there was something about art that she liked, reached at age five. "I had never had much self-esteem as a child, and we did this long mural in kindergarten that the teacher invited our principal in to see," she recalls, telling of the early moment. "'Here, look at Ellie's tree,' my teacher told her, pointing out how it was the only one not a lollipop tree. That made me want to make more art."
Then came her decision, when a 35-year-old single mom of three, to go back to school and become an art teacher. That in turn led her to come upstate in 1975 for some classes at the old Arts Students' League campus (where the Woodstock School of Art now is), where Milestone Number Three took place: "I asked if there was anyone who didn't do flowers or landscapes, and they told me about their one abstract artist. That was Bernard Steffen, who was the great love of my life," she recalled.
At the time, the legendary protégé of Thomas Hart Benton - a Works Progress Administration artist who later shifted into abstraction, alongside his Midwestern friend Jackson Pollock - was 30 years older than his 38-year-old wife. Three weeks before the wedding his home and studio burned to the ground, without insurance. A year later, Steffen was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. By 1980, he had passed away. And yet, Steffen says in her ebulliently thankful-for-all manner, her marriage taught her how she wanted to paint - gave her a vision of what an uncompromised artist's life could be like: full of expression, no matter what needed expressing.
Later, when she finished teaching, she bought a house in the town that her husband had loved, and moved up full-time. She took pre-med studies in Albany, focused on Lou Gehrig's disease and started donating anything she made from her painting to foundations looking for its cure.
She was diagnosed with cancer, beat it, reevaluated her life yet again. Something, she says, seemed to loosen inside her, as well as the works she was creating. She found that it was enough to paint as well as she could. She liked what the act of creating did for her.
Solo shows at local artists' associations and smaller galleries ensued. By last year, she was able to augment her teacher's pension with $4,000 in earnings from her art. Then came the most recent, more aesthetically driven shifts. She started to feel, about two or three years ago, that she was wasting time doing faces. They weren't her strength, and she liked the pieces that she was making without them. So out they went. Then she tired of working from photographs, so she started painting without a starting point - out of which came the current series, although she then pulls out an old image that she found and worked in as the conjoining theme of the new pieces.
Steffen says that the new exhibition came about when her old friend, Odd Fellows' Atelier's owner Geri Halpern, saw one of the new paintings and suggested grouping under the title "La Bohème." She was referring to the great tragic love story of down-and-outs in the 19th century, a tale of the sacrifices that we make to get what we want. "I told her, 'I'm a strong painter and a strong woman. What do I have to do with that?'" she notes.
But then she shows off an image that she did years ago of herself as a 38-year-old bride with her 68-year-old husband, to be hers but briefly: broad-stroked and emotional. We look over some of Bernard Steffen's work from his 50-year career, including a series of prototypes for wallpaper designs that he made money making in the 1940s. "I realized there is a quality of La Bohème to it all," Steffen says - as there is to all art, in the end.
"What have I learned from it all, over time?" she continues, when prodded. "You go in the studio and have to make believe you're still teaching, at times. You make a stroke. You start." And thereafter, life continues - and glows.
Eleanor Steffen's "La Bohème" exhibition, which will also feature work by her late legendary husband, Bernard Steffen, opens at Odd Fellows' Atelier at 220 Main Street in Saugerties this Friday evening, February 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call (845) 684-5167 or (845) 246-3316.