Steven: Making the Film

High NoonI began my trip at MOMA.  I went straight upstairs to view the Magritte exhibit.  The gallery was full of chattering French people, and every minute or so I floated back to the summer I spent in Paris, when I walked alone through the Musee d’Orsay, soaking it in.  The bizarre landscapes and subversive humor in Magritte’s canvases proved to be a perfect warm-up to the week ahead.  Two days later, nursing quite a good Halloween hangover, we set to work. I swept lots of sawdust, organized scraps of wood into a grand pile, and took a tour of Nick’s three studio spaces.  A short foray it was, but I knew I had entered a world of craft.  

The next day we took a scenic drive from Greenpoint to Park Avenue, in all of its illustrious glory.    The theme from Sex and the City popped into my head, and I half expected to see the character Charlotte walking down the street with her Spaniel. It’s difficult for me to envision the people who actually inhabit those clothes and open their morning curtains to look out onto Central Park.  We stopped at the intended hardware store to pick up sandbags, concrete mix and lumber. We continued to his studio on 41st street, a stone’s throw away from Playwright’s Horizons on Theatre Row.

Steven at Home
Steven at Home

3 rooms full of sculpture, a marionette, and two people comprised our crew to film Steven. With a script of scene outlines and a few pages of dialogue, our approach was to explore the possibilities of each object within this framework.  This would leave huge room for experimentation and improvisation.  So I dusted off the old puppet arms and used a marionette for the first time.  A few years ago I performed puppet shows for children, and had a blast using these Muppet-style characters then enjoying some sugary birthday cake.  But Steven’s body is made of cardboard and wood, making it much clunkier than a hand puppet, and the operation more meticulous.  There was a string for the mouth, two for the hip joints, and two for the arms.  In experimenting and shooting, scene by scene, I found I had to meet the puppet in the middle.  It’s body already had a certain way of expressing, and I had the task of bringing it to life.  For most of the shoot, I stood on a 6-foot tall scaffolding, using 12-foot strings to make Steven walk and talk.  I watched Nick construct it in about 10 minutes flat, using the 2 by 4’s we’d bought earlier that week.  My heart was in my throat for a minute, but I had no other option.  It’s just a game of balance, I told myself, and another classic acting allegory in my everyday life.  I told myself, “If you let yourself get nervous, then you will get nervous.”   It was so much fun.  Sometimes my head knocked into the dusty fluorescent fixtures that hung from the ceiling.  Sometimes he moved the whole structure while I was still sitting on it. It was all in the spirit of DIY, a work philosophy of my brother’s that allows for great margins for error, as well as great leaps of faith.

Entrance to the Puppet World
Entrance to the Puppet World

In addition to shooting, there was much building to finish.  My short stay as apprentice would prove to school me quickly in basic shop skills. I learned the simple gratification of working with my hands, transforming pieces of wood into objects. (My new favorite power tool is a nail gun, hands down.) I made fences from scrap wood, and those adorably sad cacti. I used a bandsaw to cut the shapes, then hand-sanded each cactus, then mixed and poured mini blobs of concrete for anchors.

Now, with a few weeks distance from the project, I appreciate the cacti as a microcosm for the larger body of work of Steven.  While for Nick, these were an off-the-cuff collaborative piece towards the end of the project, for me I saw the passage of the day to day of my brother’s working life. He works closely with these raw materials, transforming and discovering them to meet his inner world.

The term “artist” for Nick encompasses many disciplines: sculpture, painting, carpentry.  The term “performer” for me includes actor, musician, and puppeteer.   I realized that we also have an equal respect for process in regards to the creation of work.  From a performance perspective, this question of “product vs. process” was a topic much delved into while I was studying devised theatre in school.  There were times for the creative choices of dramaturgy and tech, but at the heart was the actor process, honoring and developing material sprung from the body and heart.

In drawing these parallels, it was fascinating to also come to certain familiar steps in the process of finishing the shoot.  Whatever your medium, at one point there is a complete crisis of self.  (Or at least one.)  Uncertainty and possibility are tantalizing at the beginning, but in the crunch of a deadline, an unknown image is an impediment.  As much as I know my brother, I didn’t know what was in his head that needed to be externalized.  There’s a certain leap of logic that has to happen for the final steps to occur.   The magic of making choices under pressure is primordial.  Those are the impulses that come from the fiery core.  And it was amazing.  Never again will I write off Visual Art as being a purely visual medium. It would be ludicrous for a finished form, whether static or kinetic, to have no context.

Nick shooting Brickhead
Nick shooting Brickhead

Working together was something we had discussed for years, and everyday I was surprised to the core.  So much of what I feel and what I think about my experience can be said more with gestures, with the silence in the room while we both painted, with Katy Perry’s “Roar” blasting in the studio, with hysterical laughter and a few tears.

As to the work of Steven, I am overflowing with pride and excitement for my brother.   It is a combination of his skill, talent, of his psychedelic visions and dreams.  Biased though I am, I believe it is rare to witness what I would consider a true work, not an imposed catharsis cloaked in style and ego.  It’s also a story that is truly extricated from deep within him, about a dude who both loses and finds himself in the California desert.



Hunter MFA Thesis Exhibition

Hunter College/Times Square Gallery

450 W. 41st St.  New York, NY

Exhibition: December 12-January 11

Opening: Wednesday, December 11 6-8PM

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