Call it a vision.
I dont really remember when I knew I wanted to become an artist; Ive just always done it, she says. I think a lot of it was the encouragement I got from my family. My grandmother was an artist and I spent a lot of my young days with her and got a lot of encouragement.
I remember in my teens I started calling myself an artist, she adds. I just naturally flowed into that as something I was going to do.
That calling is starting to pay off for the 32-year-old painter from Interlochen whose work is on exhibit at Gallery Fifty at the Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City through October.
Those who visit the gallery will likely be dazzled by Steffes personal vision which has a touch of the surreal or the magical realism found in the works of Chagall or Salvador Dali. Images of disembodied brains, a flying cow, or of her husband Michael Callaghan dreaming over a pair of red shoes naturally lead to speculation over what the artist is trying to say.
Even Steffes doesnt quite know the answer, except that the symbolic images are a powerful new direction for her work.
Right now I feel like this is the direction I should be going in -- its like a personal mythology, she says. I dont sit around and think of what my symbols are or what they mean. People ask me what the cord is or the snake (in her painting, The Red Cord) and I dont know. People come up with their own ideas. I think thats great. Its their own interpretation and thats what I like about art.
Born in the Grand Traverse area, Steffes moved to Florida when she was in the fifth grade as the result of her parents divorcing. Through the years, she traveled back and forth to the area, maintaining her roots in Northern Michigan. before moving back for good in 1994.
During high school in the St. Petersburg area, she auditioned for an artistically talented program and was accepted. She spent two-and-a-half years in the program, rising to the top of her class in artistic accomplishments.
I was very intense about my art then, she recalls. I would stay up late at night in my room working on drawings. Really, it was my way of dealing with teenage life. Other teens were out getting drunk or stoned, but I just painted and drew. It helped keep me grounded.
Although she had a chance to attend art school in college on a scholarship, Steffes chose a more adventurous route, leaving high school before graduating. She moved to Alaska where she sold her first painting while living on a boat in Juneau. This big yacht came by and they really liked a watercolor I had done with a natural theme, she recalls.
Through the years, Steffes has graduated from watercolors to acrylics and now oils.
Oils are really easy to use compared to watercolors, she says. Theyre very forgiving because you can redo your work and you can push the paint around in a very textural way. Youre essentailly pushing around stones and fluid -- the paints use powdered minerals and I like that.
The natural, textural feel of oil painting also resonates with Steffes subjects. She likes painting portraits -- often offbeat and off-kilter-- as well as natural images. Her surreal work is often grounded in nature, arising from metaphorical images that pass through her thoughts.
Nature is where I draw my energy from, she notes. Plants and trees... youre going to see a lot more of the natural world in my work.
That interest is also reflected in her ambition as an amateur herbalist. I like to gather and use wild plants. Its important to be connected to our own environment.
Steffes also serves as a model in many of her paintings, enlisting her husband Michael and son Seamus on occasion as well. All of my paintings are self-portraits, she says. Everything is a self-portrait in a sense because youre expressing your experience. I feel kind of weird about putting myself in my paintings and try to change things in little ways, but somehow a part of me comes through.
In fact, for her surrealistic painting of a snake holding a woman at the end of a rope, Steffes had her husband Michael photograph her dangling from a line to get the image just right.
What does she hope to do next with her art?
I dont have anything planned out, she says. I just want to paint. Whenever I worry about where my paintings are going to go and whether theyll sell, I get frustrated and stop painting.. Im going to leave that one up to the universe.
Melonie Steffes is available for private portraits and can be contacted via email at email@example.com. She will also be on hand at an artist reception for her work this Thursday, Oct. 20 from 6-9 p.m. at Gallery Fifty in Traverse City.