by Chris Bessler
This interview with the artist Stephen Lyman began as something quite different last November. At a social occasion we were both attending, Steve mentioned he had a new book of his artwork out. Would I be interested in seeing a copy to write a story for Sandpoint Magazine? Sure, I said.
A month later, I saw him again at the Waldorf School Christmas Faire, where Steve always took up the part of the roast chestnut vendor, complete with top hat and scarf. Along with the paper tube of hot chestnuts, he pressed into my hand a copy of his book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist's Journey.
It is a lavish coffee table book that succeeds as more than a portfolio of Steve Lyman paintings. The text follows Steve on a journey into Yosemite National Park, with a lot of detail about the wilderness he is traveling through. An unexpected pleasure are the several dozen of his photos, for Steve was a talented photographer. Taken with two dozen pencil drawings, and more than 100 reproductions of his richly rendered nature paintings, the book is infused with Steve Lyman's gift for evoking the experience of the wilderness.
And that was to have been my story. On March 26, Steve and I finally sat down for a short interview. We discussed his book and his work. He mentioned an upcoming trip to Yosemite and talked about the wilderness. A day later he dropped off a self-portrait of himself with his book.
On April 17, Steve was reported missing in Yosemite. A search was begun, but two days later climbers in the Cathedral Rocks area reported finding a body. It was Steve. He had fallen down a steep gully in an area he had hiked many times before.
And so this light story about Steve's new book becomes a memoir of the artist, tinged with sorrow.
Steve Lyman was 38. He was married to Andrea, and they had two sons, Muir and Jarre. Steve grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, and graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He quickly established himself as a wildlife and nature artist. In 1982, at age 24, he was accepted by The Greenwich Workshop, which subsequently began publishing limited-edition fine art prints of his works, providing exposure that propelled him to the ranks of the nation's most popular nature artists. Shortly before his death he was listed by U.S. Art magazine as the fourth most popular limited-edition print artist in the country.
Steve was also a member of his community. He helped found the Sandpoint Waldorf School and contributed to other causes in which he believed. Last winter he sang in a vocal jazz group with Andrea, and was to have played the part of Benny opposite his wife as Adelaide in this summer's production of "Guys and Dolls."
He was a gentle person whose life touched many people, not merely through his painting but through his participation in life. Many who did not know him well, or at all, felt great sadness at his death. Perhaps it is that his life had a lyrical quality that matched in some ways the lyrical beauty of his painting.
In my tape of our interview, his voice spills out friendly and unpretentious, especially for one who had achieved so much. Our interview was conducted for a different purpose, but it is all that I can contribute now to Steve's memory. But in some ways, this is appropriate. Steve spoke eloquently for himself through his painting. In our interview, my questions channel the conversation, but it is Steve, again, speaking for himself.
The wilderness infuses your work. How much time each year do you spend outdoors?
Not as much as I'd like to (laughs). I would say probably, four to five weeks. I'd like to spend more than that, just because it's so enjoyable, but in that four to five weeks I get plenty of inspiration for a year's worth of paintings. Like next month, I'll be out for a couple weeks down in California. In the middle of that time I'll actually be doing some gallery shows. But on either side of it, I have some backpacking time I have set aside.
Where do you like to travel? Yosemite seems to be a big draw to you.
I always go back there once or twice a year, and that's where I'm going next month. But I'll go anywhere. I like wilderness anywhere. It doesn't really matter. I prefer mountainous areas. I seem to enjoy that type of wilderness best. But I enjoy the coast, the deserts, the Canadian Rockies, the Selkirks right here in Idaho. The Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon are a neat area. I got familiar with those mountains when I lived in Lewiston. They're not too far away.
Are you interested in visiting other continents -- say, Europe?
Not too much. Europe is mostly people and their history. There's not a whole lot of wilderness there. Although it would be fun to see the Alps and the Pyrenees. Russia has a lot of wilderness that would be a lot of fun to explore. China, Australia, Antarctica. South America. I mean the Andes, what a great mountain range down there. And Africa. Yeah, I'm interested in going to all these places, but (laughs) I've got to finish a few things at home first. Maybe when I retire in five years, or 10 years or 15 years.
I feel like I'm already retired, you know. I have fun playing, and I get paid for it. It's hard work. It's not that I'm lollygagging all the time. But I enjoy my hard work. So it's not something that I live for the weekend.
How do you arrange your painting time?
I try to say, OK, I don't paint on the weekends. That's for other times, for other things -- family and everything. You know, 9 to 5ish on the weekdays. But I will let that easily be preempted by visitors who are coming, or the things that I need to do in town -- you know, whatever comes up. So, I end up actually painting three and a half days a week, full days. But there's a lot of research and preparation before the painting happens. And I guess you could count the backpacking trips as research trips for the paintings, because that's certainly where all the inspiration comes from. And then, design work and composition and figuring out the format of the painting and the mood that I want to paint and making everything balance. I'm in that process right now with another painting of a campfire that I'll have done in two weeks.
Do you sketch things out in pencil first?
A little bit. Not very detailed, though. If I can just get it in general terms, the relationship of major items in the image, that's all I need to do in pencil. Then I'll just jump right into the painting and any further detail problems I need to work out I'll do it right on the painting. I paint in acrylics, so it's easy to paint over whatever I've painted a few minutes ago.
Do you go back and rework much?
All the time. That's constantly what it is, until I get to the end of the painting, and everything's been reworked to the point where it's as good as it's going to be and as perfect as I can conceive that it can be, and then the painting's done.
In writing sometimes, you can kind of get stuck -- they call it writer's block. Does that happen with your art?
It doesn't happen with me. I work on one painting at a time, and I don't start any others until I'm done with that one. Some painters have 12 things going on, because they get a block on one and they just can't figure it out. So they go start something else. And then they come back to it with a fresh eye and they can see what they need to do. But with me, if I look at it and I concentrate on it, I can figure out what it needs and what I need to do next. So I don't really get stuck at any point.
So, how did you wind up in Sandpoint?
Ah. (Laughs.) Well, I met Andrea in Lewiston. She taught in the public school down there, as a music teacher. Right after we got married, she got a job in Oregon, where she had always wanted to live, nearby the ocean in the Willamette Valley. So we moved there. She taught there about three years, and then we decided to start a family. We had Muir in '85, our first son. Through that period of time, when we were starting a family, and my career was starting to take off as an artist, we decided, well, let's find out where we want to settle down and live, because we can live anywhere we want to. We're not tied to an urban area or any particular place with my job. So we started looking around. We looked all over the western United States and even Canada.
It was kind of funny, because I'd never been to Sandpoint. I grew up in Lewiston, but I'd never been to Sandpoint. Andrea's parents live in Colfax, just south of Spokane. So, we were in Spokane once, and I said, you know what we should do, we should check out North Idaho. We drove up here and, of course, like everybody else coming across the Long Bridge really were impressed with the natural scenery. And we started to check into real estate and found that prices were about half what they were in Oregon, and there were lots of listings of the type of property that we were interested in. There were a lot less people, a lot cleaner air, cleaner water, more animals. I mean, it was pretty obvious. So we bought this place, and we've been here for nine years.
Is it a good place to be an artist?
I think so. There's a lot of inspiration for the subject matter that I work with. And the environment is very, very supportive and conducive to art and artists. I think it's one of the reason a lot of artists live here.
You do a lot of photography. How does that work in with your painting?
I take pictures for three basic reasons when I'm out in the wilderness. One is just a visual diary of where I went and what this trip consisted of. That's the least important reason. The two most important reasons are, one, as visual reference, as reminders and also as reference for potential future paintings. And two, as an art form in itself, for itself and for nothing else. Just beautiful, dramatic, impressive photographic images. Hardly anybody knows that I take photographs as well.
Is your photography published anywhere?
Are you pursuing that?
I don't have time. If I wasn't a professional artist, I would probably work at being a professional photographer. But that's a whole other business. I like the creative aspects of photography, not the marketing. I don't like the marketing of art, either; that's why I have a publisher who does it for me. So maybe I wouldn't have been a professional photographer. Or maybe I would have found somebody who could have done it for me. But photography is really -- I get a lot of satisfaction out of it artistically, just like I do out of painting.
Ah, well, it's hard to put into words. That's why I put it into paintings. (Pause.) Well, it's something, I think, that inspires nearly everybody on some level. That's why we have national parks. That's why we have city parks. That's why people like to be outdoors.
There are lots of things you could point to to say, well, this is why people enjoy wilderness. One is, it's a natural world that does not have any man-made influence -- the wilderness has a very soothing, natural, healthy feeling and effect on people. Outdoor recreation is so popular in all its various aspects and forms, and it's all because there's something about the Earth that people connect to so strongly and enjoy so deeply. Most people don't even consciously realize it, let alone put into words. But there's a support and a nurturing there that the Earth gives everyone. Certainly that's what I get when I go backpacking. It's a time to leave all your worries and all your cares and responsibilities behind.
Sandpoint Magazine is published twice a year (Winter and Summer editions) by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc. All contents are COPYRIGHT 1996 by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc.For more information about Keokee Publishing, including our books and web services, visit the Keokee Web Site, or e-mail us at [email protected].
Back to Contents Page -- 1996 Summer Sandpoint Magazine