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Facetime with Studio Steve

Megan Mowbray
The Skier
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Want to see heads roll? OK, maybe not roll, but Steve Kiene of Minturn certainly has a different take on heads than most people. He has a commercial art degree, which would prepare him for a career in advertising. But Kiene favors long hikes over billboards.

The artist often takes jaunts in the wood for inspiration. He comes across stumps, or hunks of wood that look like little more than a piece of firewood. But Kiene sees a face, or a suggestion of a face. That’s where the art comes in.

Take “Stumpy,” for instance. It’s one of Kiene’s pieces on display at Minturn’s Bump-n-Grind coffee shop. Although many of Kiene’s pieces are like caricatures and only exaggerate a human facial feature, “Stumpy” definitely gives off the sense of a frozen moment of anguish. The piece has askew knots that look like eyes, and an elongated groove that looks like a screaming mouth, and a saw blade coming out of the side of the head. “I saw the two eyes, and the long mouth so I fixed him up,” Kiene said. “The saw blade was an after thought. He looked like he was in pain, and it just finished him off.” The round blade with its jagged teeth protrude from the side of the face.

Wood is not Kiene’s only medium. In fact, he has probably used any material you can think of. One day, he was sitting at his house and noticed a bowl of wine corks. Kiene’s house also doubles as his studio, thus his neighbor-dubbed nickname, Studio Steve. He picked up his Exacto knife and went to work. Lo and behold, little faces started appearing, although Kiene notes, “the new plastic corks don’t work.” He also uses graphic design to recreate images in nature, often also hiding a human face, like in “Face to Face.” It’s a painting of a maple leaf with sides shaped like facing face silhouettes.

Why all the faces? “I don’t know,” Kiene said. “Faces are just interesting. Every one is different.”

There can only be one Adam Aron, for example, and Kiene has done a caricature of the Vail Resorts CEO. He continues to study faces and strives to be “totally unique, totally different. Almost to the point where it impedes creativity,” Kiene said.

Studio Steve is fairly soft spoken, quiet and keeps to himself. He is a lanky, tall man with the beginnings of a light-brown beard. He said even though he is 45, he still lives like a college student, in a messy, small studio with mismatched furniture. But, he knows his message.

“Most of my art is trying to get people more back in touch with nature,” said the artist. “It’s healthy to be in contact with nature.”

He moved to Vail for the same reasons most people do – the mountains, the skiing and the hiking.

Although he has done some graphic work for hotels, magazines and worked at a printing store for a while, Kiene is very anti-big-box stores. “I came here to get away from a big city. It can be ruined with too much development.”

But for city folk to visit, and buy art, is just fine with Kiene. One of the bigger pieces the artist has sold is called “Guitar Man.” It is an ornate piece of a branch that resembles a man with his arms in a position to carry, or cradle, an object. Kiene found another piece of wood and fashioned it into a guitar for his branch man. The piece sold for $850 to a couple who was visiting from Maryland. When Kiene asked how they planned to bring the piece home, they simply responded that they would fly him back on their private jet.

Kiene’s newest piece is very fitting for the Vail area. The piece is naturally called, “The Skier.” Standing about three feet tall, a branch splays out into a position for arms and legs perfect for attaching poles and skies. The poles are bamboo and are inserted into clay affixed hands; the skis are wood, of course, and were purchased at an antique store.

“The Skier’s” boots keep with the natural theme; Kiene found the old-fashioned work boots next to the river, dirty, cracked and abandoned. Kiene has imagined a story about the boots’ previous owners. “It was like they took them off to wade in the water, and just forgot them. They must have been there for like, 20 years,” Kiene said.

His searches for fodder don’t always result in such treasures. “Sometimes I see things I can’t take at the time. And I will go back, even six months later, and have a really hard time finding them,” Kiene said. Apparently, this artist doesn’t mind taking his time. Even though he was always interested in art and working with his hands, Kiene did the rookie routine when he moved out here. He was a lift-op for a season, a carpenter for a summer, and worked for a local newspaper before finally trying to make it as an artist. And, he is surviving, he said. Not thriving, but surviving.

Megan Mowbray is a regular contributor to The Vail Trail. E-mail comments to this story to editor@vailtrail.com.


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