The past three decades of Dan Steeves’ artistic career as a printmaker, working from his home and studio in Sackville, New Brunswick, have been punctuated by his evolving exploration of the theme of how good and evil battle for the souls of the living. Through his deeply expressive etchings interpreting the land, homes and people, historical and contemporary, of the region around the Bay of Fundy, Steeves has continually probed the nature of temptation and redemption. The Memory of Pain examines an intensely personal trauma that afflicted his family. Testing their collective strength and faith, the ordeal left its trace on all his family members with marks as indelible as the incised impressions on the plates from which his vivid images grow.
The prints comprising this exhibition are depictions of home and of the ruins of the Second World War Austrian slave labour and Jewish concentration camp at Mauthausen. Steeves’ personal struggle and its lingering memories are points of departure for a compelling artistic exploration of an encounter with pain and suffering and its transformative, mortal aspects.
The Memory of Pain is a variation on a familiar theme in his work, but cast in a very different iconography that functions on several levels simultaneously. The personal resonates against a backdrop of the historical, casting his wife’s health crisis in high relief. The suffering of many is set against the diagnosis she received of breast cancer. Pain and hardship, emotional shock and struggle, and the inner suffering of an artist are expressed through a personal imagery that references a life’s work and a historical catastrophe.
Prompted by a visit to Mauthausen, feelings of confusion, disequilibrium, anxiety and grief are given form. The experience of the world around him provided suitable visual metaphors of evil invading his family and destabilizing his sense of certitude and faith.
Without doubt, the horrible irony of visiting Mauthausen immediately after his wife’s diagnosis was not lost on Steeves. Given his religious faith, he would not have doubted that the collision of fateful events, all relating to death and its shadow, was in some manner a test of his own belief that one could be redeemed by virtue and good work.
Reality and faith, these two antithetical systems were polarized by the trip to Mauthausen. To the extent that Steeves could find a balance between the many antitheses, he confronted the spectre in one of the few ways that he could control: through his imagination, his art and his religious faith, all of which combined to give him clues and direction to discover his way through the perilous circumstances that he and his wife found themselves. In a symbolic way, he too walked the stone steps of the quarries in which so many perished more than half a century earlier.
The Memory of Pain is an artistic examination of what it means as a creative person to face and overcome the visit of the unseen spectre of death. It is also a testament of a journey of healing -physical, emotional, spiritual-after a horrific confrontation with morbidity. It reminds us of the capacity of the spirit to redeem even the darkest, most painful memories from the personal past and from history.
Steeves’ is a message of hope. The prints affirm that the imagination has a seemingly unlimited capacity to find coherence in traumatic episodes, personal and shared. The familiar, he tells us, holds the potential for transcendence. By embracing the wide spectrum of experiences that comprises a rich, many-layered life, he shows us that art can transport the mind and soul from depths to heights. The journey can redeem evil and pain until they are memories, traces on a plate, symbolic images on a page, emblems of hope.
Dan Steeves: The Memory of Pain is curated by Tom Smart.