Tucson artist Steven Derks has turned junk into art, found objects into collectable pieces. In doing so, he’s also found himself. By Joan Calcagno
You might have noticed Steven Derks’ studio and gallery on your way downtown. It’s that bright coral-colored building at 801 north main avenue – the front yard filled with large, colorful metal sculptures. The studio name, “Redeemed Arts”, reflects both his work, much of it a transformation of found objects, and his life as an artist – a life shaped by continual adaption, fueled by crisis and redemption.
Steven started dabbling with utilitarian ceramics in the mid-80s. But it was not until the early 90s, when he saw some success painting on traditional drums, that he started to see himself as an artist and thought, “I can do this”. A few years later his work evolved to large metal sculpture and narrative pieces using found objects. Today, you can see Steven’s work all over town – outside Beyond Bread, on the grounds of Hacienda del Sol resort, and the patio and bike rack at the The Loft Cinema, to name a few.
Outside his studio is a Dead End sign. It’s hard not to smile at the irony because Steven has never stopped moving and progressing over the last several decades, working prolifically and, by his own admission, “frenetically.”
“I work on as many as ten narrative sculptures at a time. I work a lot. I have to make something every day,” he says. A walk through the 801 gallery (or a sneaky peek through the windows or over the wall) proves it. On display, and under construction, are vivid abstract paintings, furniture that fits well with modern/mid-century interiors, giant metal sculptures, and creations that turn objects like birds’ cages, wheels, tools, even a telephone, into something much more. “The elements come from antique stores and resale shops. The objects inspire the work,” he says.
And then there are the rusted hearts, now one of his major art themes. The hearts grew out of his other sculptural work about four years ago. He had been doing found-object pieces with tools. Inspired by Jim Dine who in the early 1960s produced pop art with items from everyday life and who uses a lot of hearts in his work, Steven “danced around the heart with an ambivalence.” He started adding hearts to the tools series. “Then it turned into an obsession,” he says. “The heart on its own was completely cliché, but enhancement with found objects changed everything.”
In the midst of this obsession, while working out in the studio’s front yard, he heard the news on the radio about the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. He immediately came into the shop and started making a new piece, this time incorporating guns. And he kept making them. “I did it because I had to do it. I don’t take [the pieces] to galleries.” They are now hanging all together in a corner of the 801 gallery. “They have turned into an installation,” Steven says.
Steven Derks the artist took some time to emerge. As a boy growing up in Tempe, he was always resourceful. Whilst in high school, he had a paper route and did restaurant work and saved a lot of money. “I should have been focusing on school but instead, I worked.” At just 17, thinking he was going to “do the hippie thing” and live off the land, he bought a house with flood irrigation so he could have a little farm.
There followed some time on a commune in Sedona, work on a historic ranch, and, searching for what to do next, an application for a college scholarship, then a job with the state agricultural department on the Navajo reservation.
He got accepted to college, but funding fell through at the last minute. Already on his way back to Tempe, his VW van with everything he owned in it, overheated and burned up. But he was redeemed. The next day he got the offer for the state ag job. So, at 20 years old, he was living on a remote part of the reservation in an abandoned hogan with a dog and a goat, and showering at the general store.
Before long he was promoted to what he calls “cactus cop”, a middle-management job that included enforcing agricultural and antiquities laws. That brought him to Tucson. In the mid-1980s, now married and still working his “cactus cop” job, he resurrected his interest in art, dormant since high school. He “dabbled” in ceramics – large decorative and utilitarian bowls and sculptural Raku pieces.
He also dabbled in the Tucson arts community, but he didn’t really see himself as an artist. “The director of [what was then] the Rosequist gallery offered to show my work there, but I was too shy to take them up on the offer. I was totally intimidated by the whole thing.”
Steven had also been dabbling in religious, or at least spiritual, exploration from a young age. As a boy he idolized his grandfather, a devout Catholic mystic. “I was an altar boy. I went to mass six days a week so that turned me into an atheist. And then I kind of reconciled that and became a bit of an agnostic later.”
The desire for an authentic, meaningful life stuck with him though. In high school he was involved with Eckankar, “a conglomerate of Eastern philosophies”. While living on the reservation, he took part in ceremonies that were available to him. “Now I’m an agnostic who is fascinated with spiritual people. I’m intrigued enough that I investigate.” he says.
In Tucson he returned to church. Through one of the church’s service projects, he met charismatic priest Juan Daniel Vialobos, who was working with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, trading food and medical supplies for Tarahumara craftwork. Steven began accompanying him and bought drums, baskets, pottery and ceramics back to sell, passing the profit on to Juan Daniel to continue the work.
It was at this point that his spiritual quest and his art-making converged “quite by accident,” he says. Thinking he might enhance the value of the drums and increase the profit for the Tarahumara, he picked up a paint brush and started painting a snake motif on one of the drums. He was encouraged by friends who liked the drum paintings. This felt right. It was first time Steven thought “maybe I can create art as a living”.
When he couldn’t get a decent price at roadside Indian stores, he took the drums to a gallery in Scottsdale on a whim. The owner bought them all on the spot. With almost $6,000 in his pocket from the sale, he decided “I can do this” and quit his job as cactus cop. He was 30.
President Clinton bought one of the drums on a visit to Arizona and hung it in the Oval Office, lending Steven credibility and a career boost. Meantime, another shift happened. Thinking about making hangers for the drums, Steven bought some welding equipment and the stand turned into a sculpture.
Not long after that, newly divorced and now a single father to a one-year-old, Steven was facing a new chapter. Although he was selling drums and sculptural bases in galleries around the country, he hadn’t had a job for years. “It was me, a baby and a truck load of stuff and there was no looking back at that point. I had to make it as an artist,” he says.
An exclusive deal and the promise of guaranteed income with a Scottsdale gallery fell through when the gallery owner died unexpectedly. Steven had already let go of all his other galleries so this “really forced my hand. I couldn’t travel with a baby. I had to make it selling locally. And the drums weren’t going to be enough.”
The drum stands that had morphed to sculpture morphed again – this time into narrative pieces using found objects, what Steven calls his redeemed art. “The sculptures were selling well so I just kept doing it.”
Today, Steven shares the space at 801 W. Main with three other artists and sells to local galleries, owners of high-end residences, corporations and collectors.
Bill Dantzler, one of those collectors, owns about ten of Steven’s pieces. “When I first saw Steven’s work, I was struck by what he was able to do with scrap metal – the way he had cut it and put it together. I thought ‘Someone is going to buy it up’, so I bought the three pieces on display.” And he kept buying them.
“He does a very good job with twisted metal – which is hard to do,” says Bill. “Steven is particularly good with the spontaneity of some of his pieces, the sense in which he can make the metal come alive – something that just exploded at that moment.”
At home at Damien Ranch, a “sustainable social experiment” in intentional community with writers, teachers and a few other artists, Steven is still adapting and evolving. Late at night he is learning some skills he hopes will let him work with fabricators on more complex pieces; he is teaching himself 3-D computer design.
He continues to struggle with his self-image as an artist though. “My idea about artists – and why I didn’t pursue art right out of high school – is because I thought it was for the kids with the trust funds. I had to find junk and figure out how to make it into something interesting. I’m still surprised every time somebody buys something.”
You can visit the 801 Gallery and Redeemed Arts studio at 801. N. Main Avenue. View photos of Steven’s sculpture, paintings, furniture and more on his website.