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Jay Steensma – I can feel the heat closing in

Some artists need to live by water.

jaysteesmabech.jpgOthers need community.

jaysteemsmacommity.jpgThere are artists who don’t care where they live…

jaysteensmahouse.jpgAs long as they can work there.

jaysteemsmawrk.jpgSeattle’s Jay Steensma died in 1994 of a heart attack at age 52. Although manic-depressive, he was on medication to control it for his final seven years and his career blossomed, if such a career can blossom. Part of his problem was volume, volume, volume. If we are lucky, some curator is going to dig through his crazy, slapdash excess to find a stellar core of solitude and weather. 

He painted small figures on barren gray plains, abandoned houses, ravaged trees. His grays are creamy, his whites begrimed and his blacks full of shadows. When used, bright color is  a a shock value.

Paintings at Seattle artREsource.

In the 1960s, he studied with Morris Graves,
whose influence is detectable in his paintings of streaky birds and
fish on brown paper bags, most of which serve to throw Graves’ virtues
in high relief.

Steensma’s great achievement was his shaky ground.

Said Seattle painter Fay Jones after his death:

have a little painting of his I’d give my right arm to have done. It
probably took him three minutes: three silhouettes in a doorway, and
that’s it. The space is uncanny. He was eloquent about art, what art
is, being an artist.

His paintings are small in
format, muted in color. Beneath their delicacy is an awkward vitality.
Instead of moments of enlightenment, however, he specialized in moments
of acute and resounding alienation.
He was an artist brave enough to persist in spite of a daunting
disability. Along with being immensely afflicted, he was immensely

a few strokes, he could render a landscape that reverberates with
visual meaning, a mood stated with the barest of means.
When he painted cities, he painted them soiled. From the white of
ceiling lights pouring out of a window are figures huddled in an
apartment. The building is smudged and stale, and the figures inside
the lighted room are the kind of people who wear their hats indoors,
never relaxing.

In William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch,
the famous first line begins, “I can feel the heat closing in . . .”
It could serve as an emblem for Steensma’s work. In his paintings,
dread is always closing in, and something – a house, a hand, a streak
of bird feathers, a small figure painting in a painting of a wide plain
– is always fighting back. 
A good selection of his work here.


  1. There is a Jay Steensma show up right now at Shop Curator, in beautiful Downtown Edison. Dont blink, you’ll miss it.
    Also showing there is Jasmine Valandani.

  2. There is a nice collection of some of his works on paper at the Shop Curator in Edison right now.

  3. Thanks for posting these beauties.

  4. By the way, readers….All of these Steensma pieces are available at the Seattle ArtREsource gallery in Pioneer Square at 1st & Yesler or online:

  5. Jena. Sorry. I meant to put that in.

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