Meet Jansson Stegner: Artist & Dad in Jackson Heights

Jansson Stegner, Jackson Heights artist and dad, with his painting "Two Brothers" (2012) at his Long Island City studio.

Jansson Stegner, Jackson Heights artist and dad, with his painting “Two Brothers” (2012) at his Long Island City studio.

Dreamy portraits of imaginary people with exaggeratedly fluid limbs simultaneously portray beauty and strength in the work of figurative painter Jansson Stegner, a 12-year resident of Jackson Heights, where he and his wife, Maria, are raising two young sons. A full-time, accomplished artist who specializes in painting and drawing, Stegner’s work is rooted in realism without being realistic, mixing elements of camp and pop with an Old Masters aesthetic.

Having previously taught art to undergraduate and graduate students, last fall he decided to share his knowledge with fellow Jackson Heights residents by teaching a painting workshop. Held at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, students in the weekly three-hour evening class painted a still life in oil paints with Stegner giving hands-on instruction on composition and techniques.

Stegner recently sat down with writer Ellen Sturm Niz  to talk about his art and the scene in Queens.

What have you been working on lately?
Last year, my painting of two women volleyball players went to the New Art Dealers Alliance Art Fair, a satellite fair to Art Basel in Miami in December. I was also in London in December for a show at the Saatchi Gallery called “Body Language,” that I had four paintings in, which was really great. Other than that, I’m working on creating a new body of work. I want to do a solo show again. It’s been a few years since I’ve done one, so I’m working on putting together a body of work to make that happen.

Is there a subject matter you are thinking about?
I’ve sort of done three different subjects over the last twelve years or so. There’s a series of portraits of police officers, another one of volleyball players, and another one that is sort of European aristocratic young people. I think I want to do more volleyball girls.

What inspired you to do that subject matter?
I think it started several years ago when I caught some of the Olympic women’s volleyball team on television. I just was struck by the sort of body type—these tall, beautiful, sexy women who are also very strong and powerful. In my work I often combine different signifiers of power and beauty and they seemed like they fit into my interests. I like seeing those contrasting elements in a figure. That sort of related to the police officer paintings I did before, which did a lot of blending with those kind of ideas as well.

What artists inspire you?
I like Spanish painters a lot. El Greco and Goya are probably two of my favorites. I also like a lot of what I would call “weird figure painters,” like Otto Dix, Balthus, and Alice Neel.

You mentioned you had done some teaching before. What did you teach?
I taught life drawing to undergrads at SUNY Albany while I was in grad school there. That was really a great experience and something I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. I really enjoyed passing along what I’ve learned to younger, eager students. I’ve also done some visiting artist things at the New York Academy of Art.

Why did you decide to teach an art class in Jackson Heights?
I wanted to teach again and it seemed like a good place to start—in the neighborhood, a small class, not a lot of pressure.

What is your take on the art scene in Queens?
There are a few major institutions in Queens like PS1, the Noguchi Museum, and the Queens Museum of Art. Outside of that, in terms of galleries or whatever else, I don’t know that there is a whole lot. There’s a handful of galleries in Long Island City that I’m aware of. Outside of that, I think most venues for the visual arts are coffee shops and book shops and stuff like that.

Are there galleries in Long Island City that you are a fan of?
I’ve seen a few galleries pop up in Long Island City and disappear again, like an oddball gallery I liked called Space Womb [that moved to the Lower East Side]. One decent one [that is still there] is Dorsky Gallery.

There was a gallery, probably many years ago at this point, in Jackson Heights off of Northern Boulevard.
Yeah, I think Y Gallery.

Do you know what happened to that?
They moved to Manhattan to brighter pastures, I guess. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but I get emails from them about their shows going on, and it seems like they’re doing well, but they left for Manhattan.

What are some of the best coffee shops that display art?
I feel like Espresso 77 takes it pretty seriously. They seem to have a show every month or so, and they have openings, and, as far as I can tell, they deal well with the artists. Afzal [Hossain], who’s one of the owners, he’s an artist, too, and that probably helps. They seem like they’re serious about promoting that kind of environment. It’s a really good thing to have in the neighborhood.

What do you think is keeping galleries from succeeding in Queens?
It may be around the corner, because in Brooklyn you have to go further out to find affordable space. I think for a long time galleries in Manhattan turned their noses up at Brooklyn and they don’t do that quite so much any more. Maybe down the road they won’t turn their noses up at Queens so much, and people will be willing to drive to some neighborhood in Queens that has several galleries that are taken seriously. But, it seems like you’d first have to start to build a gallery scene before people are going to make the trip out here.

Do you know very many artists locally in Jackson Heights or in Queens?
Not tons, but I have plenty of friends who are painters, some who are really serious and trying to make a career out of it, and others who just love painting. Others who are serious without trying to make a career out of it. You don’t have to make a career out of it to be serious about it.

Is there anything people could do to support local artists more?
Go to the openings and go see the local shows and buy stuff. The problem with this neighborhood, Jackson Heights in particular, is that there are not a lot of spaces that are good for art. It’s all residential, plus it’s really not as cheap as it used to be, either. Those kind of big, empty, cheap spaces are what draw artists, and there’s not a lot of that here. I suppose there may be other neighborhoods in Queens where that maybe is more possible. I’m sure there are still warehouse spaces and things like that around Queens, and the more you could keep those things available to artists, the more likely they’d want to come to your neighborhood and thrive.

Are you interested in working with local politicians or groups to advocate for arts in Queens?
It’s not something I’ve ever done, but it interests me more and more. We’ve lived here, my wife and I, in Queens for 12 years, and we’ve had a family here for six years, so we may be here for a long, long time. I’m reaching an age, and with kids and all, I’m starting to realize, Why not get involved in your neighborhood? It’s not just someplace you’re stopping by, you’re going to be here for a while. The visibility of the arts is definitely one thing Queens could improve upon.

For more information about Stegner’s future painting or drawing workshops for teens and adults, email him at janssonjs2000@yahoo.com.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer living, parenting, and working in Jackson Heights, Queens. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google+.