Artist Explores Carson’s Diversity
By Christian L. Guzman, Contributing Reporter
The phrase, “high art,” will likely bring certain ideas to your mind— Michelangelo’s David or the Mona Lisa. Picasso or Post Modernism — great works reserved for museums or exclusive private collections.
Ukrainian artist and Carson resident, Alexey Steele, affixed “high art forever” to the top of his website. His works have been praised around the world. He founded Classical Underground, a collaboration of classical musicians, artists and donors, with the goal of sharing art’s ability to benefit people at the individual and communal levels.
Steele’s art displays the skill of a Renaissance man and is often grandiose, but high art means more to him than exhibiting those qualities.
High art is about discovery, both for the artist and the audience.
“[My art] is psychologically driven … to heal and bring people together,” Steele said. “It is done to motivate social action.”
Loving Your Neighbor
With that purpose in mind, Steele has brought his brand of high art to the people of Carson in the exhibit, Love Thy Neighbor.
“Loving your neighbor is the basic [component] of the moral fiber of our society… With all the troubles we have faced lately, [it’s] what is worth holding on to when all else fails.” Steele said.
The exhibit consists of portraits of Steele’s neighbors from Carson. Half of the portraits are on display at Carson Park. The other half are at Wells Fargo, 506 West Torrance Blvd.
Carson is a very diverse city, home to sizable populations of African Americans, Latinos, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders. Steele believes that fact is the city’s “best social asset.” So he selected inspirational neighbors that would also represent some of Carson’s various cultures and ethnicities.
One of the sparks for Steele’s project was his interaction with his next-door neighbor, Ricardo “Ricky” Echevarria. When Steele saw Ricky for the first time, he was admittedly a little wary of him.
“He was covered in tattoos,” said Steele, his eyes slightly widened and brows raised.
But because they were neighbors, Steele wanted to get past how rough Ricky appeared and get to know him. Steele learned that appearance does not necessarily coincide with lifestyle.
Ricky was in a car crash as a young man. He received facial reconstruction surgery, but was unrecognizable to his neighbors. The tattoos and tough-guy attitude were tools he once used to distract people from his face.
In time, Ricky healed both mentally and physically. He chose to give back to his community by opening an indoor soccer field to support local youth. He no longer needs to hide behind his tattoos.
“I was compelled to show this lovable generosity [in him] … and his victory over adversity.” Steele said.
Ricky’s portrait is an oil painting on linen. In it his arms are crossed, his face is turned to the side and his chin is held high. It is a face indicating genuine confidence.
The second painting on display is of Mary Anne O’Neal. She grew up on a farm in Arkansas and is the great granddaughter of African American slaves. She moved west and became one of Carson’s founders. At 90 years old, she still believes in leading by example and helping others. In her portrait, a sepia painting on fabriano, she is directly facing the observer with her head on her hand, looking proud and wise.
The third Carson resident Steele featured is “Uncle” Lincoln Kaio. He is a native Hawaiian and ukulele master. He is called “Uncle” as a sign of affection and respect by his friends. Steele wanted Uncle Lincoln’s portrait to showcase his strong link to his Hawaiian heritage. The oil on canvas painting depicts Uncle Lincoln relaxed in a chair with his ukulele. He is wearing a straw hat, a tank top and cargo shorts — clothes befitting Hawaii’s climate — and a Hawaiian fish hook necklace made of bone.
“My neighbors have amazing stories and special qualities,” Steele said. “I wanted to present tangible psychological portrayals [of them] to the community.”
Steele was able to fund his exhibition with public contributions. He applied for a grant from Carson’s Cultural Arts Commission and the City Council gave its final approval in January.
“This project is a breath of fresh air,” said Dani Cook, Carson public services coordinator. “Alexey has so much energy and is focusing on the positive aspects of the community.”
Steele is working with the City of Carson to expand his project. He wants to go to three more neighborhoods in the city and make portraits of the people there. And, like the first exhibit, the art will be installed in public places.
Steele was not the first member of his family to focus on a sense of community in his art. His father, Leonid Steele, was a prolific painter in the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Some of his most evocative paintings are large multi-figure pieces of Ukrainian villagers, such as The Family.
“He would go out to the people, paint them, and share his art with them,” said Alexey Steele. “This [exhibit] is also a homage to my late father and his public art.”
Steele will continue to honor his father’s legacy in the next phase of the Love Thy Neighbor series. It will be focused on Scottsdale; a Carson neighborhood made up of predominantly low-income housing, and subject to a higher crime rate than the rest of the city.
But rather than being daunted by this, Steele sees it as an opportunity.
“I’m going to the problematic areas to empower the people,” Steele said. “To show that no matter where you live, there are great people you cannot help but love.”
The exhibitions run through Aug. 22.
Venues: Carson Park, 21411 Orrick Ave, Carson
Wells Fargo, 506 West Torrance Blvd., Carson