American artist John Francis Steffen unveils his first exhibition today in Budapest – nearly 30 years after first putting brush to canvas. For the much-travelled former relief worker, a chance stop-over in the Hungarian capital has led to a new lease of life as a painter. “An Eye into an Atelier” is on show at the iF Jazz Café on Ráday utca until 9 December.
From Wisconsin to Zanzibar to Vietnam to Qatar, with many stops in between, 68-year-old John Francis Steffen has always sketched and drawn as he travelled.
A former cabinet maker, luthier, relief worker and fund raiser, itinerant around Asia and Africa, Steffen was on another journey, from Doha to the Netherlands with his wife, when a two-day layover in Budapest made them pause for thought.
“By the end of the first day, we were looking at flats and by the second, we had bought one on Ráday utca!”
Now retired, Steffen hadn’t planned on a second career.
“I began painting around the age of 40 when I studied in Vietnam in 1991. Some of my paintings reflect my international interests, memories of places and scenes I have visited.”
Looking around the two floors of the cosy, gently bohemian iF Jazz Café is like leafing through Steffen’s travelogue. Talk to him and you realise that almost every character has a story behind them. Take Ella on a Train: “I was travelling through Tanzania and she was in the same carriage. When we reached the waterfront, the ferry she was meant to be taking had capsized, causing the deaths of hundreds of people. We stayed friends ever since”.
Steffen’s sojourn in Budapest allowed him to enrol in the regular classes held by Oksana Devochkina. “Until then, I had focused purely on getting the faces and hands right in my portraits,” he admits.
“The course was very challenging because I’m a realist painter, so to speak. In Oksana’s class, I felt like I was driving a car on a country road at night with no lights. I could not see a thing and I had no idea where I was going. As a realist I have vision. In Oksana’s course I was pushed into experiences of painting where I would never go on my own because I had no vision. Yet what I came away with was something akin to being a daredevil – trying things I would never have imagined on my own. She enabled me to give myself permission to break down barriers. It gave me great confidence.”
Some of the personalities depicted in the exhibition are friends from Oksana’s class. To them, he is John the Painter, a new identity in a new city. One picture even describes this transformation, using as its base a postcard Steffen had been carrying around since 1983.
Scenes of Budapest also feature, Steffen’s courtyard on Ráday utca, a café interior on Kálvin tér, an architectural detail on Andrássy út. The paintings are for sale and backdrop the café’s nightly offer of live jazz shows.
“I’m just going to throw it out there and see wherever it goes,” smiles Steffen. “It’s like some crazy dream.”
An Eye into an Atelier
District IX. Ráday utca 19
Open: Daily 11am-11.45pm. Exhibition opening 6pm, 26 November.
For more information on John Francis Steffen, see here