This month, at the Bonbonier café and chocolate boutique on Ráday utca, Budapest-based American artist John Francis Steffen holds his second exhibition in as many years. Following the Light runs until 30 September. As we find out from this inveterate traveller, the light in question is both personal and artistic.
For a former lute maker who mainly taught himself how to paint, US artist John Francis Steffen is nothing if not prolific. The two-dozen or so bright paintings currently embellishing the high-ceilinged walls of elegant café and chocolate boutique Bonbonier represent only ten percent of his oeuvre, a body of work barely initiated before he was 40. Soon, on United Nations Day, this former citizen of Zanzibar, Hanoi and Ashland, Oregon, will be 70.
Following the light
"I’ve been trailing whatever pulls me,” says this part-time musician and wood carver, about to take the big step up to becoming a full-time artist after his 30 years on the road. "I like to call it following the light.”
Judging from the cascade of colours that runs from assertive reds to gentle blues in the facing spaces of this café-cum-gallery, his muse has changed tone from his earliest sketches in Vietnam to the portraits of the women who orbit his life in Budapest. A bevy of them – is there a collective noun for muses? – make the many-headed montage that dominates one corner of the exhibition.
Pride of place goes to Karolina his personal fitness trainer, whose raised eyebrows fill the central pillar and greet the curious visitor upon arrival. You Know Better Than That! not only lightens the mood, it shows the new directions Steffen has been taking since setting up his easel in his own studio here on Ráday utca in 2017.
"This new exhibition primarily
represents recent paintings. I see this as a period of transition, sublimating
my angst through painting.”
Women figure prominently but now so do windows, perhaps a reflection that a significant number of these works were conceived during lockdown.
Underlining Steffen’s new show is not only light, however, nor the preponderance of pretty faces in Budapest, but what the soon-to-be septuagenarian calls "the magic of coincidence".
This former furniture maker was on yet 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!”
In a way, Budapest was a similar kind of new beginning that Steffen had first found in Vietnam, another country opening up 30 years ago. Studying the craft of wood carving from a master in Hanoi – a full set of tools still lines a drawer of his studio – Steffen also began to draw and paint. "I feel like it gave me permission to bring out the artist in me,” is how he describes it.
He then took this hobby, and his inner artist, to Africa. The drawings he created in the 1990s he later transformed into colourful paintings, some on view today at Bonbonier. Arabia pulled him in another direction before Budapest beckoned.
The energy of Budapest
"I felt the same kind of energy here as I did back then in Vietnam. It also reminded me of America in the ’70s. Budapest allowed me to follow my dream. Maybe it could have happened anywhere but it happened here.”
Steffen gestures to the gallery around him and beyond to Ráday utca, where the iF Jazz Café hosted his first exhibition in 2019. The short walk along this busy street of terraces and boutiques – perhaps to Pourgatorium, whose bar owner Steffen has also painted – brings regular acknowledgement of his presence and status. When greeted, he is now ’John the Painter’, differentiated from ’John the Cabinet Maker’ of his Oregon days.
Professional touches, such as stylish business cards and a more salon-like space for his show, go with the territory. The next step might be an agent.
For the time being, the path
of John the Painter is still very much DIY, the artist singing a couple of
songs at the recent opening.
Now with the confidence of someone who now knows when to leave a painting when he feels it’s ready – "it might take three hours, it might take 20” – Steffen is still following the same light that brought him to Budapest. 'Harmonic convergence' is how he puts it. Talent might be another word for it.