Magical Steve

The Fabulous True Story of Artist

STEVEN LEE SMELTZER 

By Sheila Fried 

I want to make something that enhances the human experience, a transcendent art that for a split second the viewer can step out of time and space and fully experience the moment. (From a conversation with Steven Smeltzer) 

From his earliest years on Maui peddling palm-sized Menehune creatures at swap meets to opening the Avalene Gallery in Makawao to the developing of live action film and computer animation, Maui artist Steven Smeltzer has been applying his whimsical sensibilities to an increasingly larger audience and raising the smile quotient along the way.

It began, once upon a time, more than 30 years ago, when Steven, who confesses to being a cosmic channeler for the realm of Odd, left his La Verne, California home to visit the magical island of Maui. It was the ideal vacation location for the native southern Californian whose love of surfing took flight while in his pre-teens. It was during this visit the young man became so captivated by the island’s tropical life style, the incredible surf, the je ne sais quoi of the Maui Experience, that he realized this was where he belonged.

But first he would need to find a place to live and a job. Not just any job explains Steven, but “a form of work that wasn’t really work. ” Most of all, it could not be a job that would conflict with the call of the surf and the sea. However, with his unique and unusual ability to channel for the realm of Odd, he quickly manifested both--employment as a maintenance man in a nursing home in Kula, which allowed him to fulfil his moral and legal obligations as a conscientious objector, and a house in Haiku which he rented for the paltry sum of $100 per annum. Never mind that it was a run-down cane house that no one else wanted. To Steven it held the door to Paradise.

       It is said that people and things come into one’s life for a reason. And so it happened that one day while walking in the woods Steven stumbled upon an abandoned kiln. It turned out to be a life-altering discovery, coinciding with a long held desire to work with clay. He at once determined to restore the discarded kiln to working condition. One day as he was hard at rebuilding it, taking it apart brick by brick, a stranger visiting the island wandered by. As amazing as it may seem, the stranger was Fred Holsen, kiln expert and author of the definitive book on kiln building! The rest, as they say, is ceramic art history.

        Armed with a working kiln and all that he’d learned in a ceramic class taken in his last year of college, Steven began by making clay bowls and cups. The problem was that whenever he’d make a bowl or a cup he’d put a face on it. Faces seem to fascinate him. And the odder the face the more fascinating. And so he decided to stop making bowls and cups and just make faces, or rather creatures with odd faces, very odd faces. And that is how the Menehune Man was born.

It seems inevitable that Steven would discover the Menehunes, a tiny magical race of beings that some believe were the earliest inhabitants of Hawaii. Legend has it that these jolly creatures are extremely shy, performing their good deeds under the cover of night, and visible only to those who have been given a rare and extraordinary juice to drink. Steven may very well have swallowed the juice, because he began to produce little clay creatures he called Menehunes who were to become the springboard for a life-long career as a ceramic artist. Even today, three decades later, he is remembered as the “Menehune Man” and those little creatures are still in demand. However, his repertoire has greatly expanded with an ever-growing Rogues Gallery of colorful characters that continue to emerge from his child-like imagination.

Enter Wray Arenz, the woman who has been his life, business and creative partner for the past 15 years. Arenz is responsible for the story pieces that accompany Steven’s sculptures and weighs in on the creation of new characters. On a recent visit to Avalene Galleries, now in its 2nd year, co-owned with the artist Jan Kasprzycki and his wife and business partner, Kathy Kasprzycki, I had the pleasure of coming face to face with several Bon Vivants, the name they’ve given to his assorted cast of unforgettable characters. Among my favorites, Douglas Blunderfield III, who, according to his biographical notes, is a notorious motorcycle gang leader currently in the witness protection program while working undercover as fashion consultant to “Fancy Pants,” and the brightly clad Gaylord Blumun, whose past is not revealed, but is “happier and more emotionally balanced than he has ever been” since he began using personality altering flower essences and travelling the world promoting flower power. These are unusual characters, even for Maui!

Steven sculpts each piece by hand and, although they may appear similar, no two are identical. Averaging 13-16” high, they are wrought from high-fire stoneware with porcelain clay used just for the eyes.  After drying, they are sprayed with an oxide stain and fired. The last step is applying a vibrant palette of acrylic paints and a light spray of clear acrylic. Et voila! A new Bon Vivant is born.  A slightly different technique is used in the creation of an array of otherworldly creatures, including his popular series of kissy-lipped fish that are available as singletons or in kissy pairs called The Honeymooners. These fat-lipped fish are first formed on the potter’s wheel as vessels and afterwards shaped into assorted fish styles. Lately Steven has begun casting some new shapes in bronze with extraordinary results, although he assures us he will never abandon his clay creatures.

         Six years ago Steven’s work was discovered at the One World Gallery in Lahaina by a producer at Enteraktion, Inc., a television, film and multi-media company based in Florida. This led to a collaboration that today has Steven and Wray splitting their time between Maui and Florida, working on projects for potential television programs as well as developing interesting characters and concepts. Their current project is a pilot for prime time TV that brings together live actors and animated characters of Steven’s creation. A full-length feature movie is also being planned. As for the work he’s most known for, the beat goes on. Plans for a show of his newest creations and those of his gallery partner, painter Jan Kasprzycki, are underway, scheduled for March 15th at their Avalene Gallery.

“Inspiration”, says Steven, “comes from everywhere and everything.” He does cite the influences of Dr. Seuss, Rick Griffin and the teachings of Tom Bombidle—the guy from “The Hobbit.”  But it’s life itself that most inspires him. And what a life it is—“surfing, creating art, and surfing some more.” Steven claims that on many a clear Maui evening he leaves work and surfs into the darkness of night until some odd, magical force appears to guide him safely out of the water. He doesn’t say exactly what it is, but I’m guessing it’s those Menehunes and that they continue to have a deep, ineffable connection with Maui’s magical Menehune Man. 

 

Steven Smeltzer’s odd, strange and whimsical creations can be found on Maui at Avalene Galleries in Makawao, One World Galleries in Lahaina and Wailea, Maui Hands in Paia and Kahului, Jawz in Paia and Hana Coast Gallery in Hana and in private collections on Planet Earth and elsewhere. For a list of Mainland galleries call 808-572-8500 or e-mail creativeexpansioninc@earthlink.net.