‘At the Circus’, Then Off to the Sideshow: The Curious Transformations of Steven J. Athanas

… oh! Lydia, the champ of them all…. for two bits she will do a Mazurka in Jazz…….with a view of Niagra that no artist has… and on a clear day you can see Alcatraz… you can learn a lot from Lydia….

One of the last times the prolific-Toledo frontman artist, and poet Steven Athanas was on stage was with his former band the Coosters at a downtown bar, playing a song made famous by Groucho Marx in the 1939 film At the Circus: “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.”  After the song ended, the bar owner whispered to him, “Hey, can you play some songs by The Beatles?”

Athanas laughs about it. Sort of. The specific request made sense— before the Coosters, Athanas regularly covered The Beatles with his other popular bands, Chinese Purple, The Homewreckers and Loved by Millions. But that night, they weren’t singing “Hey Jude” for a reason: “We were playing a lot of eclectic or original stuff, which I had been trying to do for a while.”

Demands for specific covers are as common as they are frustrating. Coupled with decades spent as the high-energy lead singer of bar bands, and Athanas was ready to bid farewell to the stage: “I just got to a point where I had to admit I ain’t no Mick Jagger.. now, I’m trying to rebuild.”

But he isn’t rebuilding alone. He’s bringing all the freaks living inside his head with him. On Friday, June 2, Athanas will introduce  twelve imagined, curious characters in Evan St. Jasthane’s Astounding Sideshow, a solo exhibition of watercolors and inks at the Hudson Gallery.

Steven J. Athanas, So Far Beneath the Waves, watercolor and ink on paper
Steven J. Athanas, So Far Beneath the Waves, watercolor and ink on paper

Creative adjustments

Athanas was re-inspired  to swap the music stage for the art studio by the same guy who first influenced him. “There’s a common denominator in both music and art, John Lennon— and those other three guys obviously tag along, too.”

Athanas bought Meet The Beatles when he was ten— “I absorbed everything I could get my hands on by them”— but Lennon’s two books, A Spaniard in the Works and In His Own Write, were his biggest influence.

Full of nonsensical poems, drawings and stories, Lennon’s experimental novels exposed Athanas to creative work wholly unconcerned with distinct genres and styles. In artistic ambiguity, Athanas saw opportunity and freedom: “My head is in the clouds. I’ve tried to be serious, but I end up embarrassed. Some can’t accept blunt truths, so they get cloaked in humor. I don’t want the characters I create to be locked into any position. If they mean something else to you, who am I to say you’re wrong?”

Really unreal

For Athanas, ambiguity seems to act like ectoplasm; exorcised from within to be shared with the world: “I like to escape. I don’t do drugs, so I escape through different forms of art. You could probably say I try to shun reality in my art. Some of the characters I’ll present in this show have been born from just putting the pencil to paper and doodling. Sometimes, everything just spews out of me. The process is cathartic.”

Imaginary friends

Represented with heavy pigments, fine lines, the unintended consequences of mistakes he refuses to erase, and the artist’s free verse poetry, which he calls ‘pomes’— “I don’t think they’re worthy of Walt Whitman and E.E. Cummings or any of those cats, so I take it down a notch”— the artist’s twelve characters act more like funhouse mirrors than individuals.

Steven J. Athanas, Chicken Juggler, watercolor and ink on paper
Steven J. Athanas, Chicken Juggler, watercolor and ink on paper

On view is a boy that’s part lobster, developed by the artist over a decade ago: “He’s probably archetypical of someone who has a beauty that’s not recognized.” Less depressing characters include a monster who eats bands like Journey and Ratt: “He can’t stand their music and thinks he is doing the world a favor… and I tend to believe that.”

In Evan St. Jasthane’s Astounding Sideshow, Athanas will introduce audiences to his freaks by nailing them to the wall. No surprise, considering how he seems to enjoys underplaying his work. However, I’m sure if he ever became willing to spell “pomes” correctly he would also start framing his art.

Opening Reception: 6-8pm on Friday, June 2.
Through June 30.
Hudson Gallery
5645 N. Main St., Sylvania. 419-885-8381. hudsongallery.net

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