Bayou Artist | Steve Porter
article by STARLA GATSON
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Steve Porter does not want you to put him in a box. Not that it would be easy to do. His work, spanning multiple mediums, has been called surrealist by some and abstract by others. Porter just says it’s his. And if, after seeing his pieces, someone thinks his art is similar to another’s, he says it’s purely coincidental.
“WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I heard of Michelangelo,” he says. “I heard of da Vinci. I didn’t know who some of these other guys were until I was an adult already creating work. When somebody sees my work and says, ‘That reminds me of so-and-so,’ that’s fine. But so-and-so had nothing to do with [it].”
Porter’s brightly colored paintings, detailed drawings, and carefully crafted figures come straight from his experiences, real and imagined. That’s where his art has always come from, ever since he was just a little boy drawing images in the driveway dirt.
“I’m inspired by things I see, things I remember, things I may have seen, things I dreamed about, fears,” the Shreveport native muses. “I might see something on a wall or brick and think, ‘Gosh, that looks like a face.’”
The big imagination he’s had since his childhood — the same one that convinced four-year-old Porter that he’d found a terrifying giant scorpion in the backyard (it was a crawfish) and that pecan tree limbs were long arms and fingers — serves him well now as he makes art. But it didn’t do him any favors during his school years. Unfortunately, his teachers’ lessons didn’t hold a candle to the thoughts, ideas, and images his mind could conjure up. Much to his instructors’ dismay, Porter constantly slipped into his own little world.
“I was consistently in trouble for being a daydreamer, drawing, looking out the window,” he recalls. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart or couldn’t do the work; it was that I chose to imagine. I chose to put those images on paper, and I chose to draw.”
Porter wasn’t a fan of school from the very beginning — “Gosh, I hated kindergarten,” he says — and admits he had no interest in going to college after graduating from C.E. Byrd High School. But he enrolled at Louisiana Tech University anyway, thinking he had no other choices.
“We were told you had to go to college if you wanted to get any kind of a job,” he explains.
While in Ruston, Porter earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art. But even with classes devoted to art, the thing that had held his interest for years prior, none of his courses were as enjoyable or fulfilling as doing things his way.
“There were a couple of professors that knew how I was, and I was able to do what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I appreciated them letting me do it.”
Other instructors, however, taught with methods that didn’t necessarily fuel Porter’s creativity.
“Sitting in front of a still life for three and a half hours two times a week, what’s that supposed to teach me?” he asks.
He says assignments like those were monotonous to him, and though they may work for some artists — “I’m not slamming that; it’s good for some people,” he clarifies — they didn’t do much for him. Uninspiring assignments aside, Porter knows his going to college wasn’t in vain. He says having a degree has benefited him in the long run before mentioning the other bright spot from his college years, “I met my future bride there, so that was a good part.”
After graduation, Porter moved from job to job, including a nearly 15-year run as an art teacher. But eventually, he stepped away from teaching and art entirely. He moved on, opting to start his own lawn service. But soon, he realized he wasn’t done with art yet.
Porter remembers the day he knew he had to start creating again. It was during his stint in lawn care, and while outside working, he noticed three brand new canvases left on the side of the road, waiting to be hauled off by the sanitation department.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he remembers. “That was something saying, ‘You need to get back to it.’”
So, he did.
Part of getting back to it meant returning to the classroom. Not as a daydreaming, bored student, but as a teacher once again. After his epiphany with the canvases, Porter got an offer to teach talented art. He accepted, and while there, he helped build up that parish’s talented art program and mentored students much like himself.
“There are other kids like me that other teachers would get irritated about, but they had such potential to create,” he says. “Those are the kids I went after. Don’t tell me about the kid making straight As. I want to see the kid nobody’s talking to [who has] a thick sketchbook or might be in trouble.”
Finding those blank canvases inspired Porter to go back to teaching “some amazing students,” which he did until retiring in 2020. It also moved him to begin creating art of his own again. Since then, he’s managed to build quite an impressive resume. He’s won awards, instructed at art workshops, spoken on panels, completed murals, and illustrated publications.
His work has been shown numerous times, at locations like Kisatchie Art Gallery, East Bank Gallery, and the Meadows Museum of Art. Some of his pieces live in the homes of art collectors across the globe, specifically in Canada, France, New Zealand, Russia, and Spain.
Currently, some of Porter’s art can be viewed here in Ouachita parish at the Northeast Louisiana Art Council’s gallery in West Monroe. He’s excited about the opportunity to share his work with this community. It’s not an area he knows well, he admits, but he likes it — “There’s just something about it.”
His solo show at the art council gallery, which opened May 29th and closes July 7th, features a little bit of everything: pen and ink drawings, acrylic paintings, and paper mache figures. “There’s not a paper towel or toilet paper tube that goes in the trash at my house,” he quips after sharing that he makes all his paper mache pieces with recycled materials.
When asked to reveal what his creative process looked like, Porter explains that much of what he does, particularly when painting, is experimentation.
“A lot of it is me working with the paint, seeing what it’s going to do, and just playing with it,” he says. “I want to see what’ll happen. Not to sound cliche, but it’s like you’re taking a trip with this paintbrush.” Or with his little finger, he adds; a large percentage of the time, he’d rather use that than a paintbrush.
Porter is aware that his process leaves room for mistakes to happen, but he says he doesn’t shy away from those, “If I mess it up, I’ll correct it.”
Correcting those mistakes, which range from grandkids’ fingerprints in paint to colors that aren’t quite right, is a challenge, and that motivates him. Well, that, plus faith and his innate need to make art.
“There are those of us that are artists that are born with [the need to create],” he muses. “It’s like a curse and salvation at the same time, a love-hate relationship.”