Who: My name is Jerry B. Steffen Jr. I live in Mountlake Terrace. I will be 63 in November. I’m a deaf artist. My first language is American Sign Language, and I read lips well. I was born to be an artist.
What: I started making 3D dimensional paper cutting art and 3D paintings a few years ago. I won first place in the painting, prints and drawing category for “Kids Silly Face” at this year’s Arts of the Terrace competition. I started it early last fall when school began. There was a Mountlake Terrace school bus ahead of me while I was driving, and some kids at the back of the bus goofing around made me laugh. It took me about a month to finish. I was surprised I won again. I took first in the painting, prints and drawing category for my work “Protect Salmon All Year Round” in 2018. That took me a month to finish, too.
When: I was a graphic designer at Schottenstein Stores Corp. between 1978-1988 in Columbus, Ohio. I studied at Cleveland Institute of Art in 1990-1991 then transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1992-1993. Having a sign language interpreter was a must. Lithography was my major, but lithography was dying and I was unable to find a lithography studio, sadly.
Where: I was born in Cleveland. I moved to Rochester, Illinois, then Oahu, and then traveled in Asia for four years. I didn’t know where to go after that, so I decided to settle down in Seattle. I wandered around. I was part-time self-employed at Pike Place Market between 2000-2012. I painted and sold original watercolor paintings and prints. Then I had neck surgery. I’m no longer able to lift over 5 pounds. After my surgery, I didn’t do any art for three years. I am supposed to have neck fusion surgery, but I refused. It scared me and felt too risky. But I do some light exercise and yoga at home. My neck is not completely healed. I do have pain a lot of the time, but while I make 3D paper cutting art, it helps me to forget and stay busy.
Why: Art is therapy. It keeps my mind calm, at peace and joyful. Otherwise I would go crazy. But sometimes I feel isolated. I haven’t had a job for seven years. I do all kind of arts that I learned and studied, but the only media I enjoy making is 3D paper cutting art and 3D paintings, because it is so much fun. Also, it is so easy to carry art supplies with me whenever I go to a cafe and do my paper cutting. People like to watch me while I work.
How: I collect scrap cardboard at Starbucks and Fred Meyer — I never buy, why waste? — and unused toilet seat cover tissues for papier-mache from public restrooms. Then I used non-toxic glue and acrylic paints from a garage sale. I love to use vibrant paint, and I like to make large pop art.
Favorite piece: I have a favorite piece, but it’s not done yet. It has a lot of detail and has taken me about three months to make. Last year, I designed a 9-foot-tall superhero costume over the span of a year. I used more than 45 large scrap cardboard boxes, over 250 sheets of scrap Japanese rice paper, two gallons of non-toxic glue and lots of paint. It’s called “The American Sign Language Aurora Borealis Man.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.
More 3D art: See more of Steffen’s work on YouTube via ASL Seattle.
An artist on exhibit
This story is part of an occasional series in which local artists share the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How on their creative careers — plus the story behind their favorite original artwork. Do you know an artist worthy of a feature in the Good Life section? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.