Steffen, Charles

American, 1927-1995

Life Lines: The Drawings of Charles Steffen

Left: Charles Steffen, The White Rose Garden (detail), 1994. Mixed media on brown paper, 17" x 23". Collection of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art; gift of Jan Petry. Right: Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1994, Mixed media on paper, 23" x 17". Collection of Tim and Stacy Bruce.

Born in 1927 into a family of eight children, Charles Steffen studied art at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s. Around 1950, while still in school, he suffered a mental breakdown and spent the next fifteen years at Elgin State Hospital where he underwent treatments, including electroshock for schizophrenia. While there and upon his release he continued to make art, but since he had attended only drawing and photography classes at IIT, he worked mainly with pencil or colored pencil and paper.

Charles was a very humble man of humble means. He continued to live at home with his sister, Rita, who supported the family by working as an accountant in downtown Chicago and two brothers, George and Francis, George worked for a time for a mapmaking company and was always working on some fascinating project which totally consumed him and any money he made. He was brilliant in his own way, but exhibited the characteristics of an idiot savant. Francis was an itinerant street person who traveled about the country by bus and lived in the streets or flophouses. He occasionally turned up at home in Chicago without warning and passed away in a small hotel room in Chicago during the 1995 heat wave.

Charles spent most of his time drawing, usually producing one to three or more drawings every day. When he was not drawing he was pacing from the kitchen to the living room in the family home smoking a cigarette and drinking either coffee in the morning or beer in the afternoon. His subjects were those he knew in his limited sphere: the woman at the bank who cashed his social security checks, a neighbor, his mother, who in her later years was confined to a wheelchair and then to bed, and flowers and plants from the yard.  Most drawings were done from memory: showgirls from a bar he frequented while in school, a woman he loved before he went to Elgin, and scenes from the State Hospital. Although he often drew the same subjects over and over, he also experimented by creating drawings that merged the human form with plants and tar or tobacco stains he saw on the sidewalks of the neighborhood and distorting and combining male and female features.

In his later years he wrote in the margins of the drawings, describing his techniques, past recollections and life observations, and the mundane details of his daily life, including what he had or was going to eat and how much he paid for art supplies. From the time he left Elgin State Hospital until the time he died in 1995, his life and habits varied little. After his mother died in 1994, the house in which he lived his entire life was sold and he went to live in a small room in a men’s retirement home on the north side of the city. He would have thrown away the remainder of his drawings and photographs, over two thousand, but decided instead to place them with a nephew who showed interest in his work.

From over forty years of drawing and smoking, his body had become gnarled and his voice gravelly. Before he died, a recording was made of him reading the Jabberwocky text from Alice in Wonderland. It was a book he dearly loved which had inspired him while in art school. Although his physical world was limited, his writing exhibits a knowledge, understanding and maturity that one might ascribe to a more worldly person.