Man of Steele: An artist who elevates and takes pride in his community

Alexey Steele. Photo by Gene Lemuel
Alexey in his studio. Photo by Michael Darter

Alexey in his studio. Photo by Michael Darter

Art of Steele

An artist who elevates and takes pride in his community

When we step into the vast Carson studio of painter Alexey Steele we can be forgiven for thinking we’ve slipped back in time, into the atelier of Ilya Repin or Valentin Serov, dominant figures of late 19th century Russian realism, and renowned for their compelling portraits.

"Rickey of Carson," by Alexey Steele

“Rickey of Carson,” by Alexey Steele

By way of his late father, Leonid Mikhailovich Steele, as well as Ilya Glazunov, with whom he studied at the Surikov Art Institute of the Soviet Academy of Art in Moscow, Steele has followed in their path.

This puts him at odds with the various avant-garde trends and experiments that garner the attention when people talk about the admittedly diverse L.A. art scene. But many people do not trust or understand work of an overly abstract, conceptual nature, whereas a portrait in the vein of a Rembrandt or Caravaggio is akin to comfort food, especially when well executed. And when it comes to stylistic boldness and grace, Alexey Steele is arguably as good as it gets.

Alexey Steele. Photo by Gene Lemuel

Alexey Steele. Photo by Gene Lemuel

No turning back

Though originally from Ukraine, Steele grew up in Kiev, and as a boy moved with his family to Moscow. In 1990, when Steele was in his early 20s, the family came to America by way of Canada, where they had distant relations. It was to be a three-month stay, but Steele’s father must have decided early on that he wasn’t going back: “My dad said, I’m staying; you want to go, go.” After all, he’d seen Venice Beach with its golden girls gliding down the boardwalk. Of his father, Steele says, “The first thing he bought in the United States were rollerblades. At age 70.”

But that’s not to say father and son abandoned their ideas about classical art. Quite likely they embraced their heritage and their tradition even more.

Steele has a pronounced, gregarious personality, which I imagine strikes some people as overbearing, but he does have the chops, as they say, to back it up. For quite a while he had a studio in West Los Angeles (behind the Odyssey Theatre and near Twenty Twenty Wine Co.), but the owner put the building up for sale. That was roughly 10 years ago. Well, it so happened that a very good friend of his had acquired property in Carson, and he told Steele to come and have a look around. Naturally, the first response was, Where the hell is Carson?

Steele’s friends probably had the same reaction, telling him, We’ll never see you again; you might as well be moving back to Russia. However, with his pal Rick Rand, Steele acquired a large space, formerly the home of a roofing company, in what was then a sort of no-man’s-land just east of the San Diego Freeway off of Torrance Blvd. and near Main Street. Seeing the interior today, we might imagine it was once an 18th century theater or opera house.

Portrait and study of Uncle Lincoln, Ukelele Player by Alexey Steele

Portrait and study of Uncle Lincoln, Ukelele Player by Alexey Steele

Uncle Lincoln, Ukulele Player Study

Of life’s finer qualities

If Steele is widely known for one thing, it might be as the impresario of the region’s best kept open secret, his Classical Underground music series, which pops up every… well, whenever he feels like it. Which also gives the event an air of mystery.

This is now the 10th year, and essentially it duplicates the drawing room, chamber music salon gatherings of 19th century Europe. If you read Delacroix’s journals, for example, you’ll find numerous instances of his attending intimate soirees with the likes of the marvelous but fragile Frédéric Chopin on piano.

Steele’s Classical Underground is rather larger in scale, I’m guessing some 250 people at each one, and everybody accommodated on chairs or couches in Steele’s workplace, which requires three days to haul everything out and three more to haul it back in.

No matter, the programs are exquisite, with piano and violin duets one night, a string quartet on another, and the musicians, often in Los Angeles from out of town, are always first-rate. If we ask Steele where he finds these performers he’ll mention that it’s a family legacy, and that during the 1960s his boyhood home in Kiev was a fertile and cultural meeting ground. Contacts made years ago still bear fruit, and then the word spreads. But there’s also that feeling of having stumbled into an elite gathering of art sophisticates, hungry for artistic nourishment.

For Steele, his Classical Underground began as an “investigative project: How does a classical way of thinking, a classical way of philosophically relating to the universe, fit into today’s contemporary world?” Also, he notes, “It’s about art and society, because I believe that art is a powerful tool within society.”

That, as you will find, is pretty much his mantra, too: In art we trust! Steele, it can be said, is both practitioner and custodian for the dignity of art (his interpretation of it, let’s be clear), just as his working studio, when converted into a concert hall, gives the impression of being an artistic sanctuary. A sanctuary not only for the music that draws hundreds, but for the art, much of it monumental, and for the vast library of art books that spans an entire wall. We won’t call it religious, but there’s a sense here of the sacred, of the rarefied and refined.

For all that, there is no media advertising and hardly any advance notice. A week, if you’re lucky. The word goes out on Steele’s extensive email list and the response is usually immediate, just as when Randy Berler of the South Bay Film Society announces a new screening and tickets are snapped up literally overnight. Again, there’s a real hunger for the finer things in life, and the fact that the City of Carson is one of the places where it’s burgeoning is rather ironic, don’t you think? But even so…


Come together

“I’ve always been fascinated by one important thing,” Steele says, and that’s “the relation of art and society, the place of art in a society.” Which is also to say that he believes art is the tool that brings the people of a community together. Whether or not one agrees that this is what it’s about, this takes us to Steele’s current endeavor, an ongoing series called “Love My Neighbor.”

He began it seven years ago, although the roots go back as far as his first days in Carson.

"40 Day Beard," self portrait by Alexey Steele.

“40 Day Beard,” self portrait by Alexey Steele.

“When I came here, one of the first things that struck me is how incredible a neighborhood this is,” Steele says.

What he’s referring to is actually the diversity, and because his work is human-centered, and thus character-based, Steele’s concern with stylistics takes a back seat, at least at first. “Authenticity and humanity is the core in the greatest examples of the type of work that I do, which is this great depiction of the human condition.”

His first impression of Carson has remained a lasting impression, and it may not have occurred at all if Steele hadn’t made the move from West Los Angeles. “I immediately started looking and thinking and I had the idea to portray my neighborhood characters.”

The project picked up stream several months ago when a grant from the City of Carson Cultural Arts Commission enabled Steele to devote more time to it, with Wells Fargo Bank coming on board as an exhibition sponsor.

The results, so far, are impressive, with three individuals comprising the latest addition to this series which, Steele says, he’ll continue for as long as possible.

The reason why the series is titled “Love My Neighbor” and not “Love Thy Neighbor” is because this is a personal testimony and not a command. Still, there is a message of sorts, an invitation for the residents of Carson, “which is big enough to be representative of our world,” to open up to their fellow residents. Besides, it all starts at ground zero, in the community.

Alexey Steele has collectors of his work living throughout Los Angeles, including many in Palos Verdes. He also teaches classes at his studio. Earlier this year Portuguese Bend resident Steve Shriver took one such course and found it beneficial. “Alexey gave a thorough account, from tinting paper to the medium sharpening technique,” Shriver recalls. “It felt like a complete introduction to a traditional method of depiction, and one I am very glad to have received.”

In art we trust. When Steele says it, the words sing with authority and pride. PEN



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