By ELIZABETH SHEPHERD
For The Beachcomber
Climb the 20 stairs to Vashon artist Steffon Moody’s studio, and you may find yourself transported to a windswept island beach, or standing on a country road gazing at a vintage building you’ve long admired, but never quite seen in such ethereal light.
That’s because the tiny room — a structure Moody transformed from a children’s tree house into an art studio close to his house on Maury Island — is filled with the artist’s landscape paintings. Seen all together, they are like a road map to evocative island spots including KVI Beach, Engel’s gas station, the Portage store, Fisher Pond, Tramp Harbor and Raab’s Lagoon.
The sense of the walls melting away and being able to step inside the paintings is a magic trick the artist fully appreciates and intends.
“What you’re doing when you’re creating images is hacking into the hard drive of a human’s mind, and humans love to be fooled,” Moody said. “You’re creating an illusion.”
Moody, who is 54, has a timeless and somewhat angular visage, topped by a shock of salt-and-pepper hair that seems as bristly as his three-day beard. His greyish-blue eyes, which shine behind wire-framed spectacles, grow brighter as he talks about his understanding of visual language, and his urge to make art.
Moody uses his studio to put the finishing touches on his paintings and store them, but they aren’t created there. Instead, his body of work is a testament to long hours the artist has spent outside in the past three years, in wind, rain and sunshine, standing before an easel and creating plein air oil paintings that celebrate not only his island home, but other scenic vistas and tableaux throughout the Pacific Northwest and West Coast.
Almost 35 of Moody’s paintings can now be seen at The Hardware Store Gallery, in a solo exhibition that runs through May 1. In June, more of Moody’s work will grace the walls of Snapdragon Café’s gallery.
Moody is eager for the public to see the paintings, all made in what he called “a kind of euphoric experience” in the great outdoors.
“The concept of not painting from photographs means you can experience a place most people view for five minutes, and be there for three or four hours, as it changes,” he said. “You’re devotionally looking at something with intention, and there is a buildup that occurs. Instead of being bored with what you’re looking at, the opposite occurs, and it becomes more and more amazing.”
Moody uses only three colors — cyan, yellow and magenta — as well as white oil paint to create a broad range of colors and give a sense of dimension to his work.
“You have to earn the colors more that way,” he said. “It started out as an experiment, and now I’m addicted to it.”
Moody said that he has been surprised by the depth of feeling he finds in the meditative and solitary aspects of his work as a plein air painter.
“I didn’t expect that it would be a spiritual experience,” he said.
For many who know him, Moody’s passionate turn to painting has also come as a bit of a surprise.
Since moving to Vashon in 1988, he has cut a wide and colorful swath through the community’s cultural scene. He co-founded UMO Ensemble, directed the Islewilde Festival, participated in the island’s pottery tour, and made giant puppets and performed with them with the Vashon-based Zambini Brothers. Currently, he moonlights as the managing director of Chameleon Performance, a company that specializes in roving characters and performances in corporate, public and private settings.
But that’s not all. He’s taken the stage as a singer-songwriter with several bands, and also written songs for digital entertainment studios.
He’s emceed galas, worked as an auctioneer, hosted and performed in comedy shows, directed a play for Drama Dock and twice produced a memorable festival-like event called Swampbottom Jamboree, held on the expansive property where he rents his home. A few years ago, he delighted islanders with a large, pop-up mural of crows, painted on the side of the old McFeed’s building, shortly before it was demolished to begin construction on Vashon Center for the Arts’ new building.
Along the way, he has also raised a daughter and son with his wife Arlette Moody, a well-known island singer, performer and Pilates instructor. To support his family and supplement his creative endeavors, he has also picked up whatever work he could find as a landscaper, carpenter and builder.
According to Moody, being a jack-of-many-trades has served him well.
“There is a struggle for sure, but the rewards are you get to live a very dynamic life that is always changing,” he said. “What you don’t understand is that you are building an immense skill set. I’ve got muscles upon muscles. When you’re a contractor, you have to learn how to effectively problem solve and create things on the fly.”
Six years ago, Moody also began teaching at DigiPen Institute of Technology, in Redmond, first as an acting coach for animation students, before settling into a full-time job as a senior lecturer in the school’s digital arts program, teaching drawing.
Moody soon felt a strong pull to pick up a brush and start painting.
“I got tired of critiquing everyone else’s work all the time,” Moody explains. “That was my initial impetus. I needed to start doing artwork.”
The move toward painting, he said, also “felt like an inevitable return to my roots.”
What many islanders might not know is that in his youth, Moody had a much more singular focus and identity as a visual artist.
He grew up in Missouri, the son of two artists. At the age of 16, he began to work alongside his father, who was a scenic artist at the Muny Opera in St. Louis. He became a Journeyman set painter in Local 350 at the age of 21, and received a BFA in painting at Washington University in St. Louis at 22. For the next three years, he worked at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre and SuperScenics in Seattle.
“You were born into it, you trained early, and some people knew you could do it,” Moody said. “But people always thought of me as a performer, and when I came back to painting, I wasn’t very good. I’m still trying to improve all the time.”
But many on the island are already enthralled with Moody’s artwork.
Cathy Sarkowsky, another island artist, recently commissioned Moody to create a painting of Raab’s Lagoon that now hangs above the mantle in her home.
“I think his work is beautiful,” Sarkowsky said. “I’m really impressed that he does all these plein air paintings and that he’s using a limited palette and getting all these gorgeous colors. I feel like he demonstrates his own vision and personal style, and his paintings are really recognizable as his own.”
Amanda Westbrooke, the executive director of Open Space for Arts and Community, was even more effusive.
“We’re all drooling over his paintings on Instagram,” she said. “He’s creating a logjam and breaking the internet with people pushing the ‘like’ button.”
It’s a different kind of applause for Moody, who has spent so much of his life onstage as a performer. He now seems pleased to let his paintings speak for themselves as well as take him on new adventures.
“I want to travel the world and paint,” he said. “I’d like to take summers off and go to different countries and paint, so when I come back to DigiPen in the fall, I can be really recharged and have something to show. I think that is crucial to teaching, to have an inspired perspective.”
But Vashon Island, he made clear, will also always inspire him.
“When I travel, it’s the most beautiful place I come to on my trip,” he said. “When I’m returning, it’s ‘Oh, this is the most beautiful spot.’”