The Storyteller

By Kolpas, Norman | Southwest Art, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Storyteller


Kolpas, Norman, Southwest Art


Steven Lang fills his canvases with spellbinding tales of the Old West

IN THE SHELTER OF A FALLEN TREE, TWO SIOUX BRAVES crouch beside a Cheyenne dog soldier, one of that tribe's warrior elite. The Cheyenne holds on his lap a ledger book, on the pages of which he has recorded his exploits in pictures. The other two men look and listen, spellbound, as the Cheyenne's story springs to life in their imaginations.

There are several reasons why THE WARRIOR's LEDGER BooK, a recent oil painting by Steven Lang, casts so powerful a spell of its own. Historically, it captures a scene from the Old West with impressive verisimilitude, accurately depicting its subjects down to the last bead and fringe on their buckskin clothing. The technique, too, is impressive, from Lang's expressive work with the palette knife to his use of sepia undertones that cast an aura of romance over the scene. In its composition, as well, the painting displays strong, sure forms and lines that continually draw the eye from the compelling faces to the work's focal point: the ledger book, itself a pictorial record pulsing with life.

In a very real sense, Lang possesses a kinship with the central brave in that painting and not just because the blood of his father's Pawnee and Cherokee great-grandparents courses through his veins. More significantly, like the dog soldier he depicts, Lang is a spellbinding storyteller of the Old West.

On some level, the artist has always been possessed by the twin loves of art and history. "My parents say I was drawing since I was in diapers," Lang recalls. When he was in the second grade, having recently moved to Monterey, CA, from an Army base in Germany, he used his budding talent to connect with his new classmates. "Within the first two or three weeks, we had show-and-tell, and I taped a bunch of typing paper together and drew a huge foldout panorama of the Spartans fighting the Greeks in temple ruins," he says. "My classmates `oohed' and `ahhed' and were very impressed with this new kid from Germany. By the third grade, I knew I was going to be an artist."

By the time he was 12, Lang had found his artistic subject, too. While browsing through a new local shopping mall before the holidays, he spied in a bookshop an illustrated biography of Frederic Remington by Harold McCracken. From that moment, he says, "Something just clicked for me. I never went to any other stores but always straight to that bookstore to look at that book for hours." He had no hopes of making the book his own, however, since its $27 price tag put it out of his family's budget. So he was surprised when, on Christmas Eve, the book appeared under the tree with this inscription: "Given with love to Steven, from Mom and Dad, at Christmas 1972, with hopes of forming a foundation for success as a great artist."

The book immediately began to help fulfill that destiny. "I went to sleep with it every night for three or four years," says Lang. "My mind was on fire with the scenes and the people Remington painted." To this day, the volume remains one of his most prized possessions. "I always have it with me," he says.

Other artists soon joined the pantheon with Remington. The teen-age Lang came to admire the works of Karl Bodmer, the Swiss painter who accompanied German naturalist Prince William on his journeys through the territory of the Plains tribes in the 1830s. And he appreciated the historic renderings of artists like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.

Enrolled in the art program at nearby San Jose State University, Lang eventually found himself lured into the world of local advertising agencies that were booming with the growth of the Silicon Valley. He started out drawing illustrations of silicon chips and rose to the position of creative director Within two years. Then he started his own firm, successfully producing newspaper ads, brochures, and promotional materials.

In the evenings Lang tried to paint whenever possible, mostly wildlife scenes. …

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