Steve Sacatos is a painter & illustrator currently living in Mt. Albert, Auckland. He’s lived and worked here, and in Heraklio, Crete, where he had a number of exhibitions. A self-taught artist, he paints and draws in he traditional mediums of watercolour, oil, pen and ink, as well as acrylic. His influences range from Brueghel and Ronald Searle, to board game cover art, and the folk art of Russia and Greece.
When asked to supply a photo of himself, he provided me with the 1966 version, but he did (reluctantly) go some way to defining creativity. “It’s tough to talk about this stuff without sounding like Shirley MacLaine,” he says. “I feel a bit past it to get too rhapsodic about creativity, and I’ve done my talking till 2am on the subject, and so, to summarise… I try to listen to, to cultivate, and find my inner ear – and to trust it.”
And when he does trust it, what is he trying to communicate? “It depends on the painting,” he says. For his popular landscapes, Steve is replicating the experience of walking: “I’m trying to create this all-points-of-view-at-once’ kind of perspective. At different stages in the picture you’re above, as from a mountain, or eye-level, or around a corner,” he says.
“The idea was to sew together the whole memory of a day’s trip, to show the experience of walking, or driving through the old suburbs of Auckland, which seemed to me a fun idea. More fun than me trying to pretend I’m a camera, that’s for sure. Things like a face, a landscape, or a situation make an impression on me and I try to put across to the viewer what struck me about that image.”
“It’s important for me that the piece is accessible and that it is enjoyable – and that’s without the input of some critic telling why you have to like it,” he adds.
Steve had his heart set on painting from a young age. “I’d pretty much decided on painting by the time I was 14 or so,” he says. “I think I just liked the way it sounded – “I’m going to be a painter.” Always the Romantic. It also sort of made my grandfather’s eyes glaze over when I said it, which added a lot of appeal. Actually, he helped a lot in making me decide – I wasn’t coming out with any sensible ideas of what to do when I was 17 or so, and he asked me a very good question: “Well, do you want to work with your head or your hands?” So I said both, and he kind of gave up but it was a pivotal moment. I did Art at school, passed, (just) and then qualified for Elam. I failed the first year, praise be, and then learnt about painting from books. I was a long time in Greece, and there I met and worked with some icon painters. I didn’t learn that craft, but I picked up a lot from them, and also from Greek Folk Art. Folk Art in general has always impressed me – the simple materials; its immediacy.”
His practice hasn’t changed much since the last of his ‘teenagey’ illusions. “The biggest change came when I shed the last of my teenagey illusions about How Art is Made. I had all these wacko ideas that if I believed and believed, and closed my eyes – maybe starved myself or fell madly in love, it would all add up to some great, impassioned, marvellous Work of Art. Just bonkers, really.”
He goes on to explain how art – in any form – can look magical; elusive. “So, when I was a lot younger I thought that it was all some pseudo-mystical Ecstatic Experience, and the more passionate and ecstatic you were, the better your work of art would be,” he says, and clears his throat meaningfully. “Yes well, live and learn! It took a while to understand that the magic we see in art is through very non-magical stuff like patience, hard work, diligence… Basically, the more fun you want something to be, the more seriously you have to take it.”
So I ask him about his work. Does he have a favourite? “There’s no real answer,” he says. “The pieces are like your kids, or bits of your body, and I don’t favour one over the other. I mean, you do your best, you try, they may not turn out as pretty or as smart as you hoped, but still, it’s hard to play favourites. Having said that, here I’d like to quote Albrecht Durer: “How is it that a drawing that took you no more than half an hour might please you more than a painting on which you have worked with the utmost diligence for six months?”
Steve also admires artists a bit closer to home. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Peter MacIntyre. For me, his series of war paintings are the most iconic images in New Zealand art. He was probably the greatest watercolourist the country turned out (although he was trained in England) and one of our best ever draughtsmen. But we’ve got lots of very good painters – Sam McMahon, Michael Smithers, Joanne Pegler, and Bill Hammond – to name a few.”
And when I ask him why art is important, Steve leaves us with words of wisdom. “Well, this is the stuff that reminds you you’re not an animal – when was the last time you saw a cat or dog swoon over a sunset, or a sonata? Even something relatively light, like most of my things, is aiming at an intellectual or emotional response, to engage the viewer, without words but through some shared experience, or empathy. You can’t eat it, it won’t clothe or house you, and it can’t fix much – but we’ve needed Art, in some form or another, ever since our cave-dwelling days.
Part of the baggage of being Human, I guess.”
Steve is currently working towards his next show, this August 2017, in the Exhibitions Gallery, Newmarket. For updates and to his collection of work, follow Steve via Suburban Mystics on Facebook.