John Steins doesn’t fart around. If there’s an opportunity to make art, he seizes it.
“I have a photo exhibition coming up, later this winter …” Steins says as soon as I walk into his studio. “… portraits of men and women. Do you mind if I take yours?”
So before he will be my subject, I am his.
Staring into a medium format non-reflex Mamiaflex camera, he tells me the exhibit will be portraits of Dawsonites he’s taken over the last 10 years.
First and foremost, Steins is an artist. His studio, on the third floor of a house perched high above Dawson City on 8th Avenue, is cluttered with work from over 30 years of practice.
Steins first hitchhiked to the Yukon in 1974. When he arrived in Dawson City, his venture to escape Toronto became an adventure. Steins and a buddy built a raft and floated to Circle Alaska. They hitchhiked to Fairbanks, then Anchorage and took the ferry to Prince Rupert. After a winter working in the Prince Rupert grain elevators, Steins returned to Dawson City in 1975.
“I was attracted by the unfulfilled potential here. There were a lot of us young people having fun together in an unusual environment,” he says.
To describe why he moved so far from Toronto family and friends is difficult: “It’s a nebulous feeling. If you’re in tune with it, you respond.”
In those days, Steins was primarily a musician. In the city he would have had to lock horns in a competitive arena. Here he was able to practise in a concentrated, private environment. They even had a word for it: “wood shedding” is what they called going to the woodshed to practise. And one whole winter he devoted to honing his craft.
Steins wears a T-shirt, I notice, printed with our Dawson postal code. The YO BI GO shirt was the brainchild of Dennis Dunn and local artist Kyla MacArthur. It appears that young people are still “having fun in an unusual environment”.
The fun that Steins has is on a sophisticated level. As a hobby he has been collecting domain names — www.thebushadministration.com, for example – and in 2003 he gained international attention.
Steins created a series of linocut prints of the Bush administration and sold them on eBay. Patriotic Americans were outraged by his satirical protest against the Iraq invasion. Death threats were made against him and he was banned from eBay. Later, eBay called him and apologized. He says today, “My site had tons of traffic and I sold out of lino prints.”
To make a living when not creating art and wreaking havoc, Steins does web design. He also runs a server, operating a hosting company. As he puts it, “I make money by renting space to people”.
I ask him about his other job. “Oh yeah, I’m the Mayor. You would bring that up.”
Politically, in recent years Dawson City has suffered a tremulous period. Steins says, “I’d made such a stink about not having a mayor for two years, I felt I should at least step up. I ran for election but nobody else did. Therein lies the joke,” Steins laughs.
Steins feels that the way he approaches art colours his political practice: “Being a creative person is about communication – with yourself and with others.”
He describes himself as a positive person. “If you’re a creative person, as a political leader you’re going to approach and view reality in a different way.
“Creatively thinking, your approach can only be positive. Things you do or try to move forward are not going to be self-serving but for the common good,” he says.
When his term comes up for re-election in October of 2009, Steins doesn’t know if he’ll run again. He describes himself as a generalist with various artistic passions – photography, wood engraving, print making, digital art – offering a smörgåsbord of choices.
“I’m like the donkey that is going to starve because he can’t decide between oats and hay,” he says. Looking at the accomplished art decorating the walls of Steins’ studio, “donkey” does not come to mind.
PHOTOS: LULU KEATING