INTERVIEW: Don Stettner

“An artist only creates maybe ten great paintings in a lifetime.”

I first met Don Stettner in 1998 when he and his wife Jane attended a few of my yoga classes. Over the years we collided on the dance floor each August when the River Festival brought live music to the field along the Delaware River. I knew he was a master carpenter, but I did not learn that he was an artist until I saw his work posted on Instagram. Suddenly there was a surprising new side revealed to me. When I visited Don at his home in Blairstown, here was the three different characters of Don Stettner, the man at home in a spacious house overlooking a small pond, the cabinet maker with the shop he has worked in for 30 years and the prolific artist in his studio.

Stettner is the quintessential baby boomer artist with roots and connections to desert communes and the downtown art scene of the ’70’s. In High School he was voted most likely to be an artist, but he grappled with his passion for creating art. At the same time avoiding the soul strangling chaos of the commercial art world in NYC. Instead, Stettner chose a career that involved working creatively, while making art secretly and living life on his terms. He has a fascinating story to tell.

How would you describe your self as an artist?
I graduated with a BFA in painting and sculpture from Carnegie Tech in 1967. The years of the 60’s were wild, crazy, exciting, confusing, full of hope and fear, and discovery. I immersed myself in the world of art. I absorbed the art of the past. It infused me with wonder; culture and history. I took everything in.

I always carry a sketchbook. I am an itinerant doodler. When I sit, I’m drawing, not thinking, trusting my hand and eyes. I respond to myself, what I see, hear, smell, and feel.The creative process is a matter of self-trust, losing all fear, living in the moment entering the flow, stealing the moment, being at one with creation.

My art is a revelation of my interior landscapes. I am an action painter. One action leads to the reaction until I feel I am done. I have worked in all mediums.

At this point in my life, I am an Ink painter. I use black India ink on paper. I am a cartoonist. My self-published book, “MINDERINGS” is a nonsequential memoir of thoughts, images, and portraits done in black ink.
I separate my cartooning from my abstract ink paintings and landscapes. I usually do not know what I am going to paint. Starting a painting is like waiting for a bus. The blank canvas glows. The first stroke guides the next stroke, action-reaction.

What inspires you as an artist?
My inspiration comes from everywhere. Early on the PBS series of Jacques Cousteau’s underwater world had a profound influence on me. Carl Sagan’s mind-expanding view of the universe opened me. I immersed myself in Mythology reading “The Golden Bough ” by James Frazer. Joseph Campbell’s works, “The Sacred and the Profane” by Mircea Eliade and any books I could find about early man, cave paintings, and ancient cultures. I am an avid reader. Many worlds are open to me.

What inspires me is every artist that ever lived: Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Renaissance art, reading books, Henry Miller, trees swaying in the wind, water flowing, wild weather, my dogs, the desert, mountains, the smell of honeysuckle, plum cake, human frailty, the unknown, my family, friends, harmony, eastern thought, frogs, crows, colors behind my eyelids, tequila, first flowers of spring, sunsets, coyotes howling, poets, music, chocolate, the moon rising, holding hands, the Grand Canyon, digging in the dirt, a happy woman, spring peepers, a great meal, watching birds, yoga, sea urchins, beer, honey bees, walking at dawn, ocean waves, campfires, laughter. Life provides infinite possibilities. That thought itself is inspiring.

How do you make a living, and include creativity in your work life?
My father was an interior designer who had a cabinet shop. When I was a student at Carnegie Tech, over the break, my dad commissioned me, to make something for one of his clients (table, wall art). I went back to Tech with some cash in my pocket, whoopee paint and beer money. After graduation, I moved to California and built a playground for a preschool with my good friend. We made some crazy stuff for the kids to play on.

The summer of ’67 was over. I moved to Colorado and lived as part of a commune. I proceeded to freak out, shaved my head and came back East to find my self.

In 1968 I moved to N.Y.C rented an apartment on E. 4th St. between 2nd and 3rd. I rented a store opposite my flat. I scrounged plywood from the streets and built one-of-a-kind tables. Soon enough I wanted out of the city. I felt trapped. I bought a truck, renovated it into a camper and drove to Mexico with a friend. After months on the road, I settled in Santa Fe where I got a job as a counter salesman for a plumbing supply company. I collected the wood from pallets the pipe came on and built a table. I was sure I could sell to a furniture company for a lot of money back east.

With this delusion in mind, I settled in Pittsburgh and moved in with a friend. I built some furniture on a back porch and sold them to a steel exec. Returning to New Jersey, I rented a studio and started to construct one-of-a-kind tables. I sold them to Interior Designers. Then I began making cabinets. I was finally making a living. I always did my artwork at night. I felt the woodworking was a hobby, and Art was my secret vocation. Somehow I managed to balance both worlds. I was unhappy at times. I wanted to be a full time painter. I did creative woodwork and I enjoyed that.

What advise would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to make better health choices. I made a lot of wrong health choices and here I am, damaged but still standing. Also, when my father asked me to create a series of paintings for a hotel he was decorating in Jamaica, I was a young artist then, my friends and I didn’t want to sell out, we wanted to be pure in our art. Today I would tell my younger self to do the fucking paintings, you idiot. I could have done them my way, but you know it was my father, the establishment.

Looking back what might you have done differently?
I have no regrets. I have a family, a beautiful place to live. Every day is a wonder.

At this point now, I would like to sell my work. I just don’t know how to go about it. I like the idea of doing the “MINDERINGS” books though.

How would you advise young artists starting out in their career?
Pursue your vision. Do what you have to do and do it with love and compassion. Be true to yourself. Find a patron.

View more of Don Stettner’s work on his website: www.donstettner.com or on his Instagram feed at #donstettner.