Stephen Littlefield

A Florida Artist’s Life

by Karen Andreas

Florida Native Stephen Littlefield always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. The middle child, he was always drawing and painting, including those paint by numbers kits. Creative from the very beginning, he painted outside the lines and found no satisfaction with the colors the paint by numbers kits provided. His already discerning eye was looking ahead. “Art,” says Steve, “is not a good way to make a living but it’s a wonderful way to make a life.” Indeed.

Throughout his youth, camping and fishing were important parts of his life, and the Florida landscape began to figure in his art. Even today, Steve finds inspiration in the bromeliad gardens in the back yard of his Clearwater home. Steve shares this 1925 bungalow with wife Kathy; they are owned by two cats, Max the tiger and EB, a shy black and white.

As a young man, while working at a stereo store, Steve sold a sound system to Dr. Morris Dexter, a legendary figure in the Florida bromeliad community. That lead to house sitting for the Dexters during the 1970s, and it was through that association that Steve was introduced to bromeliads.

Before each house sitting stint, Steve and Dr. Dexter would walk through the Dexter yard, and Dr. Dexter would talk about the bromeliads in that famed landscape. “I wish I had asked more questions,” Steve reminisces, “but I was like an ant talking to God. Dr. Dexter was very intimidating.” One day, Dr. Dexter asked Steve if he would like a bromeliad and which one. Steve’s immediate reply was he would like a Vriesea ‘Red Chestnut’. “No,” replied the good doctor, “you will kill it.” Regardless of the doctor’s opinion, Steve says he has since killed a bunch of ‘Red Chestnut’ but also grown his fair share. His first block print was a Vr. ‘Red Chestnut’, and friendshave noticed its prevalence in his art and yard in the ensuing years.

Steve and Kathy joined Florida West Coast Bromeliad Society in 1994; Steve won an award for a wood cut at the World Bromeliad Conference, which lead to Bud Martin asking Steve to design the Orlandiana 1996 poster. Steve also was enjoying success selling his bromeliad print t-shirts at world conferences. These experiences all combined to launch his bromeliad art life.

Steve started out as a painter but he was introduced to printmaking at the University of South Florida. He first took a lithography class but found there was too much process involved. When he took etching, however, his interest took off. One of the strong appeals in this art form, Steve says, is that you can “keep a piece and sell it or give it away, unlike a painting that is one of a kind.” In 1979, a friend suggested that they build an etching press; since then, he has built six. One of his presses now resides at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, where he has been teaching for 21 years.

There he taught drawing for two years and turned to woodcuts, an art form at least 1000 years old, and lino (linoleum) cuts. After eight years, the Center put in sinks used for etching: Steve then turned to teaching intaglio, a traditional printmaking process nearly 400 years old. No electricity is needed, the work is all hand done. Steve is drawn to this process for its purity, its historical and cultural heritage, and its expressiveness.

Steve’s preference of working in black and white is two-fold. The first is that he is attracted to the different and sometimes surreal shapes and forms of bromeliads. Steve does not regard himself as a botanical illustrator. Rather it is the purely visual that excites the artist that he is. Steve says, “The color I put into a picture is never as good or as complete as in your mind’s eye. Color changes with the light and change of day.

Black and white is akin to listening to the radio; you know the subject, and it is up to your own imagination to fill in the rest; it’s visual radio.”

Secondly there is the delight and satisfaction of good design. Steve has been doing much of his art in black and white for 25 years now and believes that the work he has done has only strengthened his design skills. “You can hide bad design with color,” he says, “but there is no place to hide in black and white.” He returned to painting when his nephew asked him to paint a 6’ x 28’ mural in his restaurant. He painted three walls in the restaurant as a bromeliad shade house. Steve had always painted in oil but that was his introduction to acrylic painting. After the first 12 feet of the mural, he understood the properties of acrylic paint. The third painting after that experience became the World Bromeliad Conference poster for San Francisco in 2000.

Each wood cut or lino cut starts as a pencil drawing. Bromeliads from his own collection remain a great source of inspiration. Then Steve slips on his headphones – he loves books on tape – and begins the long intricate process of carving. He finds this to be a meditative process: “It is what I call the Ecstasy of Tedium,” Steve says. “Having someone read to you, well, not much is better than that.”

Steve’s art ranges from the figurative to the surreal. Magritte and Escher have been influences. The detail of Escher is clearly reflected in Steve’s wood and linocuts; in “A Vriesea for Mr. Magritte”, the viewer immediate recognizes the homage. Steve also has worked in metal. His aluminum pineapples and Tillandsias have found their ways into landscapes – both in the ground and as hanging art.

His bromeliad print t-shirts are well-traveled beyond the United States. “I have t-shirts all over the world: South Africa, Australia, Japan, Europe,” Steve says. That’s a pretty wide distribution.

Each year, Steve can be found at the Tropiflora Spring and Fall Sales, carving linoleum. “I always have a block I carve; in the fall, I am carving a block you will see in the spring; in the spring, it is the project that will be seen in the fall. There I get to see all my bromeliad friends and have an out of town weekend.” Steve speaks with great affection of so many people in our bromeliad community, including Wally Berg, Faye O’Rourke, Michael Kiehl, Dennis Cathcart. A current and surreal bromeliad painting he is working on includes an affectionate homage to Harry Luther.

Steve reflects, “I really am one of the luckiest people, and no more so than in having Kathy as my partner. She has been tremendously supportive of my art and shares my passion for bromeliads. I cut pups, she pots them, another great part of our partnership.

“I am living a better life through horticulture.”

Look for Steve as a vendor at the 20th World Bromeliad Conference in Orlando in September.

Some of Stephen's Art is shown below.
14th WBC Poster
14th World Bromeliad
Conference Poster
Imagining Gaea
Imagining Gaea
Mezzotint
Tillandsia xerographica
Tillandsia xerographica
Mezzotint
Tillandsia fasciculata 'Tropiflora'
Tillandsia fasciculata 'Tropiflora'
Acrylic Painting
On the Other Hand
On the Other Hand
Acrylic Painting
Aechmea fasciata
Aechmea fasciata
Painting
Floating xerographica
Floating xerographica
Painting


http://fcbs.org/