Small birds frequently find their way into Wanda Steppe's paintings. Perched on the edge of a bowl, preparing to land on the slim limb of a tree, or peering into a cup of tea, our fine feathered friends dart in and out of each image. But Steppe says, "It's never about the birds. I'm the bird, I'm all the other objects in the painting, too — the fruit, the flowers, the padlock and key. The paintings are about my personal history."
Much of Steppe's history includes making art. The Rock Hill-based artist has been painting for 32 years and recently found herself moving away from realism. "It's liberating, and I like that idea of combining my imagination with real objects," she says. Calling her work metaphorical, she says she is drawn to magical realism and influenced by the stories of author Gabriel García Márquez. In "Phoebe," a small bird is perched on a pencil-thin line looking down at three red pears pressed together in a triangle. The perfect pears exemplify Steppe's precise technical ability, but the odd, zig-zagging line offers a hint of something more. In the past, Steppe says she wouldn't have left a painting in this seemingly unfinished state, but now she finds this process freeing.
The suggestion of other worlds and a sense of ambiguity are reflected throughout her latest exhibit, Bird's Eye View. "The objects I choose to paint all represent an idea about life and are not meant to be portraits of things," she says. "In other words, for me, sometimes the birds represent innate knowledge, the kind we all have but question. Sometimes they represent fragility and uncertainty and also strength." In "Cherries," two birds are nestled close together on the edge of a blue bowl. Inside the bowl is a small nest, and seen from above, the birds seem to represent comfort or shelter. The perspective is somewhat dizzying and feels as if we are witnessing something private between the two, as if we are privileged to have this unique bird's eye view.
Steppe has recently begun incorporating old pieces of wood from her studio into her paintings. "The wood gets splattered and battered, and I thought it would be interesting to show the history of my work," she says. "It was a challenge to figure out how to prime the wood without covering the surface, but I think I've finally got it," she laughs. "Now you can see bits of other works that went before."
One could surmise that by incorporating the wood into her work, Steppe is holding onto the past as she moves toward the great unknown, but she says it doesn't really matter how other people see her work. While certain themes or symbols are universal, the story is personal. "I love it when people come into my studio and to hear what they see in my work. They look at the paintings with their own eyes, and what they see is fascinating to me," she says. "My thinking at the moment goes into the canvas and the painting naturally changes — if I'm honest. That's the difficult part, being honest."
Standing on the platform of realism, Steppe is following her imagination and climbing to another, more obscure level of personal expression. Like the magical writings of Márquez, Steppe's birds are not birds at all but symbols of human nature.