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Sara Steele is a Philadelphia-based American watercolorist, best known for florals and landscapes as well as more abstract works. A self-taught artist, she cites 19th and 20th century American painters like Georgia O'Keeffe as her influences. She also incorporates elements of Chinese philosophy and medicine into her art. Steele has been active in supporting a number of social causes, especially pertaining to women's rights and the environment.
Steele describes herself as "wild about color" from an early age. At the age of ten, she became interested in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and decorated her room with poster reproductions of his work. World of Watercolors describes Steele as a self-taught artist. By the time she was an early teen, she was interested in a broad range of artists, both representational and abstract, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Mark Rothko, Georgia O'Keeffe, Yves Klein, Charles Sheeler, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and Robert Motherwell. She took art classes in high school where she received encouragement as an artist from one of her teachers. Steele initially intended to become a medical doctor, but became an artist as a result of "unexpected twists and turns."
Steele's primary medium is watercolor, and her paintings fluctuate between representational and abstract work. Her work has received considerable media notice in the metropolitan Philadelphia area. One art critic describes her work as packing the "chromatic punch of a high-voltage current." As her career evolved, Steele moved from smaller flower studies described as "demure" to large-scale work that has been described as "bold."
Steele did a benefit exhibit in support of Women Against Abuse, a non-profit organization that fights domestic abuse. A small exhibit of her work was staged at the James E. Hogwood Memorial Building in Philadelphia. In this show, Steele exhibited abstract work, some of which incorporated text and original poetry. The show reflected on Steele's childhood experience of abuse. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, she said that the work in this show was part of her healing process. A larger exhibit of this work was exhibited at the inauguration of the new PECO building in Philadelphia.
Steele has exhibited her work in over sixty solo shows and many more invitational, juried, and group shows. She frequently works on commission. She has been exhibited at Ursinus College's Phillip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art outside Philadelphia. In commenting on this show, one Philadelphia art critic described Steele's style as, not so much art for its own sake, but "art that believes it should be directly rooted in the social and political realities around it." A mid-career survey featured eighty of her pieces.
Steele has contributed to several public art projects. In 2005, the City of Philadelphia commissioned Steele to participate in the City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program. She created a work titled "Bioluminescence" which is an abstraction of underwater forms in the Caribbean and was inspired by Steele's visit there. In 2006, as part of a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Zoo, Steele painted an eleven-foot tall cast resin sculpture of an elephant. The elephant was sold to private buyers at auction, but it has been displayed in a way that can be seen by the public. Before it was moved, it was a frequent stop for visitors to Mount Airy.
Steele considers her work influenced by Chinese medicine and philosophy. In her book, In Bloom: The Floral Art of Sara Steele, she cites the I Ching references to "the natural law of movement along the path of least resistance" which she sees in the blossoming of a gladiolus. In the introduction to In Bloom, Terri Cohn notes that Steele couples her imagery with Chinese writing, especially Chinese characters: "The pervasive Asian sensibility of much of her flower painting places her as deserving heir to centuries of serious interpretation of some of nature's most perfect forms."
Steele is also a gardener whose hands-on work with plants fuels her work in flower painting. In her book In Bloom, Steele writes that gardening "helps me stay connected to beauty and simplicity."
Books and calendars
Steele has illustrated two books. Sara Steele: Blueprints For Paradise, published in 2005 in conjunction with the Berman exhibition, includes landscapes, still lives, and abstractions illustrating the breadth of her work. In Bloom: The Floral Art of Sara Steele, published in 1995, showcases floral paintings. In Bloom: The Floral Art of Sara Steele was published by Cedco Publishing Company in San Rafael, California and Sara Steele: Blueprints For Paradise was published by Tide-mark Press, Ltd. in Windsor, Connecticut. She also publishes an annual full-color illustrated calendar which features her work.
Throughout her career, Steele has made in-kind contributions to scores of charitable organizations, many of which advocate for women. With funding from the Philadelphia Foundation, she has given multiple workshops for women who have experienced personal violence. Her work with the Clothesline Project has been exhibited in Philadelphia's City Hall Courtyard and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She has also supported the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the National Clearinghouse in Defense of Battered Women, MANNA, Action AIDS, the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, SANE/Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and Women Against Abuse. Steele frequently cites the power of art to heal. In 1997, with the help of a grant, she became the first Artist-in-Residency at Friends Hospital, a private non-profit psychiatric hospital.
Steele was commissioned to create a series of paintings featuring endangered orchids for the National Wildlife Federation which, she says, appealed strongly to her environmental ethos. Her research included reading botanical journals and scientific papers and interviewing experts. In her book In Bloom: The Floral Art of Sara Steele, she notes that "I came away with a deeper understanding of the complex economic and political issues that impact the destruction of Earth's ecosystems."
Steele is the winner of several awards including the Peace and Freedom Award from Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Distinguished Alumna Award granted by the Citizens' Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia, and the Brandt F. Steele Aesthetic Award for Promotion of Peace and Prevention of Violence awarded by the Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
- "Sara Steele Interview". World of Watercolors. Artist Magazine. Archived from the original on March 29, 2014. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- "Sara Steele: Watercolors". Baltimore Sun. 2014. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- Sozanski, Edward (5 August 2005). "Watercolors With a Wallop: It's Their Hues". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- Donohoe, Victoria (12 June 2005). "Show at Berman is a first for this watercolor artist". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- Klein, Julia (18 March 1992). "Drawing Out Painful Memories The Works In A One-woman Art Exhibit Debuting Today At A Ceremony Sponsored By Women Against Abuse". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- Angelino, Gloria. "Sara Steele – Spotlighted Artist". Web. Artist Magazine. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- Wilson, John C. "Sara Steele: Watercolors" (PDF). Web. Maryland University of Integrative Health. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- "The story behind Mt. Airy's Bioluminescence mural". NewsWorks. 14 May 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
- "Sara Steele's Painted Elephant". The Women Artists of So. Cal. Announcement. So. California Women's Caucus for the Arts. Retrieved 27 March 2014.
- In bloom : the floral art of Sara Steele. (1st ed.). San Rafael, CA: Cedco Pub. Co. 1994. ISBN 1559125047.
- Steele, Sara (2005). Sara Steele : blueprints for paradise : the watercolor paintings of Sara Steele. (1st ed.). Windsor, Conn.: Tide-mark Press, Ltd. ISBN 1594901171.
- Lucas, Renee V. (14 October 1988). "Artistic Women Week-long Fest At La Salle". Philadelphia Daily News. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- "Sara Steele Biography". Artist Magazine. Gloria Angelino & World of Watercolor. Retrieved 24 March 2014.