Why did this man give up riches and fame to start all over?
By Richard Zitrin
It's a Monday night on Anderson Avenue, an old industrial area in Rochester's Neighborhood of the Arts. Inside Steve Carpenter's art studio, a nude model sits as 15 students put his form on canvas. Carpenter walks through the room, smiling and talking to the artists, the rumble of a passing train in the background.
It might seem like a humble scene to anyone who knows Carpenter's resume, from his days as a young illustrator working for Walt Disney himself to a 30-year art career in Monaco as a favorite of rich and famous Monte Carlo royalty. Yet it's right here in Rochester that Carpenter has found his slice of Shangri-La.
Nine years ago, at the age of 55, Carpenter left everything behind in Monaco and moved here to start anew. A Buddhist, Carpenter knew Rochester only from visiting the Rochester Zen Center. But he proceeded to build an art school and gallery from scratch, developing a strong following that has grown to 300 students-all while working on his own painting.
'Rochester is a jewel,' he says passionately. "I have so many friends here whose values coincide with what I care about: the quest of truth through your art, through your being, through who you are. In Monaco, I'd leave a party and be completely void. There was nothing-my energy would just go out. Here I come away from (my studio) and I'm completely full. You've got to experience the other to appreciate this."
Still, when the fact comes up that he left Monaco and a villa overlooking the sea to come to Rochester, people are incredulous. 'It's probably easier to say I'm a felon, a fugitive," Carpenter says. "I just tell people it's a long story, that I really appreciated that experience.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: "soul fire", "inblue water woods", "realm of the unknown".
ORGANIC: Carpenter paints multiple layers, tosses water on still-wet canvases to add crevices, and sands the dried surface: "It's like nature."
I had a lot of friends in different parts of Europe and I go back every year. But I'd rather dip in there, come back here. This is really a place where you can rebuild your strength. I'm as happy as I've ever been. I just love it here".
He arrived here by taking roads less traveled-a penchant for risk-taking that he partly attributes, to not having parents telling him what he could or couldn't do. Carpenter was 8 living in Portland, 0re., when his father abandoned him, his older brother and his mother. His mother had trouble coping, and Carpenter was put in an orphanage. He was in and out of foster homes all the way through high school.
He had to earn his own money, sometimes hawking newspapers on street corners or busing restaurant tables. He also developed a talent for drawing, that he parlayed into pocket money. He entered any art contest he could find, sometimes winning $10, other times $20.
When he was 12, Carpenter won a two-week scholarship to the Portland Art Museum, where he was introduced to impressionists and art history. Carpenter was hooked. He immersed himself in his painting and drawing and, as a high school senior, won a scholarship to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
He stayed in Chicago only a year, though, because he felt school wasn't serious enough. He returned to the West coast, got a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and realized he had a dream: to become a painter and go to Europe to visit the museums and study the masters.
Two years later he quit school again and went to work for Walt Disney Company as an illustrator, working on such projects as the rooftop scene for the movie Mary Poppins and Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride when it was a concept. He also delivered for a fast-food restaurant at night to save up money.
After about a year at Disney, the 20-year-old adventurer strapped on a backpack. He started at the steps of the Disney Studio in Burbank and hitchhiked to New York City to catch a boat to France. For a year he painted and hitchhiked throughout southern Europe before landing a job with an ad agency in Paris. He continued to paint, his passion for the masters reflected in his lyrical abstract works, mixing organic and human forms to suggest a unity of life.
"You let the painting paint itself'', says. Carpenter, who tosses water at wet canvases and sands his surfaces when dry to introduce nature's effect on his works.
In his mid-20's, Carpenter married a Frenchwoman and lived in Paris, but eventually he wanted out of the city. "I was getting fed up with Paris," He says."It's such a difficult town. The people are so aggressive. I didn't want to become like the Parisians. But I was getting more and more aggressively.
Carpenter and his wife left for Monaco, where he got a job teaching at the American School in Monte Carlo. He opened a gallery and was an immediate hit, selling. all 15 pieces at his first show.
"It was amazing," Carpenter says. "I thought, maybe I can make a living at this."
On his own, he drew a poster of Monte Carlo and took it to the local tourism office. The officials liked it and bought it for "a song." But it brought great exposure. Even Princess Grace saw the poster and extended an invitation to meet the artist. Carpenter had arrived. He says he became somewhat famous in Monaco, appearing on TV hanging out with the in-crowd, rubbing elbows with the royal family and A-listers such as Cary Grant, Ringo Starr and Michael Douglas. And his artwork was being shown in galleries throughout Europe.
Eventually, though, Carpenter tired of that life. "In Monaco, if you're at a party, they're looking at your clothes while they're talking to you. Then they see someone else in the room and they're looking over there.''
'NANCY'. Influnced by his teaching, Carpenter has been doing more figure painting. (right) MECA gatherings have proven popular.
The next MECA event, 7 p.m. on Feb. 5, will move to the School of the Arts to feature choreographer Thomas Warfield. The event Is free and open to the public, with a wine and cheese reception following.
He stopped accepting invitations and shut himself off in the villa he helped build, but his wife, he says, liked the fast life. They decided to divorce after their two daughters were done with their education. When he left, he says he gave the $1.5 million villa to his family.
He arrived in Rochester in debt, alone, jobless. But that wasn't bound to last long.
He could go anywhere and talk to anybody,'' says Leroy Boyer, of Portland, one of two childhood friends Carpenter still stays in touch with. "He's very charismatic, very sensitive and very attuned to other people and their needs and wants. Steve would be successful at anything he did."
Carpenter began teaching art at the Memorial Art Gallery and quickly developed a strong following. He decided to start his own school in Village Gate Square. When he outgrew that space, his artist-friendly landlord, Gary Stern, worked with him to create a 3,200-square-foot studio, school and gallery in an old rag factory around the corner on Anderson Avenue.
The art center is a second home for Carpenter, who lives in Brighton with his wife, Judy, a children's librarian he met at the Zen Center. He's at his studio every day, painting, teaching and setting up shows. Six times a year, he also hosts the Monday Evening Cultural Arts (MECA) lecture series, the brainchild of student and friend Kate Lipsky. Artists and presenters from all disciplines are booked to talk and initiate what amounts to an art salon. The gatherings, open to the public, are a taste of what drew Lipsky to the studio in the first place.
Lipsky points to Carpenter's ''remarkable energy'' and calls him a gentle soul. 'He's just a really giving, open person '' she says. "I want to surround myself with people who are life-affirming, and Steve is the epitome of life-affirming.''
In addition to collaborations with artists in different media, Carpenter wants to enlist local artists for exchanges with artists in other cities such as New York and Toronto. I love promoting my students, I love promoting the arts '' he says. "It's just pure joy.''
And his motives are genuine, says University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank, who meets with Carpenter regularly to share ideas.
"He's not into being shrewd," says Frank. ''He's into being who he is and doing the work that really speaks his own truth. His story's so great, full of kings and princes and rich people-and yet he's such an easygoing, straightforward, honest guy."
Naturally he's not making as much money as he did in Europe. But teaching has brought him deeper riches.
"My goal always has been to help people, to be of service," he says. "I thought I could do it in my next life. Now, here 1 am of service in this life."
The original article appeared in the January - February 2007 issue of Rochester Magazine and was written by Richard Zitrin.