J.Steven Manolis may have arrived at a career in painting late in the game, but he’s approaching his newfound profession with characteristic intensity. “Full on, all in” is his motto.
“I have the energy of a triathlete, but apply it to work,” he says. It’s something that served Manolis well during his previous lengthy career on Wall Street.
The 71-year-old, Miami-based artist has only been painting full time for four years, yet he spends seven days a week in his studio, from dawn until dusk, making up for lost time. For several decades before that, he gained momentum by taking art lessons from German-born and Vermont-based landscape artist Wolf Kahn and creating hundreds of paintings for friends.
So far, his works, which range in size from diminutive 10-by-10-inch to enormous 8-by-34-foot quadriptychs, appear in the collections of more than 350 businesses and homes, including seven he gave to the University of South Dakota, his alma mater, and seven he gifted to The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut.
Manolis’ abstract expressionist paintings explode with color, reflecting their creators’ trademark intensity. He has about 25 series in total; one of his major bodies of work is titled REDWORLD, in honor of the driving color in many of his paintings and his philosophy on life. Manolis’ chosen tools are acrylics and watercolors, and he uses a number of techniques, such as splashing paint on the canvas from above, then applying more layers of color and symbology while it’s upright.
Concentric rings, lines and other patterns are reminiscent of crop circles. Much like the mysterious formations, his work is coded with meaning, transmitting subconscious data to the viewer, he hopes. “If art doesn’t communicate, it’s decorative, weak art,” Manolis says. Concentric circles signify social justice and non-discrimination on the basis of religious, racial, gender, sexual or cultural identifiers, Manolis explains. “This is what people are killing about day in and day out around the world. If we took away discrimination, 90 percent of the killings would go down,” he says. “Or with women who do the same job and get paid less. It’s all discrimination.”
Additionally, he always depicts his concentric circles and parallel groupings of lines in a series of five or 10. “I have five children and five grandchildren, and I paint them into every work,” he says. “My grandkids try to see how many places in a painting they can find themselves.” The internet is represented with another symbol that Manolis created—a small circle anchored at the base of a larger circle.
“The internet is the most extraordinary thing in the history of mankind,” Manolis says, emphatically. “Free information—it’s the most powerful thing in the world.”
The artist communicates through his use of color as well. A large body of his work will be on display at the Washington Pavilion Museum in Sioux Falls from February through May 2020, in an exhibition titled Communicating Through Color, which will also explore the Native American connection to color.
Manolis’ artwork is bold and rendered in vibrant, saturated hues. In a recent commission from Helander Studio, he was tasked with depicting the natural beauty of South Florida’s sunrises and sunsets. What resulted was an abstract study of light and color at various times of the day; Monet’s Haystacks paintings were an inspiration. Manolis’ series Palm Beach Light will be on display at Fritz Gallery in Palm Beach, Florida, in April.
So far, Manolis has completed 16 solo exhibitions, 14 group shows and 15 corporate installations. Citigroup is a big fan of his work. In addition to the Citigroup-backed museum show in his home state of South Dakota, Manolis will also mount an exhibition in the revamped lobby of Citigroup headquarters in New York, beginning Fall 2020.
Manolis approaches his art with a type of ambition not commonly seen. “I want to be this generation’s de Kooning,” he says— although he would settle for the recognition of Pollock or Rothko—the three top-earning artists, according to Manolis’ count.
“I’m the golden boy,” Manolis states confidently. He was a state champion golfer and salutatorian of his high school in South Dakota, and later worked in the mortgage securities industry after becoming a partner at a major firm in Manhattan at age 32. All the while, he played in a rock band that formed in the 1960s. “I played from 1963 until 1970. I rejoined the group in 2011 and played until 2017,” Manolis says.
Despite only devoting the last four years to painting as a full-time endeavor, Manolis has always been an artist. “As a kid, I drew everything,” he says. “When I was 8 years old, I told my family I wanted to be an artist.” His grandfather forbid it, telling his young grandson that he would not become a “communist.” It prompted Manolis to pursue his first career on Wall Street.
Despite a circuitous route, Manolis has finally found his way back. Perhaps subconsciously that’s why he’s drawn to depicting concentric rings in his work— everything in his life has come full circle.
Alaena Hostetter is a Dallas-based journalist who writes about her favorite things: art, design, culture, music, entertainment and food.