My friend Jan Steendam died on Nov. 29, 2016.
I’ve been struggling to write a small tribute to him almost since I heard the news. Enough! A blog post does not have to be a literary masterpice – not that I have achieved that aim so far. Just sayin’. Just do it!
This man Jan slipped away from life without my getting to say a proper goodbye. Last time we spoke, last fall, he was beginning his first cycle of dialysis.
What I know about Jan is only what he told me.
By the time we met at Landmark Education in 2011 he had had many careers. Once I knew him as an artist, this is how I identified him.
But he worked for the Federal Government for long enough to claim a small pension at the end of his life. He had more than once been a gallery owner (New York and Baltimore, I think.) He still painted, in spacious studios in the beautiful house in the suburbs of Baltimore that he and his wife Peggy shared.
By the time I went to that house I had left corporate PR and was representing visual artists. We negotiated casually. Like all artists, he just wanted to paint, not market or sell the works.
We first met in the D.C. Landmark Center’s 7-month Introduction Leader’s Program, the year I became an Introduction Leader – pulled through the program kicking and screaming by Jan, and others – Center Manager Cindy, Papa Chuck the Landmark Forum Registration Manager.
Jan and I tussled throughout. We were so much alike in temperament. I would not call it clashing. But he would get so impatient with me and say, “Goddamit you’re being an asshole. That’s your machinery talking.” “Fuck you,” I can remember replying, at least once, fuming! “No, fuck YOU!” I’m pretty sure he replied.
And then I’d have to laugh (I mean, really!) and we’d cuss back and forth a few more times and then we’d talk it through. How it happened that we were eventually so close that I was a guest at his home, I can’t remember. But that’s the first time I saw the art, and our relationship shifted.
I guess I’d call his art “whimsical,” much like he was himself. Indonesian and Dutch by heritage; he’d gone to Holland from Indonesia as a small boy, perhaps 11 years old. Or maybe he told me 16 or 17. I can’t remember. I imagine that in Holland he did not look very Dutch and in Indonesia he did not look Indonesian. Just guessing. And I can only imagine what this must have been like for a boy in the 1940s and ’50s.
By the end of his life he was my height, which is 5’1″. I wonder if he ever clocked 5’4″. Yet there was a sexiness about him that made me imagine that in younger days he was quite the player; he had the presence of a lover, much as scrawny little Italians manage to do. A native sexiness comprised mostly of joie de vivre and je ne ses qais. Maybe it’s a European thing. Maybe it’s just a trait some humans have. It’s a twinkle in the eye. It attracts.
And then there’s the art. So delicate. So sensual. So many naked people. Huh. Jan! I got you.
Oh, how long and hard he agonized over whether, and then how, to display his works online. He feared, quite rightly, today’s rampant, careless piracy.
“Should I watermark them?” he fretted. How? Where do you place the mark to discourage the digital thief, but so that it does not disrupt the work? Back and forth, back and forth. I reckon he thought that I, as some kind of PR person, ought to know.
Sadly, I did not. All my artist friends were dealing with these Digital Age challenges. Some give it all away for fame. Exposure. To become, hopefully, known within their lifetime. Some will only show in galleries, and so have chosen to become known the old fashioned way, one person at a time.
While I suppose I could call Peggy and ask for clean photos of these paintings – this watermark figured so prominently in my conversations with Jan at the beginning of our friendship that I’m just going to leave them there. I love them. The work is branded thus.
I do not know the rest: how he got to America. To New York. To Baltimore. And now I won’t get a chance to ask him.
Because Landmark was our common ground, many of those years of conversation I suppose were consumed with existential discussions of the true nature of Integrity, and all like that. Or maybe I prattled on all the time – about my children, my job, my various suffering; too self absorbed to really get in his world? I don’t know.
If consciousness is as pure as I believe, Jan will know how much I miss him. He was regarded more highly than he might have imagined with his human mind, by someone who just loved his spirit.
See more of Jan’s art at his fledgling Facebook page.