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Community remembers artist, curator John Steffl

John Steffl looked at your eyes when you were talking to him. "You were the important person. He dealt with you directly," said Ken Bloom, the director of the Tweed Museum of Art. "And you'd always come away feeling a little enlightened or a litt...

John Steffl funs around in one of the exhibit rooms of the Duluth Art Institute in 2001. Steffl died last week. (News Tribune file photo)
John Steffl funs around in one of the exhibit rooms of the Duluth Art Institute in 2001. Steffl died last week. (News Tribune file photo)
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John Steffl looked at your eyes when you were talking to him.

"You were the important person. He dealt with you directly," said Ken Bloom, the director of the Tweed Museum of Art. "And you'd always come away feeling a little enlightened or a little uplifted. Or more."

John Steffl, an artist and champion of the arts, died Friday in his home after a long battle with cancer. He was 69. Steffl both studied and taught at the University of Minnesota Duluth, spent more than a decade at the Duluth Art Institute - where there is a gallery named for him - and later taught at the College of St. Scholastica.

There will be no funeral service, according to an obituary published in Wednesday's News Tribune.

Friends remembered him as an advocate and organizer.

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"He was not egoless. He was a very strong person and he had a very strong sense of what he felt were qualities that he felt made good work," Bloom said. "But he also had an exceptionally compassionate feel for anyone who stepped out to make something that didn't exist before and try to understand where it was coming from."

Three things are required to have a good art market, Bloom said: a good media core to get the word out, an educated community who can appreciate art and buyers who can afford it.

"It's like three legs of that stool, you have to have that to be able to build an effective art industry," he said. "And in our area, since we're not New York, we have to build all of that notoriety and communicate the importances of these works and try to attract the support systems ourselves.

"And when you're talking about John Steffl, you're talking about a person who was able to pull all of that together."

Bloom was introduced to Steffl 14 years ago through another community-minded individual, Larry Johnson. The retired owner of North Shore Bank had history with Steffl going back more than 25 years.

"I don't know what it was, but something connected us and we just became really dear friends," Johnson said. "He really was instrumental in helping North Shore Bank with the arts."

The two merged visual creativity and finance through a series of viewings at the bank that they called "The Intersection of Art and Commerce."

While the bank had a long tradition of supporting local artists, Steffl helped grow the reputation of the bank-turned-gallery's shows. "He took them to a whole new level," Johnson said.

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Bloom said the geographic distinctions that often defined whether someone had greater or less perceived status didn't matter to Steffl. He believed that the idea of a "local artist" was meaningless and that all art was local, according to Bloom.

"Essentially saying, 'There's every reason to take an artist in our area as seriously as you might to someone who happens to have more notoriety from another location,'" Bloom said.

Steffl often met artists through his position as executive director of the Duluth Art Institute, a title he held for 12 years. Described by Bloom as a "wise observer," he also met and networked with other artists at galleries around the area.

That networking included Jeff Schmidt, owner of Lizzards Art Gallery and Framing in downtown Duluth. Working as the manager of the gallery when he met Steffl in 1999, he admired the man for not just his ability to manage and enable artists, but for his skill as well.

"He's been an arts figure in Duluth longer than I've been around, not only for his administrative abilities. I admired him for his ability as an artist," Schmidt said. "He was showing his paintings in Lizzards when I first started working at the gallery, and I was just in awe of them."

Even when his health complications started years ago, Steffl continued flexing his creative muscle in other ways, transitioning from painting to photography and digital art.

"I always thought of John as being somebody who contributed in making the world of visual art a more accessible and an enriching experience for the residents of the community," Johnson said.

In lieu of a funeral service, Steffl requested donations be sent to the Duluth Art Institute and Tweed Museum of Art, in hope of fostering continued growth for the profession and the people immersed in it.

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John Steffl (left) and Linda Hebenstreit stand in front of the newly erected sign on the Steffl Gallery at the Duluth Art Institute in 2002.
John Steffl (left) and Linda Hebenstreit stand in front of the newly erected sign on the Steffl Gallery at the Duluth Art Institute in 2002.

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