A first-person account from off the beaten track,
as told to Anne Ford.
“Charles Steffen was my uncle. He had a breakdown in 1952, when he was in his early 20s and in art school. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and institutionalized at Elgin State Hospital.
After he got out in 1963, he lived with his mother. His sister Rita and his brother George lived there too. The father had died. There was another brother, Francis, who had also been institutionalized, and he would come back every once in a while. They had a room for him in the basement, and they would unlock the basement door and let him in, but they would lock the door at the top of the basement. Yeah, it was kind of a crazy house.
But we always knew Charles as being very gentle. He was on medication that kept him pretty straight. He worked every day on his drawings at a big dining room table. He bought brown wrapping paper from Walgreens in a roll about 30 inches wide by 30 feet long, and he produced two or three drawings a day, mostly of his mother or some plants, sometimes of abstract things or nudes.
He never had, as far as I know, any relationship with a woman. So he was naive about drawing female anatomy, so much so that he would just leave it blank. Like there’s a drawing of a nude, and there’s just nothing drawn in between the legs.
His family didn’t think much of his work at all. They thought he was wasting his time. At best they figured they’d let him draw just because it was therapy: “Well, it keeps him off the street.”
The drawings started to pile up. Every few years he got rid of some of them, and whether his sister made him throw them away because she thought they were a fire hazard, or he thought they were no good and burned them, I’m not sure.
His mother died in ’95, and George, Rita, and Charles had lived together for 60-some years and were tired of it. So they all went their own ways. Charles went to a small men’s home in Uptown. He didn’t have any room. He had this big pile of drawings, and they would have thrown them away.
When I found out what was going on, I talked to Charles and convinced him to let my wife and I store them—two carloads of drawings, all rolled up. Then he died after surgery for throat cancer. I knew I wanted to do something with his drawings, but I didn’t know exactly what, so I decided to catalog them.
We started showing his work in 2006. He wrote on every drawing, and he always wrote about wanting a show, but he didn’t know how to go about doing it. So part of what I’ve been trying to do is give him the show he wanted. His estate is represented now by Russell Bowman Art Advisory here in Chicago.”