Story by Sally P. Kohne.
The following was written in collaboration with McMaster University’s Art History 4X03 course, Winter 2020. Lead by Dr. Angela Sheng and BCL’s Alexis Moline, students conducted first hand research on their chosen subjects and many had the opportunity to meet with the artists in person. BCL gratefully appreciates the care and dedication the students demonstrated in forging personal and engaging stories in collaboration with the artists in their Hamilton community.
EARLY YEARS/ALL IN THE FAMILY
Steven J. Agro was born in 1952 in Hamilton. Growing up, he was surrounded by art and artists within his own family. His father had a great appreciation for art and displayed art work in the family home. His great uncle, Pippo Agro, was an artist who specialized in seascapes. Pippo ran an art gallery on James Street North in the late 1950s – early 1960s, one of the first artists to do so in that area. “I watched my uncle paint all the time. He was a great influence on me,” says Steven. During our interview of January 19, 2020, he revealed that much of his stylistic inspiration came from the great masters and major art movements– Van Gogh, Matisse, and Impressionism. He started painting in his early 20s after reading a book on Impressionism and subsequently enrolled in some art courses at the Dundas Valley School of Art. He studied their techniques and adopted them in many of his works. His early paintings were of landscapes and his wife and children. He devoted as much free time as he could to painting. “When I worked at Stelco, I would come home from the afternoon shift, around 11pm at night, go directly to my studio often with a glass of brandy and a cigarette, and just paint well into the night.” He had the support of his wife Joanne who often acted as a critic, helping him decide which paintings would work and which would not. He also sought the advice of, and collaborated with, other local artists such as Conrad Furey (1954-2008) and Patricia Gagic, together showing their works in storefront windows in the late 1990s.
Wanting to move on and experiment with different themes and techniques, his friend, Hamilton-based artist Katherine Porter, encouraged him to think about his workplace, the steel mill, as an inspiration. Based on photographs he secretly took in the coke oven, Steven created an impressionistic view of the processes involved with making steel. He employed the use of foil paper to render the protective foil coats the workers had to wear. This created a radiance within the work, with the foil changing depending on the light.
THE DEBUT: “STEEL EXPRESSIONS” EXHIBIT 1991
Once again encouraged by his friend Katherine, Steven exhibited his steel works for the first time at the Earl’s Court Gallery in November 1991. Around 1500 invitations were sent out and the show was very well received. In regards to these works, Steven says: “I started working at Stelco in 1974 and thirty-seven years working in the steel industry has given me visual and emotional feelings toward the manufacturing of steel. More importantly I have been documenting the immediate energy and heat found within the four walls of the mills and have discovered my own fiery passion to capture these impressions in paint. My respect for my coworkers, the men and women that work in the industry remains firm. I strive to identify the endurance of a population, of Hamiltonians that deserve to be recognized. With all the major changes and downsizing in the steel industry, many of the steel processes I present are no longer used or in existence. This downsizing, I believe, has had an effect on the city.”
Speaking to the Hamilton Spectator in 1991, Steven remarked: “I hope there might be some historical perspective to see of these paintings, that people can remember them as a kind of record of the industry. I think steel is part of Hamilton and has helped the community grow and made it prosperous. And it’s not just the steel industry, it’s to working people in general, who have helped this community grow. It’s a dedication to them.” (Agro, Hamilton Spectator, 1991).
Columnist Paul Benedetti of the Hamilton Spectator described the works in his November 1991 review of the show, “Those images have become paintings, impressionist views of sparks flying over ladles of liquid steel, heavily cloaked men silhouetted against the orange glow of the furnaces, ghostly forms hovering over rolling metal sheets.”
Steven spoke about The Slab Burners, “This was the very first work I sold at my first exhibition in 1991. A young man came in with his girlfriend and loved the painting so much he bought it right off the wall!”
“I wanted to show the reality that many shift workers faced, myself included – sometimes we would have to work on Christmas, so to boost morale we would put up a Christmas tree right there in the mill.”
“I like the juxtaposition of the leisurely scullers on the bay with Hamilton’s industry in the background. I see this as hope for the bay despite the pollution. I made the sky yellow and the water is a bit dirty but the bay is still being enjoyed.”
“This piece, Automation, depicts me at work, seated on a chair surrounded by a console of computers. In Stelco’s plate mill, this process controlled the temperature of the hot steel slabs as they pass under heavy rollers for the gauge width and length for steel pipe. This procedure is highly automated and was controlled with computers and data which required only one worker for this process. This no longer exists. Notice the upper right hand corner of this painting. Does this gauge look like a clock? Could this be that time is running out for the steel industry? We are aware that hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs have disappeared in the manufacturing sector. This has affected many cities in North America as well as our beloved Hamilton. When we talk about cultural legacies, we must also remember the historical significance of the steel and manufacturing industries, as well as the people who worked there as they contributed to our society.”
THE SOLAR SERIES 1992-1995: A UNIVERSE OF ABSTRACTS
While Agro created an Impressionistic view of the steel industry in his Steel Mill series, he wanted to explore and experiment with different themes and styles. “The Steel Mill Series sold quite well and I am very proud of those works and what they represent, but I generally do not like to stick to one theme or subject for a long period of time,” says Steven. “Joanne and I visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome in 1999, and I marveled at the painterly masterpieces of Michelangelo. I was drawn to the power of God in the image on the ceiling, as well as cherubs and saints, all moving above the sky of this extraordinary work. Upon my return home, I was influenced and motivated by Michelangelo’s visions in the sky as well as my own fascination with the mysteries of the universe. I chose to depict and create works of similar motifs using the stars and planets in my vision. I decided to use observatory images of the power of the universe to achieve my creation in a modern theme.” Steven embarked on his Solar Series works in the mid to late 1990s, creating abstract representations of satellite photos and further utilizing the beautiful effects of foil paper.
Steven spoke about Solar Three, “Notice the top of the painting. The planet is being held up by a source of light and energy, while the bottom half resembles a snake. This depicts the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve. This is a metaphor and is based on the cosmic theme of light and energy and good and evil.”
OUTSIDE THE STUDIO
While Agro has slowed his pace over the years, he has kept busy with his charity work. He has donated numerous paintings to various organizations including Opera Hamilton and the Canadian Cancer Society as well as donating works for school fundraising. Agro says of his works, “I would be remiss if I did not include my yearly donations to the Dundas Valley School of Art Auction. I have proudly been contributing to the Art Auction for the past 25 years. I have also been selling my works in the Burlington Art Centre Art Sales and Rentals for many years. In the past I also sold in the Art Sales & Rental Department in the Hamilton Art Gallery.” He also has many works gracing corporate and private collections in Canada and the United States, and has fulfilled many client commissions which he continues to welcome.
He also enjoys taking his grandchildren to art galleries to admire works of other artists. “I enjoy sharing my knowledge of art with my 5 grandchildren. I have taken them to the AGH, and experiencing art through the eyes of a child is a great joy!”
Agro says of his family, “Both daughters and their families have been given my paintings to enjoy and I have appreciated my works displayed in their homes as well as their dedication and support.”
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