Interview With Joelle Steele

Photo of Joelle Steele, 1992

Joelle Steele Expands Her Creativity
by Barbara Cabot
Freelance Magazine, 1992

I'm just a creative person, and I express my creativity in whatever format, whatever media, feels most appropriate at the moment. -- Joelle Steele

After attending her presentation on expanding creativity and then reading and seeing some of her work, I arranged to interview local writer and artist Joelle Steele at her studio apartment in Venice Beach, California. We sat by a sunny window overlooking the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and discussed her work, including her poetry, short stories, and how-to books, as well as her art and illustrations.

Barbara Cabot: This must be a great environment for a creative person.
Joelle Steele: Sometimes. It's really a little too noisy and hectic for me most of the time.
BC: Did you write "Mrs. Wingo's Cat" here?
JS: Yes. I wrote all the stories in that collection here. Oh wait, not "The Waiting Room." I wrote that on a plane trip to and from Florida.
BC: What took you to Florida?
JS: I went there to speak at a horticultural conference. I go there at least twice a year.
BC: You write books for that industry.
JS: Yes. I publish a monthly newsletter for interior landscapers and write articles for a lot of professional horticultural journals.
BC: Well, I see from all the plants in here that you must love gardening. Your orchids are gorgeous.
JS: Thanks. Yes, I do love gardening. I love writing about it and I love drawing and painting plants and floral images, representational and abstract, and even photographing them.
BC: Some of your poems have gardening themes.
JS: Yes. I think the first one I wrote with a gardening theme was "Garden Cathedral." It was something I wrote to go with a painting by the same name.
BC: Who were your main poetic influences?
JS: I'm not sure how influential they were, but when I was a teenager I loved the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Beatles — especially the later Beatles. In college, I was reading Rimbaud and Baudelaire in French and English. I liked everything from Ovid to Wordsworth to Maya Angelou to Ferlinghetti. And when I was about 23, I met Allen Ginsberg. He heard me read some of my poems in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and he said that my imagery was distinct but that I should not be such a "slave to rhyme." I guess he must have been a major influence, because I immediately began writing in free verse, blank verse.
BC: No one gets rich writing poetry, but they do it anyway.
JS: True. But of all the creative forms at my disposal, I find I can say more in poetry in a handful of lines than I can say in a whole book of prose, so I have written a lot of poems.
BC: Define "a lot."
JS: Close to a thousand. But I can't say I'm pleased with all of them. I frequently weed out the stuff I don't think sounds good or like me.
BC: Weeding out — a gardening analogy?
JS: Looks that way.
BC: Do you consider yourself more of a poet than anything else?
JS: Not really. I don't think I can be labeled that easily, and I definitely do not like to be labeled. I'm just a creative person, and I express my creativity in whatever format, whatever media, feels most appropriate at the moment.
BC: Do you have a message?
JS: Well, I guess I do sometimes, but a lot of the time I'm simply writing and painting because I just like to write and paint. Period.
BC: Do you form attachments to your work, find it hard to let them go?
JS: Not really. If I like something I can sell it and just create another, probably better than the original.
BC: Do you have favorites among your own works?
JS: Absolutely. At the moment, my favorite poem is "Judgment Day"; favorite short story, "The Ice House"; favorite how-to book, "Indoor Watering Techniques"; favorite illustration, a watercolor of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco; favorite fine art piece, an abstract called Golden Grass — I gave that one to a boyfriend and broke up with him a month later. I regret that — giving him the painting, that is.
BC: Is there anything you don't like to write about or paint?
JS: I don't like to do portraits, other than photographic ones. I don't write about politics or sports.
BC: Who do you read?
JS: I like a lot of authors for different reasons. Mostly I read for enjoyment, but I especially like Stephen King's characters, Anne Rivers Siddons' descriptions of place, Thomas Hardy's plot lines ... and I like almost any mysteries or suspense — Agatha Christie, Barbara Michaels — almost anything in that genre.
BC: Do you try to emulate their writing styles?
JS: No, not consciously anyway.
BC: What about your art? Who do you like and who are your influences?
JS: Well, again, my tastes in all things are quite eclectic, so I like everything from the Dutch masters to Monet and Renoir to Granville Redmond and the Wachtels to Kandinsky and even Chagall. I think Kandinsky really influenced me as a teenage artist. In my illustrations, I can't think of any influences at all — maybe old etchings — which I collect.
BC: Did you go to art school?
JS: No. I studied a little in college, had several years of private instruction, and I've attended several workshops. The rest is pretty much practice. As a child I learned an enormous amount about art technique and art history from my artist-grandfather, Leo Perrino. He gave me a fantastic base of art knowledge, taking me to museums and galleries and also showing me how to mix a proper palette and get my perspective correct. Also, my parents had tons of books on art.
BC: Is that how it is with your writing?
JS: Well, in a way. I mean, I started writing as a young child. I also started drawing as a child. Art and writing are all I've ever done and both are as natural to me as breathing. I just write and draw or paint.
BC: So the creative process is not painful for you?
JS: Absolutely not. If it were, I would see a shrink or find a new line of work more suitable for me. Your true calling in life should always be pure joy.
BC: So creativity for you is easy?
JS: I won't say I haven't worked at art and writing, at learning new things, at improving my craft, and so on. And some projects took more time than others, but it has never been difficult for me because creativity does come naturally, and it gets so much easier, so much more fluid, with practice — just doing it.
BC: Exactly now long have you been "doing it"?
JS: I had my first article published in 1973, a book of poetry published a year later, my first illustration job in 1972, and my first art show in 1976. Everything since then is just better crafting born of all those years of practice.
BC: Is fame and fortune around the corner for you?
JS: I doubt it. I'm not really actively seeking it. I'm not particularly ambitions. I'm just so happy to be doing what I love to do most in the world.
BC: How are you able to create full-time?
JS: I'm not always able to do it full-time. There have been some lean years here and there, and so I just take a part-time job when that happens. But when I do work at my craft full-time, I'm able to do it because I'm versatile. I can write or do art in almost any genre for any industry in any format imaginable — everything from demand letters and custody orders to "puff pieces" for local businesses, lush watercolors to detailed pen and ink illustrations, and I work well with authors as well as publishers. If you're going to do anything full-time, you have to get out there and practice doing it and always try new things.
BC: Is that your advice for other artists and writers, to practice and try new things?
JS: I guess so. Learn everything you can about your chosen craft and then practice it every day — for the rest of your life.
BC: Does that mean you're always practicing?
JS: Of course. Every creative person is always learning and practicing. We all grow creatively that way. It's part of the creative process that is ongoing throughout the life of any writer or artist. We're always looking for something more exciting to challenge us.
BC: Is there a plan behind it all?
JS: I always have a plan of some kind. And in retrospect, I can always see that there have been some very obvious trends underlying everything I do. Gardening, for example. Also architecture. I love to draw and paint old buildings. And I like to teach art and writing.
BC: It's important to share knowledge.
JS: Yes, it really is. So many people have shared their knowledge with me over the years. I'm very grateful to them, and I feel a need to give something back to other novice artists and writers.
BC: That's how all the how-to articles and books came about?
JS: Yes, more or less. I got so many calls from people and I didn't have time to speak to all of them personally, to answer all their questions.
BC: I guess that's also how you ended up teaching?
JS: Right. It's so much easier and less time-consuming to talk to 20 or 30 people all at once. It's fun too, and I always learn something along the way.
BC: What projects are you working on right now?
JS: I'm in the final edit of a short plant book and I'm doing a couple of book covers.
BC: Do you enjoy doing the works for hire?
JS: For the most part. It really depends on the project. I especially like doing covers for CDs and books. I do editing for others, and I'm good at it, but it isn't all that rewarding — kind of drone work that pays well.
BC: What do you plan to do in the coming few years?
JS: I see more how-to books in my future. Probably quite a few novels. I do love writing and I have an endless list of ideas for books, and I have quite a few that are already works in progress. And I very much want to do more fine art. I have tons of sketches for abstract landscapes and florals and other pieces.
BC: Will you continue to work here in your apartment?
JS: Probably. I'd like to move to a more quiet environment, maybe a small town, something a little rural. I think I'm more of a country girl at heart. And I want a garden. And trees. I really need a lot of trees.
BC: Any idea of where you might go?
JS: Oh, there are so many great places. It's hard to decide. I'll probably stay on the west coast, but maybe go north, possibly to the Pacific Northwest. I'm keeping my options open.