Emperor of Nightmares: EC Steiner
categories: unquiet things
(This interview was originally published on Dirge in 2015. The site is no longer active or updating.)
Think back upon your last nightmare. Not those maddening dreams where your mother is still alive and making you crazy or the ones where your bank account is inexplicably in the single digits and you are three months behind in rental payments. No, the real nightmares. The harrowing nocturnal visions that wrench you awake with a gasp and a shudder, render you terror-stricken, with your heart pounding, and desperately praying that the creature you’ve just encountered whilst slumbering is not, in fact, in the very room with you.
You lie under the blankets, paralyzed. Powerless and sleepless, nerves jangled and at the edge of your skin, until the sky lightens with morning, the room’s dim shadows scatter, and you finally see that you are alone. Or, at least – you are alone now.
EC Steiner is an Atlanta-based sculptor, designer, and sometime storyteller who crafts dark and dangerous visions inspired by “the sensuous, the grotesque, and things as foul as they are fair.” He conjures forth those phantom filaments from the darker pathways of our disturbed slumbers and coaxes them to life in the form of horror and dark-fantasy inspired artwork.
In a recent interview, I spoke with Steiner about his love of the dark and of nights, and how this fascination inspires and informs the nightmarish hordes of strange and evocative grotesqueries that he creates and unleashes his audience.
Perhaps you should leave a light on tonight.
When I first became aware of your work, you were using the King Unicorn moniker. Why the shift, and can you tell us about the significance of the Casket Glass name you are now using for your endeavors?
EC Steiner: Like many artists, I have a day job to support my art and reduce some of the uncertainties that come along with working in a creative field. Unlike many artists, I was working on projects for a group of state and government agencies. I chose what I believed to be a fairly ridiculous pseudonym in order to save my employer from having to explain why “some gorehound” was the acting team lead. And that ruse held up for a long while.
King Unicorn reflects a past life of taking on commissions, work-for-hire assignments, and the highly competitive opportunities created by the projects of others. Every year, there are thousands of artists graduating into creative fields ready to chase and grab up the opportunities others provide. Casket Glass reflects my desire to move away from that realm – to create my own opportunities and focus almost entirely on my own projects. In this way, the work is wholly mine and fully expresses what I want to leave behind in the world. Casket Glass is not a new identity as much as a reminder of what inspires and motivates me.
You describe yourself as an “Alchemical Artist, Errant Decadent & Purveyor of Lygophilous Dreams.” It would seem that, to quote Rainer Maria Rilke, you “have faith in nights” – or at least in nightmares. Tell us about this fascination with the dark, this faith in nights, if you will – where it stems from, what drives it, how it translates into the work that you do.
I have a love of mystery and the unknown, and there’s an undeniable excitement that comes from wandering into the shadows outside the reach of the firelight. I keep ranging further into the darkness–into the nightmares–because I want to find the point where my sense of wonder becomes a sense of terror and to learn how can I draw on that knowledge to elevate what I’m trying to create.
To quote Devendra Varma, “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.” If through a visual medium, I’m presenting the corpse, then I also need to find some way to invoke some presence of “the smell of death” that will linger and follow my audience home. Evoking that experience is something I will spend the rest of my life working to achieve.
What is your earliest “Lygophilous Dream”, realized, so to speak? And how has your work evolved since that time?
One day, I posted an image of a clay bust: a skull-headed, equestrian beast-man, dressed in cloak and mail, with a twisted length of cancerous growths spiraling out of the top of the head. It was entitled “King Unicorn Self-Portrait Bust,” which was a humorous play on the fact that no one knew who I was when I first started slipping artwork out of my studio; I kept my identity offline and signed off on posts and communications with simply “~KU.” It was dark and grotesque, and the response it received set the stage for everything else that followed.
The core evolution in my work is related to developing confidence with materials and with processes. For me, it just took putting in the time and giving myself the time to collect the experiences that evolved the work.
Being primarily a self-taught sculptor, so much of my growth was inspired and supported by the creative community. I owe a great deal to those artists who were willing to take time away from their own work to offer suggestions, share techniques, and encourage pushing everything as far as I could take it.
Though your illustrative work is fiendishly well-honed, it’s clear that your first love is sculpting – can you tell us about your background in the medium, and how this love came to be?
I was first exposed to sculpting when I was very young as part of a wonderful arts program offered by the public school system where I lived. As I grew older and was moved around, those opportunities didn’t appear as often, and I ended up taking art classes that kept repeating the same entry-level techniques. That continued into higher education, where formal art instruction and I parted ways.
It wasn’t until around 2000, when I picked up an old issue of Amazing Figure Modeler Magazine (#18, with the beautiful “Alien Pile” sculpture by Takayuki Takeya on the cover) that I was truly inspired to do more with sculpting than just create costumes and Halloween props. I ordered a five-pound block of oil-based clay and went to work. From that moment, I never stopped trying new techniques, experimenting with new materials, and being open to failing in new and spectacular ways to gain experience.
Your pieces have appeared as part of several exhibitions: Splendid Trespass at 8ofswords Gallery in 2013, The Grotesque at Modern Eden and Yours Truly at Alexi Era Gallery in 2014. More recently we can see your digital work in Canaan Cult Revival Magazine, and in My Dream Date With A Villain, a publication from hereticalsexts. What drew you to these projects in particular? Where can we see more of your work?
There has to be something compelling about an opportunity for me to want to take time away from my own work to contribute to its outcome. Most of these projects were helmed by friends and designed to launch new personal endeavors. My contributions were a way to do more than just act as a cheerleader for their ideas; I was able to lend my time and my creativity to help them find a sense of success and momentum early on.
For gallery events, I want what I present to contribute to the narrative of the exhibition, not work against it. All of my gallery pieces were developed specifically to match the themes of each event. I recognize that sculpture is, at times, underrepresented in galleries, so I appreciate having the opportunity to lend an extra dimension to the narrative the curators are after.
Due to ongoing commitments and a backlog of projects, I discontinued contributing to gallery exhibitions for 2015, but samples of my work are available on my website, and I regularly post under the Casket Glass name on Twitter and Instagram, which funnels my work to Facebook and Tumblr for those who prefer those networks.
What can you share with us regarding your work space where these dark dreams incubate and are brought to life? What rituals do you use to put yourself in the mood to work?
I live in a kind of hermitage near the mountains. While I’m far from the more enticing elements of Atlanta, the distance from distractions affords me more time to work and a space that’s conducive to my needs. I’m able to keep a designated indoor studio and a separate manufacturing workshop for louder, messier activities.
Because my day is divided between two very different worlds, I need to take the time to peel off the skin I wear during the day to prepare for the evening’s work. When I don’t take that time, it creates a channel through which the frustrations and conflicts from my work day can creep into my sacred space. I use a sort of meditative practice involving music and transmutative visualization, so my daylight toils can’t cross over and poison the joy the evening brings.
I don’t like to look at other artists’ work after I’ve begun a project. I will gather up my references and complete some preliminary sketches before the focused activity begins, but I prefer to avoid outside influences once I’m under way. I don’t want to recreate the thing that inspires me by going back to it repeatedly. I let the inspiration act as a catalyst, then step away from it. I would rather the work I attach my name to have my own voice and not feel borrowed from something or someone else.
Nearly all of my spare time is devoted to being in the studio. It’s the drawback of dividing the hours available each day between the thing I love and the thing that supports it. Fortunately, I’m not forced to pass the time in a silent cell. I use my nightly and weekend sessions to explore the films and music that both help develop my projects and keep me entertained.
In that vein, is there anything you can share regarding future projects and collaborations?
On the sculpting table, I’m currently finishing a trio of busts to release in an extremely limited, one-off format and then will begin a new line of occult-themed models for collectors and painters. I’m also working on the last design for my “Carthage” series of three acrylic and graphite paintings. That series will be available individually and as a single triptych print. And because no hour should be left unspent, I’m in the midst of writing and planning the illustrations for a novella to offer those who enjoy more than a few words with their art.
Wow! Absolutely love the creepy models…much want! Interview was also thoroughly interesting.