Putting Life and Death into Perspective

by Saad Ghosn

“I have been aware of human pain and suffering from a very young age,” says Steven Finke. “Growing up I was introduced to the Holocaust and constantly reminded of its horrors as it directly affected my family and the many families in my community. As a child I did not understand the ramifications of what I was told but was horrified that people could act towards each others in such destructive ways.”

Pain, suffering, death, the meaning of existence, have all along permeated Finke’s thinking and art. His work, initially dealing with personal issues, progressively and naturally delved into the human, the universal, the generality of life in this world.

Born in Queens and raised on Long Island, NY, Finke belonged to a middle class family which placed strong emphasis on education. Interested in the sciences, he was first leaning for a career in forestry and wild life management, but shifted later towards the arts, earning a BFA from Ohio University, Athens, and a MFA from the University of Miami, FL, both in ceramics.

“I wanted to do pottery and live in the forest,” he says. “I became, however, quickly taken by sculptures as fine art objects and started creating them in outdoor and indoor settings using various materials.”

Finke currently teaches sculpture at Northern Kentucky University.

Steven Finke stands in a forest in front of his sculpture, the Pedestal. Photo: Saad Goshen

Finke stands in a forest in front of his sculpture, the Pedestal. Photo: Saad Ghosn

Right after grad school, married and with two kids, Finke experienced the breakdown of his marriage and, in his mind, the disintegration of the myth of family. His artwork, raw and expressionistic, became a narrative about his life, telling real stories with a mythological twist. It reflected his personal feelings and the issues he was dealing with, questioning where he stood and the part he played in the human condition.

George and the Dragon, a large mosaic piece from that period, depicts George holding a sword, and a dragon, with human attributes, falling towards him. It alluded to the attraction to the unknown, to danger, to the unexpected path one often takes when dealing with uncertainty, in this case to Finke’s confused handling of his new conjugal situation.

Divorced and settled in Cincinnati, Finke met his new wife, ceramic artist Ana England. When asked to have a joint show, both interested in the science/art relation¬ship they decided to produce works on the theme of Creation. Finke resorted to the book of Genesis and illustrated in mixed media sculptures each of its days.

“I approached the work from both scientific and religious aspects,” he says. “I wanted it universal, asking the fundamental questions of how we got here, why and for what, thus parting from my egocentric concerns.”

His Day 1 sculpture, Let There Be Light, consisted of a cone of stacked sections of glass, held at an angle by a metallic structure. The cone reflects light and serves as playground for interacting lights and shadows. The Creation of Humans, the Day 6 sculpture, depicted 3 phases of life: birth, reproduction, death. Finke included in it personal elements, his father’s knee, his grandson’s navel, a vial of his and his new wife’s blood, thus indirectly commenting on his own journey.

“Working on the Creation Stories, I was already reflecting on mortality and dissolution,” he says. “After birth comes death, and it was natural that my work progresses to address the impermanence of life.”

This is when Finke discovered the Tibetan Book of the Dead and embarked on visualizing its content. He tackled its first day which focuses on the Cessation of Breath, the moment before death. He created Breathing Machine, a metallic structure that opens on a pair of mechanized lungs moving forth and back when cranked, letting air in and out. The cycled air sounds like breathing, also feeds a small fire started by burning a significant item brought in by the viewer. By cranking the machine, the viewer symbolically controls his own breathing, and willingly parts with what may be considered important.

Breathing Machine inside the Vault, mixed media sculptural installation. Artwork and Photo: Steven Finke

Breathing Machine inside the Vault, mixed media sculptural installation. Artwork and Photo: Steven Finke

Meant initially as a traveling piece, Finke later decided to include it in a permanent site specific artwork, The Cessation of Breath: A Mechanical Meditation on the Moment before Death. The installation stands in the middle of a forest on a 38 acre land he purchased in the watershed of the Ohio River Valley. It consists of four separate sculptural elements, a Cabin, a Bridge, a Pedestal and a Vault, all connected to trace the journey before death, integrating forest, sculpture and human in an aesthetic meditation on impermanence.

“I wanted to provide the serious visitor a place for reflection on mortality, loss and grief, hoping it leads to greater insight into the nature of life, connection with the environment, inner peace,” states Finke, ”and at the same time call attention to our responsible role in this world.”

Starting the journey alone in the forest, the viewer first experiences the solitude of the cabin, metaphor for one’s house, reminiscing on the inevitability of death; then borrows a path over a sculpted bridge, leading to a pedestal composed of glass, metal skulls, a cast bronze cranium on which is engraved the Tibetan text describing the moment before the last breath; then enters a sculptural vault which shelters the breathing machine.

“The impermanence of life is prevalent,” says Finke, “and we need to face it. Things come into being and others come out of being. We constantly die to the last moment and are reborn to the following one; and every moment affects the next. We have to be reminded that each of our actions affects our future and that of the earth.”

This is why Finke also wanted the forest to be the setting for his meditative artwork, the forest through its constant living and dying a metaphor for life, also a link to the ecological protection of the land.

Finke will be working next on sculptures for the Cessation of Pulse, the second day of the book. In the meantime he is creating a series of small bronze pieces he calls Peaceful and Wrathful Deities. Most have the recurrent image of a skull and include moving objects reflecting the mechanics of life. They allude to death, to the nakedness of human beings, and are meant to be used as meditative toys during the viewer’s journey.

“A root cause for our inability to live at peace with each other and our environment is our avoidance or lack of understanding of the impermanent nature of existence,” says Finke. “By reflecting on mortality, we can learn to live in a more sustainable way with our environment and a more compassionate way with each other. This is what I would like my art to achieve.”

Artists as Activists is a regular column highlighting Greater Cincinnati artists who use art as a vehicle for change. Saad Ghosn is the founder of SOS Art. Ghosn can be reached at saad.ghosn@uc.edu.