During my time at NJCU I had the pleasure of meeting many talented artists of all ages and walks of life. Photographers from other countries, painters born and raised in Jersey City, graphic artists from California coming to the east coast for a chance at a career in the art field. Some faces I remember and some names I recall, but I am fortunate enough to stay in touch with truly one of the most gifted artists I met at New Jersey City University, Leona Strassberg Steiner. It was a pleasure to sit down with her and get to know what drives her as a photographer, an artist, a dancer and an activist.
WBM: Who is Leona Strassberg Steiner?
LEONA: I am a photographer, teacher, and ex-modern dancer
WBM: What drew you into the art field?
LEONA: I always wanted to be an artist, to be a painter. At home I was not encouraged and money was tight, it wasn’t until I was 22 years old, that I began studying dance. Photography came much later after I stopped performing professionally.
WBM: What is your medium of choice?
LEONA: I love shooting with my Mamiya 645E as well as a very old Yashika camera. There is nothing like a wet print from a real negative. The blacks, greys and whites are so much more alive for me. Since studying for my BFA in Photography, the love of a film camera has returned, though I do shoot a lot digitally as well. Recently I have begun transforming my images from classic black and white photos to something else a bit more elusive. I am very excited to be experimenting with old images, it’s a great way to look at all the work I have done and create something new.
WBM: You are pursuing your teaching degree, when did you decide you wanted to use your artistic talent to teach others?
LEONA: A choreographer that I was working with at the time convinced me to start teaching dance; she thought I would make a great teacher, that I had the passion. She was right, and I have continued to teach dance and art since then. The true calling was being there for my students not only in the studio, but at off hours as well. I always wanted them to blossom as artists themselves, to be able to express what’s going on in their gut, on the dance floor, or in a painting. It was most important for me that they make that connection and grow. Years later when my second and third grade students were finishing school and performing to larger audiences, I saw that I succeeded, that is such a great feeling to see your students go on to perform in professional companies and become dance teachers themselves.
It’s true that I did want to earn my teaching credential in art education, but because of the recession, I am cutting my studying time and finishing NJCU with a BFA in Photography.
WBM: When did you begin showing your work in a public setting?
LEONA: I began showing my work in Israel, where I lived for 27 years from 1973 to 2001. My first show was at the Givat Haviva Art Institute in 1999, where I studied photography for two years.
WBM: What type of photography is your primary focus?
LEONA: My work usually has a social or political story behind it. Its very rare that I will take pictures just for art sake, I enjoy doing projects that can help change the way people look at themselves and others, I try to help change people’s perspectives about race, class, or religion, so that they see we are all one!
WBM: Who are some of the artists you look up to?
LEONA: Ben Shahn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Sally Mann, Carrie Mae Weems, Pina Baush, Ohad Naharin… I could go on….
WBM: What have been some of your biggest accomplishments throughout your art career?
LEONA: I feel like I am just starting to get my feet wet in the photography world, just starting to figure out my way of expressing myself, my style, or signature. When I was dancing professionally, there were a few dance pieces I was proud to be dancing in, and the biggest compliments are when your peers from other companies come to see you back stage after a performance to tell you how great your performance was that night….. Dance is so fleeting, you perform, and its over, with photography I can look at my work again and again, its more satisfying and less frustrating…
WBM: What is the hardest thing about being an artist?
LEONA: For me, its not listening to the chatter and doing the work that really deep down speaks to me. Of course money is always an issue for most artists, how to keep creating and eating at the same time. I wish our government would subsidize more artists like in Holland, we could just create without worrying where the rent will come from.
WBM: If you could send a message to the younger generation of artists, what would it be?
LEONA: Dig deep to find your path, don’t compromise, say what you really want to say and create the work that is in your heart and soul.
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