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Anita Steckel

Feminist Artist
1930 – 2012

Anita Slavin Arkin was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1930. Soon after graduating from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, she left home and became a fixture in the Greenwich Village art scene. She remained primarily an underground artist until, in mid-life, she was discovered by critics and collectors. Her work was then hailed, in the words of the New York Times, “as masterly and groundbreaking.”

by Jessica Maffia

I knew right away upon entering Anita's class for the first time that I was in the right place. It was Saturday, March 1, 2008, and I was hungry to take my art to the next level. I flipped through the Art Students League catalogue, saw Anita's “Bush Follies,” in which women are running hand in hand through the water with George Bushes on their bushes and I knew it was meant to be.

A Steckel Fashion
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© Anita Steckel. Fashion, 1962. Oil on photo. Courtesy Estate of Anita Steckel.

Anita taught at the League for 28 years — since the year I was born — and she created a uniquely supportive community. She taught in such a simple, loving way and made everyone feel safe. “You're allowed to mess up here,” she would say, “It's OK to fall.”

When looking at our drawings, she would first acknowledge what we were doing well and then instead of criticizing, she would point out our “next step.” It was a very non-judgmental way to teach and it allowed me to grow tremendously as an artist. She also created a completely non-competitive environment in which she encouraged us to look at what our fellow students were doing to learn from them.

Each week in the afternoon, Anita would bring us together in a circle and we would talk art. It was like an art therapy session. We could ask her any question we had and she would share her wisdom and her stories. There was a repertoire of sayings that she would repeat over and over until they were deeply engrained in us.

For example, there was the pleasure principal in art, which she'd always say wasn't just some hot dame in the principal's office. She would also always tell us that artists are like vessels through which messages are communicated. We have to learn drawing skills to clear the tube so that the messages can come through unobstructed. Then she'd ask us how high are you willing to reach in your art? How big is the banana on the end of your stick? Or is it a carrot? she'd always say.

A Steckel The Big Rip-up
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© Anita Steckel. The Big Rip-up, 1964. Drawing and painting on photo. Courtesy Estate of Anita Steckel.

Anita made her students feel like more than just students. The day I came to her and told her that I quit my full-time job and was ready to go all the way for art, she, Pam and Oscar told me, “Welcome to the family.”

And so when she got really sick it was her students who rallied together and sat by her side until the end.

Anita had such a profound impact on my life. Her fierce belief in me and my art, her uncompromising honesty and integrity in her own art, and the sacrifices she made in the name of her art are deeply inspiring to me.

I will carry the gift of Anita with me always.

Jessica Maffia is a fine artist and arts educator who teaches literacy through the arts in schools throughout New York City and uses a variety of media to create work that fuses the melancholy with the whimsical. She studied with Anita Steckel and curated an exhibit of her work.  

A Steckel headshot cropped
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Anita Steckel. Photo by Oscar Mendez. Courtesy Estate of Anita Steckel.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Anita Steckel, 1930 - 2012." (Viewed on July 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/steckel-anita>.

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