A Conversation with Steven Gutierrez

Earlier this year, we had a Q&A session with artist Steven Gutierrez, the creator of Our Roots Grow, the City of North Olmsted’s first public art installation located in Kiwanis Park on Butternut Ridge Road. Here are some highlights of our conversation, which was originally taped for a presentation to the North Olmsted High School SITES Program.

Celebrate North Olmsted
Thank you for being with us today! Could you start off by giving us a bit of background about you and how you came to the profession?

Steven Gutierrez
High school is when I became interested in art. I went to an art-focused high school, and, at that school, I learned all sorts of things about painting, drawing, and photography. And actually, photography is what really piqued my interest, and specifically, the photography of Ansel Adams. And so I started taking pictures of trees, and I lived in New York City, so they were city trees.

Unfortunately, a lot of my teachers told me that I would starve if I became an artist. So, I got discouraged from going to college for art, and I thought, well, I’d like engineering, because I like designing things. So I took that path and became a mechanical aerospace engineer.

And, I saw some similarities, where we use a design process in engineering where we try, something fails and we try again, which is something I learned through art. Throughout college, of course, I missed art and so I still took art classes, graduated, and worked in engineering for a few years and then realized that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as art. And so I left engineering and started to pursue art specifically.

Another tangent on that journey is that I always loved teaching. And through long consideration I thought, what do I want to do? I really wanted to help the environment, I really want to help contribute to the world one way or another. And so, I thought teaching would be one way. And then, I decided that art might be the right way to do it.

I lived in California in a very sunny place, I was surprised that none of the houses had solar panels. I was curious and I would ask around why aren’t we using solar panels that would be cheaper, would help the environment? I heard people thought they were kind of ugly. That’s when I started thinking about designing art that was integrated and had actual functional use and started playing with the idea of making solar type sculptures.

Celebrate North Olmsted
Could you share a bit more about your process? How did you come up with this idea in context of this specific location?

Steven Gutierrez
So the first thing I do in most of the projects like these is go to the location. I went with my sketchpad and walked around the neighborhood, looked around and saw what people were doing in the area. Unfortunately, not many people were around, as it’s kind of an isolated park and I was there during the colder weather. There is a trail near there I imagine gets used a lot.

A little bit of imagination sometimes is needed. But I definitely saw the Craftsman architecture, and that was one of the big inspirations. And I thought about the trail and about the connection to nature, people running and biking, and the value of trees on that trail to the person excising or walking their dog. I wanted it to be some kind of organic shape inspired by the architecture of the neighborhood.

I didn’t want it to just sit there and look pretty, I wanted it to do something. And so, in this case, it collects energy during the day, and then shows it off its lights at night. And of course, there’s the Butternut leaf, which was a simple design on the sculpture itself.

Celebrate North Olmsted
We’re really pleased about the tie in to our historic district, and North Olmsted is aspiring to regain its tree city status, so we’re all about the tree canopy, too! So, how does it feel when you see your art installations displayed in communities? I imagine you have a great sense of pride.

Steven Gutierrez
It’s kind of different than I imagined my art would be. When I was in high school, I thought my art would be in a gallery setting. But then as I learned about the value of public art, one of the things that public art does is bring art to people who are not looking for it. It says, “Hey, look at me!” In this case, I hope it brings people to it. I’m hoping it leaves them with not only the beauty of the sculpture, but also the understanding that solar panels do work. It’s still a good thing to remind people.

Celebrate North Olmsted
Do you have any advice you can pass along to the next generation?

Steven Gutierrez
So, I have two things. One is to follow your passion, of course, because sometimes the world can be wrong. You know, they thought the art world would not feed me. But also, if you are pushed in the wrong direction, take advantage of it. I use engineering in my work all the time. I don’t regret doing that. It was still helpful even if it was a detour.

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