MADE OF STEELBY CAMILLE S. YATES
PHOTOS BY ED DRONDOSKI
What’s your definition of a “renaissance man”? You may not know anybody who deserves the usually undeserved label, but how about an architect who’s also an internationall y known artist, playwright, sailor, pianist and concertina player?
How about Philip S. Steel?
Steel meets the requirements. The man is talented. And in his case, it really is probably in the DNA. Steel’s mother was an actress on Broadway, his father was an opera singer, and his grandfather was a theatrical costumer.
Steel’s had a passion for the creative arts from the very beginning, when those talented parents were bringing him up in Pennsylvania.
First was the art.
“When I was a boy, I couldn’t stop drawing and sketching, and I’ve never stopped,” he says.
Architecture came next, when Steel studied it at Pennsylvania State University. After graduation, he did what came naturally to someone who fell in love with the sea as a child: He took a commission in the Navy and went to sea. Those voyages took him to the South Pacific and the Orient, where he studied not only the art but the landscapes. After returning to the states, he continued to study painting while completing a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley.
LOVE OF THE SEA
Steel paints in both watercolor and oil. His paintings reflect a lifelong love of the sea and the people whose lives are affected by it. He remembers how he and his fellow summer campers were caught in a storm as they sailed on the Chesapeake Bay. “This was an unforgettable experience that amazed me about the sea’s power, a boat’s ability and the visible reaction of people on and about water,” he says. Steel finds it challenging to portray the excitement, speed and grace of sailing craft as they move through the water. The power and energy of wind and waves are evident in many of his paintings.
But Steel is not solely an artist. He is also a teacher. Since 1991, he has held weekly classes at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. “Watercolor techniques are complex,” he says. “I like to teach it for that reason.”
This fall, he plans a watercolor painting workshop on a cruise from Boston to Toronto. “The fall colors should make for some spectacular paintings,” he says. Steel has held such workshops in the past in Scotland, Germany, Italy, France and England, as well as aboard ship in the Mediterranean.
Steel recently expanded into an art form that links his painting and live performances. He has created two books with accompanying paintings and performances and is working on a third. With a grant from the Florida Humanities Council, Steel’s first publication, “Net Loss,” is a tale about the state’s commercial fishing industry since the net ban law came into effect. The one-man melodrama, in front of 12 of Steel’s paintings, visually chronicles the story of the net fishermen’s fast-fading lifestyle. The story was written with author Evelyn Wilde Mayerson. “Performances were scheduled for nine venues, but we ended up performing in 22 venues for 10,000 people,” Steel says.
A second edition of his performing arts series, titled “Fishing Gone,” is based in the Chesapeake Bay region. This book and performance, as well as the paintings, capture the life of the Watermen of Tangier Island. Author Roger Vaughan and Steel portray the uniqueness of this island and the challenges facing the watermen, whose livelihoods are threatened by diminishing numbers of oysters and crabs.
Steel is putting the finishing touches on the paintings for a third performing arts project called “A Green Sky.” It traces the history and the disappearance of the New England lobstermen. “By the time this third series is finished, I will have painted 40 paintings for the three projects,” Steel says. Performances are planned for 10 venues, from Mystic Seaport in Connecticut north to Maine.
Even with much artistic acclaim, Steel remains modest, especially about his architectural work. Before coming to Fort Pierce in 1989, he had an office in Palm Beach for 15 years. There, he designed a popular local restaurant, Chuck & Harold’s, among other buildings. His first project on the Treasure Coast was Tiera, a condominium on North Hutchinson Island. Since then, he has designed 7 additional high-rise buildings on the island.
Steel has focused on commercial architecture. Examples are the U.S. Trust Bank and Bank of America buildings in Vero Beach. A few years ago, he designed the Mediterranean style library in downtown Fort Pierce. He also had a hand in the remodeling of the Cobb’s Landing restaurant on Avenue A, Granny’s Restaurant on Avenue D and the Lincoln Park Main Street building.
Soon, Steel and business partner Charles Hayek will have renovated the historic Hill House where Steel will open an art gallery. His wife, Joan, who manages Salty Dog, their gallery in Maine, will head up the Hill House gallery operation.
Steel’s favorite architectural project, he says enthusiastically, is “Granny’s Kitchen. Mrs. Russ is one of the best clients I’ve ever had.” Steel was the architect who transformed this small family-owned restaurant on Avenue D in Fort Pierce into a multifaceted facility with a restaurant, a banquet hall, retail space and a single-family apartment.
Steel likes the complexity of architecture. But, he laments that, unlike his artwork, the architectural designs can always be changed. “I like the fact that when I finish a painting, no one touches it,” Steel says.
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