I have always made art. I made wood and metal sculptures as a kid; I was welding when I was 8 years old. I worked as a photographer for the local paper in high school, and briefly studied product design at Parsons School of Design before going to college and studying sociology at Bard. After graduating from Bard, and looking for a job in New York City during the recession of 1983, I fled to law school.
At Albany Law school, I made law review and clerked for a state appellate court. I then moved to New York City and was a reinsurance litigator for 12 years. During that time, I failed in my attempts to combine art and practicing law. I took drawing and anatomy classes all over New York City at night, on weekends and during vacations.
In 1999 my wife heard me complaining again about being a lawyer. We don’t have kids, and she said, “If you want to paint, go paint. But if you don’t, you can never complain about being a lawyer again.” So in February 2000, thanks to some tough love, I quit my law job and started painting full time.
It was very much a process to go from being a lawyer who made art at night, to being an artist who used to practice law. For the first three years I was painting, I worked as a contract lawyer at my old firm, in my old office, on my old cases. Then my cases started to settle and I began to resent the time at the firm when I was not painting.
I kept my New York State license and continue to listen to continuing legal education tapes every two years. I occasionally help artist friends by going to small claims court with them or helping to write letters to insurance companies.
The Collage Series
For the past few years, I’ve been working on a series of political collage portraits. As a recovering lawyer, and a political junkie, I am interested in the political, financial and media worlds. It was a natural direction for me to try and make work about actors in these worlds, both those I admire and those I don’t. In making these portraits, I often use newspaper text and photos about the person or events the subject is involved in. Instead of illustrating the subject’s attributes with a symbol, as a Renaissance era painter would, I create the portraits with materials and text from the subject’s world.
R.B.G., my first collage of Justice Ginsburg—one of my legal heroes— was done in January 2019, when she was having a cultural moment, being the subject of books, blogs, memes and movies. I thought that her legal writings provided a trove of potential collage material, from her briefs to her judicial opinions and dissents.
When making R.B.G., I thought I would need material from one of her briefs, a Supreme Court opinion and a dissent. However, Justice Ginsburg’s opinion in U.S. v. Virginia 518 U.S. 515 (1996), which struck down the male-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute, was the ideal background and more than enough material for Justice Ginsburg’s collage portrait.
When the Mueller Report came out, I immediately read it, and was horrified. Though I’m trying to get out of the Trump business, it was too perfect not to do a collage. For Individual One, (the designation for Trump in the Federal criminal action against his former lawyer), I used text from Mueller’s report.
I am currently finishing Madame Speaker, a portrait of Nancy Pelosi, done with the Articles of Impeachment against President Trump.
Life After the Law
On a typical day, after the gym and morning errands, I go to my studio, which is located in the last two blocks of the Garment District in New York City. The first thing I do in the studio is look at the collage or painting I am working on as I drink my coffee. I tend to work on one or two pieces at a time. My painting wall runs the length of the studio. It is where I work and hang any pieces I am uncertain about. There are also clippings from magazines and photographs of work by artists I am interested in. I spend a lot of time looking at my work in progress and thinking about whether it is done or what my next move is.
The radio is on with news programs most of the time I am in my studio.
I usually work until 7 or 8:00 pm, staring at the work in progress, putting pigment or collage on the canvas. At the end of each day I take a photo of the day’s progress with my phone. (pictured is the progress video on my portrait of Mayor Mike Bloomberg).
Becoming a painter was a big lifestyle change from working in a law office. Being a working artist is largely a solitary activity, the opposite of my experience of working in law firms on large cases, with a team of lawyers, support staff, and often a defense group. As an artist you work alone in your studio, trying to make things, between marketing, selling, and shipping work. At times I miss the social aspect of working as an attorney. I spend a fair amount of energy trying to maintain a community of fellow artists, attending critique groups to discuss our work, doing studio visits and having coffee with fellow artists. Ultimately, I love having the opportunity to spend my time and energy painting (drawing and collaging).
I am incredibly fortunate to have a supportive spouse, who has supported my leaving law and painting full time. It is her love and support that allows me to have the opportunity to spend my time painting.
To learn more about Stein’s work, visit www.geoffreystein.com