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Norman Stiegelmeyer


Mental Landscape

Acrylic on canvas
50.75 x 36.875 x 2.25 in.
Gift of the Kathryn C. Wanlass Foundation

After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1964, Norman Stiegelmeyer taught there from 1965 to 1975. During these years San Francisco was the capital of the counterculture movement and the city du jour in which to investigate spirituality, art, and alternative ways of living. For those interested in exploring altered consciousness in an academic setting, Stiegelmeyer became the art teacher to study with at SFAI. According to the critic Thomas Albright, he laid the groundwork for the Bay Area visionary school (a term coined by Albright).

By the time Stiegelmeyer first painted Mental Landscape, in 1967, he was routinely using his work to describe phases of his spiritual development and the complexities of consciousness. As a result, Mental Landscape can be read as a snapshot of his mind in action. In it, cartoonishly rendered images of eyes, intestines, genitalia, eggs, heads, and thought bubbles convey the bedlam of an unruly thought process. The idea that art can be a tool for the exploration of self he would have inherited from his teachers at SFAI, notably Frank Lobdell, Nathan Oliveira, and Richard Diebenkorn.

Stiegelmeyer’s formal meditation practice, under the guidance of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center, lit the way for his spiritualized artistic exploration. The oddest ingredient in this mix of influences was his interest in pop culture illustration, which came through Mad magazine and illustrators such as Basil Wolverton and Don Martin. Working out the spiritual transformation of self through your art is one thing, delivering it in an irreverent over-the-top cartoon style is another. Somehow this odd juxtaposition set the stage for a kind of reinvigorated Bay Area abstraction, one fueled by spiritual aspirations and driven by the aesthetics of irreverence.

Bolton T. Colburn

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