Steven Strenk sticks out in a crowd.
He’s lanky: all long legs, arms and neck. When he sits at his desk, his jeans hike up, exposing the tops of his white ankle socks.
Yes, like a guy whose pants are too short.
He wears black Chuck Taylor sneakers and striped horn-rimmed glasses — the nerdy, vintage kind that make cool people look cooler in that Buddy-Holly-hipster-kind-of-way.
If it weren’t for the sensible plaid shirt and the fact that Strenk’s name is printed on a blue plate on the side of a proper office cubicle, you might mistake him for a tall student instead of a 38-year-old high school teacher and college professor.
“Education is a major part of my art,” Strenk says. “I’m constantly learning. If I’m not learning, what I’m doing is not intriguing.”
A professional artist with pieces in private collections throughout the state, Strenk has taught at Booker High School for 13 years and at Ringling College of Art and Design for seven years.
A 1995 graduate of Ringling College, he is one of four new artists to join the three-year-old contemporary artist co-op, s/ART/q.
His three-dimensional Plexiglas piece, “Pedestal Pieces” will be on display this month in the group’s first show of the season — “THIRTEEN,” which premieres Dec. 9, at G.WIZ Science Museum.
Strenk is thrilled to be a part of the action.
He’s watched the group grow from a grassroots arts initiative, with a name many people couldn’t pronounce, into a well-regarded exhibiting platform for some of Sarasota’s favorite contemporary artists, many of them his former college classmates and fellow Ringling faculty members.
“I like the idea of these rogue shows,” Strenk says of s/ART/q’s roving exhibits. “It’s like: Grab a space. Have a show. Take it down. Have another show. It reminds me of college. We’d rent a space or squat in a space. I like that kind of attitude … the fact that there’s no pristine gallery.”
Last year, Strenk was asked to participate in the group’s “Invitational” exhibition in downtown Sarasota.
A playful father of three and a self-described “tinkerer,” he created a series of what he calls “Parade Pieces,” built from cigar boxes and his kids’ discarded toys.
Like the artist, the “Parade Pieces” were fun and nostalgic.
At first glance, they resembled something Ralphie might have played with in “A Christmas Story,” or something Strenk might have played with as a boy growing up in Tonawanda, N.Y.
“For the longest time I kept my studio separate from my home,” Strenk says. “I had a studio on Central Avenue and it never really worked for me. My kids’ toys slowly started to encroach on my work. The two worlds collided. The kids became my art.”
The first example of this collision was the pop-up book — or, as Strenk calls it, “the piece de résistance” — that he created in 2002 for his master’s thesis at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
The work represented a departure from Strenk’s usual paintings and graphite drawings. It marked a turning point for the artist.
“I’m a tactile person,” he says. “Painting is boring to me. You hang it on the wall and that’s it. It just sits there. I’m much more interested in interaction and creating something that’s hands-on.”
This explains the small gadgets, camshafts, sprockets, amputated doll parts and gutted hard drives accumulating in boxes around his desk.
It explains the robotics website minimized on his computer, the broken palm sander he recently received from a colleague and the rotating sculpture he made using an old Singer sewing machine.
It also explains the enthusiastic email he wrote last summer to famed kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson.
“I said very humbly that I’m an emerging kinetic sculptor and a huge fan,” Strenk says. “I asked him, ‘How do I do what you do?’ And he said, ‘Just start playing and making mistakes.’”
And, so far, this is exactly what Strenk has done.
These days he spends more time taking apart printers than painting foliage and sketching road signs — the subjects of previous work.
“I swear I’m not a hoarder,” Strenk says, rummaging through a cigar box filled with rack and pinion gears. “It’s just that if something is lying around, I like to take it apart, figure it out and make it work in new ways.”
He reaches for a wooden cutting board on which he’s glued a steak knife and pieces of plastic fruit painted various shades of gray, purple and green. He created the piece to demonstrate color theory to his Ringling students.
Arranged in a line are six fake cherries.
Coincidentally, Strenk has been looking for a fake cherry to use in his “Pedestal Pieces” series. When he realizes he’s had six of them sitting on a cabinet in his office cubicle, his face lights up.
“Look at that,” he says, a childish grin spreading across his face. “I found my cherry.”
Even though Strenk is just now coming into his mad-professor phase, the character fits him like he’s inhabited it for years.
Strenk realizes he’s one electromagnetic contraption away from becoming the dad in “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” and his students realize it, too.
On the website, ratemyprofessors.com, Strenk has eight reviews from former Ringling College students who have taken his CORE foundation classes.
The critiques — all of them positive — range from, “He’s flippin’ awesome” to “very helpful and down to earth.”
One review, however, seems to best encapsulate the artist.
“Strenk is a great guy. He’s a little nutty and has a great energy. He really cares about his students and is passionate about what he does. You will enjoy yourself and learn from his example and his advice.”
IF YOU GO
s/ART/q will premiere its latest exhibit, “THIRTEEN,” from 5 to 10 p.m. Dec. 9, at G.WIZ Science Museum. The show will run through Jan. 7. For more information, call 309-4949 or visit sartq.com.
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