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Changing paths

Monika Steiner’s life took an unexpected and tragic turn last June, but it ended up leading her back to her first love — art

Published: Wednesday, Nov 15, 2006


Monika Steiner, a native of Switzerland, poses in front of one of her paintings. She is now a Petaluma resident and currently has an exhibit of her abstract art on display at the Plaza Gallery in San Francisco.
Terry Hankins
Monika Steiner, a native of Switzerland, poses in front of one of her paintings. She is now a Petaluma resident and currently has an exhibit of her abstract art on display at the Plaza Gallery in San Francisco.
Zoom Photo


What: Exhibit of abstract art by Petaluma resident Monika Steiner

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: Plaza Gallery, 555 California St., San Francisco (in the former Bank of America building).

Admission: Free, but visitors must call ahead to put their name on a visitor’s list at the front desk.

Gallery information: (415) 834-2394 or (415) 986-1647.

Information: Visit to learn more about Steiner’s art and abstract painting workshops.

While growing up on the small family farm in Gysenstein, Switzerland, Monika Steiner never dreamed that one day she’d pack her bags, move to America and become an artist. “My parents considered work as real work,” she said. “Art was something you did as a hobby.”

Steiner, now a Petaluma resident, took many different art classes during her school years, eventually incorporating those interests into a career as an elementary school teacher, which in Switzerland, is considered a very prestigious career choice. “Teaching in Switzerland is very important,” she said. “I was an elementary school teacher for six years and loved it very much. I was able to use art in my teaching and express myself artistically in that way.”

It was six years ago that Steiner and her husband decided it was time for a change. Since they traveled a lot, the couple thought it would be fun to try living in another country for a few years. And the country they chose was the U.S.

“My husband found a job here, but it was very challenging in the beginning,” said Steiner. “We came here with two suitcases of clothes and no idea of where we were going to stay. In Switzerland, we don’t have this credit history thing, so it was very challenging when we came here and found that you needed a credit history for everything.”

Because Steiner didn’t have a credential to work as a teacher in the U.S., she decided that this was her chance to go back to school and study art. “I enrolled in a class and loved it,” she said. “I knew that was it for me. I loved art. I loved doing it and I wanted to do it.”

Much of the art she produced at the time dealt with her internal struggles such as culture shock and how to adapt to it. She earned a degree in art from Sonoma State University last year, then tragedy turned her world upside-down.

“I broke my back while horseback riding near my Petaluma art studio,” said Steiner. “But not just that, my marriage also fell apart. My life was scattered. I didn’t have a way to make a living. My marriage was broken and I was in bed a long time with a brace. I was groundless for a while.”

Though at the time she felt that her life was over, looking back on it now, she sees how it was an important turning point that moved her in the direction she always wanted. “It made me look at life differently and focus on my inner self — who I was, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go.”

While laying on her back in the hospital, unable to walk, she began to watch how the shadows from trees outside move across the walls. “It made me start thinking about lines and how lines can fuse things together. So I started to do some drawings, and as I got better physically, I did three huge paintings with those lines and shadows.”

Life has a funny sense of irony, or at least so Steiner discovered. One year to the day of her horseback riding accident, she received a phone call from the Plaza Gallery in San Francisco asking her to exhibit 11 of her abstract paintings in a show all her own. The exhibit, “Confluence,” is on display at the gallery through Dec. 31.

“I called the show ‘Confluence’ because it deals with how things in life can come back together again. I was still recovering from the accident when I was painting them and they express my emotion at the time. One painting called ‘Decisions’ has lines that go out and in other directions. It expresses how life is like those lines and you can choose which way to go, this way or that.”

As an abstract artist, her work, whether it’s painting or sculpture, is an outward expression of her innermost thoughts and feelings. She takes personal memories, situations, moments and feelings and expresses the emotions they bring up in a tangible way. “I don’t paint how reality is,” she said. “I paint my emotional responses to experiences in my life. When I resonate to an idea or see an object or experience a moment in time, I try to find the essence of that, how it made me feel, and I try to paint it.”

In her paintings and sculptures, Steiner uses colors, layers, textures, glazing and composition to create a mood.

While some may feel that abstract art is just paint splashed every which way, Steiner says it’s quite the opposite. “Abstract art is very difficult to do, as many of the students I teach in my abstract painting workshops learn,” she said. “My students find out that it’s very hard to express from the inside. With abstract art, you don’t have flowers to copy. Everything you paint comes from within yourself. It’s very challenging, but beautiful at the same time. That’s the way I paint — using my inner-self rather than the outer-self.”

She also admits that abstract art is very therapeutic. “Things in my life are coming together. That’s the confluence part of it all; leaving my former life to start things new. Before, I was more about how things should be. Now, I see that letting go of all my old beliefs and listening to my heart have put me on a new path. I’m really grateful about how things in my life have come together after so much challenge. It brought me to my art.”

(Contact Yovanna Bieb-erich at ybieberich@argus

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