Steranko paints way into The Butler history

The Jim Steranko exhibit will be displayed until May 29 at The Butler. Photos by Henry Shorr / The Jambar

By Henry Shorr

The Butler Institute of American Art is currently showcasing artwork by Jim Steranko through the end of May. This is the first time Steranko has curated an exhibit of his painted works in a museum of fine art as well as the first time The Butler has displayed an exhibition of graphic art.

Steranko, who is from Reading, Pennsylvania, has significantly influenced comic books, movies, music and even stage magic. The characters he designed still pervade popular culture — he had a hand in creating Marvel’s Nick Fury, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Indiana Jones and many more.

Director of The Butler Louis Zona feels that, while Steranko’s work may not be the genre of art the museum typically displays, it is still important to showcase his work as it has pervaded the world of graphic and popular art.

“I know that there’s fine art, and frankly, what Steranko does is not fine art,” Zona said. “It’s graphic art, and, to a degree, we might even consider pop art. I mean, he helped to make our popular culture. Frankly, he is as important to that aspect of the visual arts as Jasper Jones is to the fine arts.”

Zona talked about how a radio show featuring Steranko’s character “The Shadow” introduced him to the artist’s work. He remembered listening to the show as a kid, fondly mimicking the introduction.

“‘Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow.’ I remember hearing that on the radio and getting chills,” he said.

Kyle Gleeson, who started working at a comic book shop last year, drove in from Cleveland for the exhibit with some of his co-workers. He explained how prevalent Steranko’s influence is, even in today’s graphic art. 

“[Comic fans] know his art immediately — just by sight — which is something that I’ve even easily been able to tap into just because it’s so prominent — it’s very singular,” Gleeson said. “It has been, definitely, an easy way to understand some of the finer appreciations of his [art], and so far, he’s one of the most respected [artists] that I’ve seen.”

Gleeson, who is relatively new to the world of comic books, already feels adept at recognizing not only Steranko’s art but also his influence on other artists in the world of comics.

Wendy Swick, the public relations coordinator for The Butler, is excited about the exhibit and hopes it brings more people — mainly students — to the museum.

“We always tried to throw in something to bring other audiences into the museum so that they’re comfortable. You know, because some people think, ‘Oh, you know, fine art … I don’t belong in there.’ But this museum is for everybody,” she said. 

Swick also spoke about how the idea for the exhibit started with a conversation on Twitter. Steranko tweeted about his desire to put together an exhibition of his painted works, and someone responded that he should get in touch with Zona. Now, a couple of years later, his work is being showcased at The Butler before he takes it on tour to different museums. 

Swick drew attention to a quote from Steranko that is placed prominently on the wall in the exhibit. The quote reads, “This may justify my existence on the planet. Seriously, if it inspires just one individual to a creative life, it may be worth the effort we all put into it.” 

Steranko visited The Butler on April 7 for a signing and to speak about the exhibit. He commanded the room dressed in an all-white suit and large sunglasses.

When Swick approached Steranko, surrounded by fans and telling a story of the inspiration behind one of the women in a painting of “The Shadow,” she asked him, “Did you realize you are sharing a wall with Picasso?”

Steranko, without missing a beat, looked at her and replied, “Picasso … What comic did he do?”

The exhibit is located on the second floor of The Butler and will be displayed until May 29.