DAYTON — Dayton artist Steven Saylor will soon be honored with an award from his alma mater, Ohio’s Kent State University, capping a lifetime of work.
“I asked if that meant he could stop now,” said Johnye Saylor, Saylor’s wife, with a knowing roll of the eye.
The answer, of course, was no.
“I paint all the time,” he said.
Saylor will return to Ohio in the fall to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award from the university’s School of Visual Communication Design, where he was the first graduate of its master’s program in 1971 after receiving a bachelor’s in fine arts there.
In the meantime, Saylor, whose work has been widely commissioned, including by Dawn Gibbons when she was Nevada’s First Lady, will work.
Saylor paints in his studio, a converted Carson and Colorado Railway 1938 wooden boxcar that features gabled ceilings and a stained glass window Saylor designed. It also houses his gallery, Evergreen Studios.
The boxcar sits next to the couple’s home, the oldest house in Dayton, Saylor says, built in 1856 and located on a Main Street curve, past the courthouse and before the cemetery.
When Saylor moved there in 1972, the property had an outhouse and no running water, plumbing or electricity.
“My parents thought I was crazy,” Saylor remembers.
Now, the five-acre site has every amenity and a lot more, including a newborn foal named Little Bear, his mother, Sammye and another visiting horse named Buckaroo; a burro named Millye; a huge turkey who travels slowly around the property; a bunch of peacocks, including five white ones and a rare black and white bird; numerous hens and roosters; and two dogs and numerous cats.
“We used to do active adoptions, but these are the leftovers,” said Johnye Saylor, referring to the felines. “We don’t tell them they’re leftovers, though.”
The couple produced a children’s book together, the proceeds from which help pay their menagerie.
“Christmas and Carol,” written by Johnye and illustrated by Steven, features their animal cast of characters and can be bought at his studio as well as the Purple Avocado on Curry Street in Carson City.
Much of Saylor’s commissioned work has gone to raise money for other worthy causes.
One called “Wild Horse Crossing” was commissioned by singer Lacy J. Dalton for an album cover and to honor 34 wild horses who were shot and killed in the Virginia City range.
The piece solicited by Gibbons benefited the Autism Coalition of Nevada. Called “Centennial Celebration,” the painting features a host of well-known people, including Nevada Govs. Robert List, Jim Gibbons, Kenny Guinn and Bob Miller as well as journalist Tom Brokaw and singer Wayne Newton, standing in front of the Governor’s Mansion.
Another painting, “Nine Cheers for the Silver State,” features another grouping, including former Sen. Harry Reid and current Sen. Dean Heller, inside a Virginia City mansion.
It was commissioned by The Comstock Foundation for History and Culture in honor of Nevada’s sesquicentennial.
“I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia on that one,” said Saylor. “I worked 18-hour days for a year.”
Saylor uses a technique he adopted from an artist he admires, Maxfield Parrish.
He first sketches his painting, then paints with water color, starting with dark colors and moving to light. Each color is glazed over with varnish before he moves onto the next.
The painstaking process takes time, allowing Saylor to paint an average of four paintings a year.
Saylor said he has been drawing and painting since he was a child, when his family moved to Reno from Munich, Germany, where he was born, after his father, an Air Force pilot, was stationed in Stead.
“We moved to Reno and just loved it here,” said Saylor.
He went to Kent State, where he was a graduate assistant in 1970 on the day four students were killed and nine were injured when Ohio National Guard members shot students protesting the Vietnam War.
“I was teaching in a building next to where the shooting took place,” said Saylor. Before shots were fired, “some of my students wanted to go out and I said ‘No, I don’t think you should.’”
From that vantage point, they saw the Guards shoot. Saylor’s then girlfriend was outside, hiding behind a car that was riddled with bullets.
“It was a total nightmare,” he said.
After graduating, Saylor went to work for an ad agency in Akron, which transferred him to New York City, when violent crime there was at its worst.
“I don’t want to live like this,” Saylor said he decided, “but they wouldn’t let me go back to Akron.”
So he headed west, initially for San Francisco, but a stop to visit an older brother in Reno changed his plans.
He got a job as art director at a Reno ad agency and applied to teach at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was told to start up the art program at a new satellite campus in Carson City.
Saylor taught at night at Western Nevada Community College, now Western Nevada College. He eventually quit the agency, kept teaching, and worked full-time at the Allran Ranch east of Dayton owned by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
He continued with his own painting and traveled to sell his work, including to an event put on by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont.
There he got his first big sales and commission when Barbara Browning of Browning rifles family business bought five of his paintings and commissioned another. The couple raised five children in Dayton, two from his first marriage and three from her first marriage, and now have four grandchildren.
Now, he paints and meets with daily visitors to his gallery, while he and Johnye tend to the animals that filled their home when it became an empty nest.
“Every day is like an Easter egg hunt around here,” said Johnye.