In Memoriam: Steven A. Mullins. The Passing of a Dedicated Artist and Friend

"Old Bones Valley" first acrylic landscape by Steve Mullins, 1970

“Old Bones Valley” first acrylic landscape by Steve Mullins, 1970

I received the phone call yesterday.  My friend since the age of five, a fellow artist, retired teacher, athlete, coach, home builder, antique dealer, all-around Renaissance Man and lover of life, passed away.

I recall 1960 as though it were yesterday.  A family was building a new home up the road from where we lived.  Two brothers came calling on me as playmates–Steve (my age) and Mike (two years older).  Steve and I began first grade together, and my family joined the church where his family were charter members.  A year later, I moved four miles away, to another elementary school, but remained in the same school district.  We remained playmates throughout our growing up years in the church, then were reunited in high school.  Together we traveled four hours north to study for our art degrees at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville.  There, Steve met his wife and lifetime companion, Polly.  We went our separate ways, Steve moving to Iowa and me moving to Texas.  Only a few years ago did we manage to reconnect by telephone.  We talked of former days and the present.  I did not see this end coming.

I am posting some of Steve’s work that I was fortunate enough to have on 35mm slides.  The painting above, an acrylic on a masonite panel, was done when he was in Art III.  Steve never lacked for courage in trying new things.  Acrylic was a brand-new medium for him, and when he considered the difficulties of rendering a blue sky over the desert, Mr. Scucchi challenged him to paint and varnish the sky “whiter than white,” just as a hot, dry desert sky would appear.  He did just that, and then, in a final flourish, painted in abstractions of bones, skeletons, and wasted carcasses littered along the desert floor.  Finally, he applied several coats of varnish, bringing the luster to a stunning finish.  As he mused over a possible title, I reminded him that we had recently heard a sermon in church from Ezekiel 37, the vision of the prophet preaching to the valley of dry bones.  So, Steve titled this piece “Old Bones Valley.”

Caricature of Steve

Caricature of Steve

Six Flags Over Mid-America opened in the summer following our Junior year in high school.  Steve landed a job there as a portrait artist, and was instrumental in getting me hired a couple of months later.  There were caricature artists working in the studio alongside of the serious portrait artists, and one of them did this quick charcoal of Steve, capturing his likeness masterfully.

Female Pastel Portrait by SteveFemale Pastel Portrait by Steve

Steve was no caricaturist; he worked on the serious portraits, and learned to crank them out quickly and skillfully.  I had missed the training classes for the portrait artists, so he gave hours of his time training me, always patient, always encouraging.

Steve entered public education much earlier than I, and when I finally signed my first teaching contract, I phoned him long distance, more than a little apprehensive about whether I was up for the task.  I’ll always remember his encouragement:”You don’t have to be the students’ friend.  You don’t have to be cool.  The only thing you need to be is fair.  They will respond to you, if they know you are fair.”  That became my mantra, and has helped me survive in over twenty years of public school work.

I regret deeply that I do not possess a Steve Mullins watercolor.  He mastered that medium, and I’ll never forget looking at one of his fly fishing compositions painted near the historic Byrnes Mill dam near House Springs, Missouri.  I had not yet gotten the hang of watercolor, and I still remember marveling at his mastery in that day, more than ten years ago.  He assured me that I would “get it” if I stayed at it long enough.  Since then, watercolor has become my passion, so Steve, I thank you for encouraging me and believing in me.  You remain the quintessential artist and mentor.  I know full well why your students and athletes in your school adored you the way they did.

Steve was the artist indeed.  But he was much more than that.  Steve was a genuine friend and human being.  There are a thousand things I could record about his personality, but right now I just want to recall his big laugh.  Steve had a horse laugh, a contagious laugh.  And when you entered a room to the sound of his laughter, you didn’t have to know what was funny.  His laugh was funny.  No one could keep a straight face when Steve exploded in laughter.  I have met so few people throughout my 38 years with that kind of bottomless laugh.  And I wish to God I could have heard that from him just one more time.  I need it today.

Thank you, Steve.  Rest in peace, my dear Friend.

To all my friends, subscribers, faithful readers–thank you for all the times you’ve read me and encouraged me.  I will not be posting again until at least Sunday or Monday.  I depart soon for northern Illinois to attend Steve’s services.  Understandably, I’m not painting right now–there remains much packing, travel arranging and work details.  But I’ll be back.  Thanks for reading.

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8 Responses to “In Memoriam: Steven A. Mullins. The Passing of a Dedicated Artist and Friend”

  1. Jane Newton Says:

    Sorry to hear of this loss of your dear friend. Both artists and teachers… how truly fortunate you were to have begun your young lives together and remained good friends throughout the years. I enjoyed seeing some of his work. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.


    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you for looking. His legacy of art will always live with me, and the memories are irreplaceable. I just hope I can do some good by sharing his contributions. Thank you for posting.


  2. Janet Says:

    I am so sorry you lost a friend. It’s so very painful. Please find a little comfort in beautiful memories.

    Sent from my iPhone Janet Z


  3. Xraypics Says:

    So sorry your friend has passed on. Thankyou for sharing his life and times. Your attachment shone through like a beacon. That is what you will be thanking him for. I hope you find comfort as you attend the services and farewell him. I look forward to your return.


    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you so much. The weekend was not an easy one, but I am grateful that I had the time and means to make the journey. It would have been devastating not to have gone. I feel a comfort tonight as I return to the studio, recalling things Steve and I did together, discussed and shared.


  4. Agata Lawrynczyk Says:

    Hi David,
    I am so sorry for your loss. Steve seems like such an inspirational artist. May he forever rest in peace and may his beautiful art work live on.


    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you. Steve is giving me plenty of encouragement now to soldier on with my art. He is a real Presence to me tonight as I work in the studio, and I will always be grateful for the memories.


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