Steve Haweeli’s basement studio in Springs is a space of allowance.
It is where he allows himself to be messy — his whitewashed walls juxtaposed against paint-speckled drop cloths and floors, his work tables in disarray.
It is where he allows himself to be creative and expressive — the place he started his public relations firm, WordHampton, with zero experience, and where he picked up his first paintbrush, with no training.
It is also where he allowed himself to be sick, and to be angry with God.
“I lost a couple years of creativity,” he said, pausing. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I was …”
He paused again, longer this time. “Sorry,” he said. “I was getting treated for cancer. There was some very, very heavy chemo, and quite honestly, it just completely kicked my ass. It literally took my creative spirit right out of me.”
Haweeli had only discovered the artistic side of himself in 2007 — six years before his diagnosis — while standing in front of a Salvador Dalí at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, recently single and jetlagged.
“I’m staring at this Dalí piece and I start crying,” Haweeli said. “And I’m going, ‘This is embarrassing. What is this? Am I exhausted? Am I feeling the apartness from my girlfriend? What is this?’ And so I go back to the Reina Sofía three out of my four days and, two weeks later, I’m in the basement of my house and I get this voice: ‘You should paint.’”
Not knowing oils from acrylics, Haweeli grabbed what $100 could buy him — paints, a basic watercolor kit, brushes, two canvases and a small easel — and set up shop. A couple days later, he had his first painting. Within two years, he was selling. And by 2013, he had cancer.
“It transformed into a really aggressive lymphoma called diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, and it was unfortunately one of the more rugged chemos out there,” he said. “You can get through it, it’s totally doable, but the whole time, I had this whisper of, ‘I must create, but I’ve got nothing. I can’t f—ing paint.’ That painting vibe is like, ‘Are you kidding me? You can barely remember your next thought.’”
As the years passed, a painting career was built up, torn down, and eventually reconstructed, resulting in Haweeli’s first solo show, “CROSSing to Water – A Lenten Journey,” featuring 18 works from 2009 to 2016, now on view at St. Luke’s Church in East Hampton.
“It seems that I’m always either painting water or crosses,” he said. “I just had a complicated, but nonetheless enduring, wrestling match with God — that God has won. And so, I think the crosses are simply another expression, or maybe even a deeper expression, of my love of God, my anger at God, and my appreciation of God’s beauty in my life.”
Glancing around his studio, it is clear Haweeli is in a state of transition, both physically and artistically. He has taken most of his paintings off the walls — in preparation for his show — and his three works in progress are starkly different from one another, from a colorful palette of squares to a drip painting to cross imagery created with cement trowels.
For the first time in some time, Haweeli is back on his feet, he said. And the organized chaos surrounding him is a testament to that.
“I am actually fairly neat — I would give myself a B to B+ rating in neatness, but the studio is really a C to C-. It’s where I allow myself to make a mess, and I feel good here,” he said with a laugh. “I got really interrupted from my linear process. My process just got tossed, and I’m just now getting it back. I’m in remission. You can’t cure follicular lymphoma, but you can control it. It’s been a battle, but I’m doing pretty well right now.”
“CROSSing to Water – A Lenten Journey,” featuring work by Steve Haweeli, is currently on view through March 29 at Hoie Hall in St. Luke’s Church, located at 18 James Lane in East Hampton. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, February 24, from 5 to 8 p.m., and will feature a short artist’s talk and light refreshments. Fifty percent of proceeds will benefit St. Luke’s Outreach Committee. For more information, please visit haweeli.com.