Meet Shoestring Warrior, Artist & Teacher Stephen

Did you know that Zion National Park has an Artist-in-Residence Program? Well you know now! This week’s Shoestring Warrior knows the program well because he spent the entire month of February hanging out in the park, hiking, and painting! Meet Shoestring Warrior, artist, and teacher Stephen Curl.

I started out as a cartoonist as it allowed me to express my sense of humor. However, over time, I developed a passion for Watercolor Painting due to the transparent beauty that can be achieved in the medium.

From participating in the Zion National Park Artist-in-Residence Program, to teaching painting in Yosemite, to working as the Watercolor and Sketching Instructor at a music festival, this lover of art, nature, and music has found a way to make a living by doing something he’s passionate about it. He’s living life to the fullest! Keep reading to learn more about Stephen’s life as a nature artist. Check out his work at Steve Curl Watercolors, Steve Curl Illustrations, or on Facebook.

Shoestring Warrior: Stephen Curl


Sylvania, OH

Current Location:

Palo Alto, CA


Artist & Teacher

What are your passions outside of work?

I love to be in the outdoors which includes hiking and backpacking. I hike the local hills here in Palo Alto (Windy Hill, Arastradero, etc.) as often as I can, and I like to get out into the High Sierra at least a couple of times a year. In addition to the High Sierra, I’ve backpacked in the Colorado Rockies, the Adirondacks, the Utah Canyonlands, Idaho, and in Patagonia, South America. I also am an amateur guitar player and love jamming with friends as well as attending various music festivals, mostly following the acoustic “Roots Americana” music scene. I’ve been to Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Kate Wolf Music Festival a number of times, and I’m the Watercolor and Sketching Instructor at the Strawberry Music Festival which is held twice yearly up in Gold Country. I get my 4-day ticket in exchange for teaching a few classes as part of the activities offered at the festival. Strawberry Music Festival, in particular, is a really wonderful gathering of people as everyone camps out for a four days listening to great performers/recording artists and jamming into the wee hours of the morning in our own camps amongst our gee-tar pickin’ pals. It’s four days of great music, camaraderie, humor, in a spectacular natural outdoor setting. The next festival is coming up pretty soon over the Memorial Day Weekend. They hold it in the fall over Labor Day Weekend, too.

I have been a professional cartoonist and was the Editorial Cartoonist for the Palo Alto Daily News for about 10 years, mostly focusing on local politics and Peninsula events. I won several Peninsula Press Club Awards for Editorial Cartooning over the years. I’ve also done artwork for the Palo Alto Weekly and the Daily Post. Newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, however, and freelance budgets have dried up, so there isn’t much incentive or financial remuneration anymore. I still get freelance work drawing caricatures both for presentation pieces and live at parties and special events.

I have been an avid tennis player, playing on both my high school and college teams. I played about 2-3 times a week up until 2016 when I sustained a torn rotator cuff which needed to be surgically repaired. So…I haven’t played much tennis since the surgery in December of 2016, but I’m looking to get back in the game.

Tell us about yourself!

I’m generally a pretty easy-going guy who enjoys a good sense of humor…and I believe I’ve found his calling, and still finding it as life expands.

I’m fortunate that I have designed a life that allows me to make a living at what I love to do. It ain’t always easy, but it works.

I love to draw and paint, play guitar, hike, backpack, play tennis, travel, explore new things/ideas. Overall, I’ve achieved a life balance in that I spend my time as I choose, both in work and play. As I like to be outside in this spectacular California climate, I’m an environmentalist and think it is our duty to protect and be good stewards of our environment. I’m politically left of center, though not extreme, trying mostly to support common sense policy that benefits the greatest number of people.

How would you describe your level of camping experience?

I’m not an extreme camper, but I enjoy 3-season camping and feel I have the skills to handle most backcountry trips competently. I have a good pack, stove and cooking gear, headlamps, bear canister, Leatherman survival tool, several different kinds of tents, good combination of down and fleece jackets, rain gear, good hiking boots, and a variety of layers… ALL which have been used in one situation or another. I have some great backpacking pals up in Ketchum and McCall, Idaho who have been outstanding companions on several trips into the Utah Canyonlands.

When did you start combining your love for the outdoors with your love for painting or has it always gone hand-in-hand?

When I first saw the Rocky Mountains, that was most inspiring. My dad, brother, and a business associate of my dad and his kids went out to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park back in June of 1972. Having grown up in the flats of Ohio, seeing and backpacking in the Rocky Mountains for the first time just blew open my doors of awareness of the wilderness and then called me to more backcountry adventure. This continues to inspire me in my watercolor paintings. I’d always dabbled in art as a kid and had demonstrated a recognizable talent (per my teachers comments over the years), but I never took it seriously until I found myself in the standard drudgery of the corporate world and felt there had to be something better than this in life. I was always drawing cartoons and pretty soon managers were asking me to draw cartoons for meetings and presentations. At some point the light bulb in my head finally popped on, and I decided to go to art school to pursue my interest professionally, which was the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

What is your medium of choice and why?

I started out as a cartoonist as it allowed me to express my sense of humor. However, over time, I developed a passion for Watercolor Painting due to the transparent beauty that can be achieved in the medium.

It’s very natural in that all you need is paint, water, paper, and a brush. It dries quickly and is easily portable, even on a backpacking trip where weight and size are issues that need to be considered.

There are no toxic oils or solvents and a painting will dry in less than 10 minutes, unlike oil paintings which are messy and take weeks to dry. I feel that Watercolor is the perfect medium for expressing my love of the landscape.

In February you were Zion National Park’s Artist-in-Residence. Can you tell us about your experience there?

Fantastic experience and the opportunity of a lifetime. It gave me a block of undivided time to be in the incredible beauty of Zion National Park without the usual daily life distractions. It began when an artist friend of mine happened to forward me a notice of the Zion Artist-in-Residency Program she had seen, thinking that this might appeal to me. She was correct in that assumption, so I followed up by exploring the Zion prospectus and submitting an application. There were a number of other applicants, but they liked my work and what I said in my application, so at some point they asked me to participate in a phone interview. A month later they offered me the residency for February 2018. It is a volunteer position, so there is no pay other than a stipend for supplies and incidentals. However, they provided me a fine, furnished cabin in the heart of Zion Canyon for the entire month of February. My only responsibilities were to deliver two presentations (one in the town of nearby Springdale at the Community Center, and one to an art class at the Southern Utah University in Cedarville). I also had to wear a “Volunteer Uniform” (tan ranger shirt and hat with an identifying Zion NP patches) at least 20 hours per week. I could do what I wanted (paint, hike, hang out) but they wanted people to be aware of the program and what my role entailed. From the Residency, I am expected to produce a body of work. I’ve already produced seven paintings and will paint many more. Of the paintings produced, the Park Superintendent selects one painting that will permanently hang in Zion National Park.

I used my time wisely while in Utah. I was out on the trails nearly every day, exploring, hiking, learning about the park. I also took a couple of side trips up to Bryce and Capitol Reef National Parks, so I really got out in that rugged, stunning landscape.

I painted “Plein Air” (on location, outdoors) a few times when the days were warm, but mostly I painted at night from photos I had taken during the day. I didn’t want to miss any days of hiking and exploring as there was so much incredible landscape to see.


You teach art classes in Palo Alto but also in Yosemite and other scenic locations. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I love the people contact. I am not a “hermit” artist. When I first started freelancing, I began to notice that I was alone and on my own 24-7. Everything had to be self-generated. I began to feel a creeping malaise and sense of isolation. I definitely am a “people person”. So I took a few part-time jobs at coffee houses or brew pubs just to get “out of the cave” and have some interaction with people. At some point, I decided I was capable of teaching the artistic skills I had developed and offered them down at the Pacific Art League. I’ve been teaching there since 1991. This has led to other local teaching opportunities, so I stay busy teaching at least five classes a week.

What advice do you have for people on finding their artistic or adventure community?

Trust your instincts and hang out with friends that have similar interests. In fact, your friends often become your friends because you decided to pursue an interest or activity.

One thing leads to another. If you are truthful in pursuing your interests, the right doors keep opening. You know in your heart of hearts what you REALLY love to do, even if it is not necessarily supported or recognized by your family and peers.

You get into trouble when you start investing your life’s energy in things/occupations that are prescribed for you by someone else, especially those jobs/activities that hold no interest for YOU. Get about exploring and doing what grabs your interest, even if it is just an evening class at a community college or the local Art League. Palo Alto is an incredibly resourceful and educated community, so there is something here for EVERYONE. Also, nowadays, there are all kinds of forums and blogs available online that are just a few key taps away.

Funniest outdoor experience/mishap?

Once, I was backpacking with a good friend of mine up in the Trinity Alps in northern California. It was a warm, long weekend and we had brought a lightweight backpacking tent with mesh walls, just enough to keep the bugs off, let the cool evening breeze blow through, and give us a view of the stars at night. Perfect tent for the weather. We set up camp one evening, then headed out for a long day hike the next day. Unbeknownst to us, we had pitched our tent in a meadow that was apparently a grazing pasture with lots of cattle pathways. When we returned we found this huge cow in our campsite lazily chewing our tent into a long, slobbery piece of mashed “cud”. We just looked at each other and started laughing. Not much we could do with what was left of the tent.

Which artists inspire you the most and why?

Anyone who is living their life authentically and with full spirit. Such people reside in the ever-present NOW and their energy is enlivening and inspiring. We all have to live and make a living, but these people aren’t overly concerned with money, accumulation of possessions, or more stuff. They are living heart-forward, fully expressing their gifts and life force. This force, this moment…It’s all we have, really and life is shorter than we think. Maybe we’ll live a full, healthy, and productive life for 80, 90, 100 years… but maybe not. No one knows when his or her time comes, so you better get about it with each gift of a new day that you are alive.

Visual artists that inspire me include 1800’s artists Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, as well the Impressionists. There are many current masters… Charles Reid, Alvaro Castagnet, Joseph Zbukvic, Dale Laitinen… whose work just blow open your heart and mind and challenges you to master your medium. Various musicians inspire me with their well crafted melodies and astute, intelligent lyrics…Tim O’Brien, Jesse Winchester, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, Steve Earle, Greg Brown, Chris Smither, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Guy Clark, Taj Mahal, Harry Manx… I often sketch musicians at concerts, then show them the drawings afterwards at the CD signing. Often they are really amazed at what I produced in the moment in my sketchbook and ask for a copy. I ask them to sign my sketch, which they happily do, which establishes a connection and captures a fine moment in time that will never happen again.

Where’s your next adventure?

Summer weather is almost here, and Music Festival Season is starting! I’m off to Merlefest in the mountains of western North Carolina in 2 days, which will include hiking, camping, and hanging out with my old college pals. It’s become a yearly tradition and rendezvous. My girlfriend and I own a T@B “Little Guy” trailer and we generally take a portion of the summer off hauling our housing and hitting the national parks and attending music festivals. Our 2015 trailer is a nice, little retro-teardrop complete with clamshell kitchen, bed, shower, stereo, and DVD player. It’s small and easily maneuverable and slips easily into camping sites in national and state park campgrounds, or even in some backcountry space off a dirt road. I got the Jeep Trailhawk to pull it to remote places. 😉 This summer we are planning on going to Strawberry Music Festival, Kate Wolf Music Festival, The Redwood Ramble, a 4th of July gathering up in the Carson Valley, the Whale Rock Festival in Paso Robles, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, etc. The summer of 2016 we hauled it all the way to Alaska (Talkeetna, Denali, Anchorage, Valdez…) and back. Awesome trip.

The perfect s’more? (if you don’t like s’mores, what’s your favorite campfire dessert?)

S’mores are awesome if the chocolate is really good and the marshmallows are toasted just right, with a little touch of burnt charcoal on the edges. 😉 A little sip of Rye or good Whiskey after dinner is pretty sweet, too. Seems to fuel the music and laughter, y’know…

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