By REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — Charles Steckler is an artist who thinks inside the box. Usually, that box is a shoebox.
Steckler began a unique artistic journey when he earned theater degrees from Queens College and Yale University. His focus was set design, but he soon realized that his favorite part of the design process was dreaming up a tiny version beforehand. Generally, the scale model fit into a box, like a diorama.
His models had to fit within the parameters of reality, though, and that limited Steckler. Inspired, he began to fill shoeboxes with whimsical scenes.
“I would sort of fall in love with the models and want them to be standalone experiences,” said Steckler, who lives and works in Schenectady and currently is exhibiting in Niskayuna. Creating his own three-dimensional collages allowed him to create his own plays and stories.
In set design, the play’s plot would determine the set design, and thus Steckler’s models. His whimsical creations are narrative, too — he likes them to suggest a narrative all their own. But the story that grows from each diorama is created in reverse. The materials determine the direction.
“If I’m not discovering something, then it’s really not creativity; it’s problem-solving,” he said.
He described a particular creation that started like a traditional set model: with a complex paper city, realistically arranged in perfect perspective. And then, right in the middle of it all, he dropped an enormous circus elephant.
“I can have a huge thing like an elephant seem to walk on a tightrope,” Steckler said. “It’s really sort of a kindergarten idea.”
Steckler’s process relies on having a large amount of material on hand. And his material is, as he describes it, the stuff that’s left behind at the bottom of a junk drawer after you clean it out.
He has shelves full of plastic shoe boxes labeled “things too worthless to save.”
Unlike the tightrope-walking elephant, which resembles a children’s book illustration, some of his scenes are far more abstract. Others are small and impressionistic, like sketches. None would translate well to a stage set, bound by the laws of physics and practicality. And that’s how Steckler prefers it.
“We’re all in on the joke; we’re all in on the game,” he says of his whimsical, boxed creations.
Steckler hasn’t lost his technical ability to plan and construct a beautiful, theatrical stage. During the academic year, he passes that knowledge on to his students, with a touch of the childlike impulses that drive his dioramas.
A longtime professor of theater and resident scenic designer at Union College, Steckler asks his students to think back to the dioramas they made in grade school. They share fond memories of elementary school book reports and middle school history projects, and he helps them elevate those impressions into real and useful art.
His students, just discovering their own passions and talents, echo himself as an undergraduate at Queens College in New York City.
Down the street from Queens College is the historic home of noted 20th Century diorama artist Joseph Cornell.
Steckler wasn’t familiar with Cornell’s work then, but he has since developed an admiration for it, even creating one piece as a tribute. Yet it would be easy to assume Cornell was one of Steckler’s influences. “I like to think there was something in the air or the drinking water,” Steckler said.
Steckler’s work is on display in Niskayuna at the Schenectady JCC until Aug. 29.