How a Woodsy Misadventure Spurred This Artist to Create

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Why you should care

Because Monika Steiner wasn’t about to let a back-breaking injury limit her options. 

The scenic trails of Novato, California, are a playground for hikers, bikers, horseback riders and nature lovers. But they’re not so easy for helicopters to navigate, something I learned the hard way.

Weeks after completing my degree in fine arts — I’m an abstract painter — and just as I was starting to generate interest from local galleries, I was thrown from a horse on one of the more remote Novato trails. Slammed to the ground, my back pulsating in pain, I lay there waiting for emergency responders to find me and wondering whether the loss of feeling in my legs meant I was paralyzed for life.

Thankfully, my injuries healed eventually, but the fall broke three of my vertebrae, which meant that my legs and back were immobilized in a body cast for three months. All I could see were shadows from the outside on the ceiling, which I sketched to pass the time. 

 

Feeding my creative drive, even while laid up, paid off. One year after the accident, Bank of America commissioned me for a solo show, and I exhibited 11 paintings at the company’s 52-story tower in downtown San Francisco. Each piece was inspired by the shapes I watched form and shift from my recovery bed. In the 13 years since that commission, I’ve shown in museums and galleries in cities including Seattle, Paris and Berlin, and my work hangs on the walls of hotels like the JW Marriott in Ankara. Clint Eastwood’s daughter purchased one of my paintings, and when Facebook’s founder announced a $75 million gift for the newly renamed Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, my sculpture was on display in the visitors center.

blue shadows

Blue Shadows, by Monika Steiner

Source Courtesy of Monika Steiner

While my dreams for the future include exhibiting my art in a major museum and a New York gallery, my next big trip is all about the past: I’m going home. I was raised on a farm in the small Swiss village of Gysenstein, just outside of Bern and near the Alps, and I make a point of returning to Switzerland every summer. This year, my art is coming with me.  

I just shipped 16 oil paintings, all based on the relationship between memory and reality, to Galerie Kunstreich in Bern for a June show. The series is softer and more contemplative than the works I did after my back-breaking trail ride. The colors reflect the rich vegetation of the Swiss countryside, and the compositions are a prismatic blending of experiences from summers past. 

higher dreams, 36x48

Higher Dreams, by Monika Steiner

Source Courtesy of Monika Steiner

I love these annual pilgrimages: They let me reconnect and they help me share my Swiss traditions, like exploring alpine trails and frying cervelat on an open fire, with my 6-year-old daughter, Johnie Rayne. We have a lovely concept known as gniesse in Swiss German, which means to enjoy the moment. While life seems to be getting more hectic for me, I try to remember to appreciate the little things. Some of my fondest memories are from hikes around Lake Thun, which is filled with brilliant blue glacial runoff from the surrounding mountains.

hike to augstmatthorn in the Bernese Oberland

The Bernese Oberland

Source Courtesy of Monika Steiner

But before I return to Switzerland, I have signed up for horseback riding lessons — and on the same Novato trails where I had my accident years ago. I want to ride again to prove to myself that I can overcome it. 

As told to OZY Editor Elizabeth Smith. Lead image taken by Rossella De Berti. 

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