Birth and Early Life
Steven Arnold was born on May 18, 1943, to a seamstress mother, and a hardware clerk father in Oakland California. At four or five years old, he found a chest of theatrical costumes and make-up belonging to his uncle in the attic of his parent’s house, and from then on devoted himself to the art of transformation, constantly dressing up to amuse himself, his fashion model sister, and his babysitter. His parents encouraged his fantasies, and allowed him to build sets and puppets to put on shows for the neighborhood children, to whom he said, he never related.
In the fall of 1958 Arnold entered Oakland Technical High School, where he met his lifelong friend, muse, and collaborator, Pandora. The pair became inseparable, and would spend hours in Steven’s bedroom drinking champagne and Romilar cough syrup, smoking opium, marijuana, and cigarettes, dressing up, and playing with make-up. Steven’s bedroom in 1959, as Pandora remembers, was “like LOUIS XIV – beyond belief for a child”. Steven and Pandora’s high school art teacher, Violet Chew, was the pair’s mentor and main source of inspiration. Chew taught her students by ancient Chinese methods, which worked from the inside out, encouraging students to confront problems on a soul-level, and to use their art as a means of exploring and solving these problems. She also introduced the young Steven to antique and junk shopping, art history, cutting-edge fashion, and Eastern spiritual traditions, which made a lasting impact on Arnold’s philosophy and art. She saw great potential in her student, and arranged for Arnold to drop homeroom and physical education in order to spend three periods with her each day. It was also around this time that Violet Chew’s friend, artist Ira Yeager noticed that “it was Steven who actually initiated ‘hippie’ dress in San Francisco, before it was fashionable.”
Higher Education and Film-work
After graduating high school in the Spring of 1961, Arnold won a full scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. In the spring of 1964, after earning perfect grades for two years at the Institute, Arnold took a break to study abroad in Paris and enrolled at Ecole Des Beaux Arts. Feeling confined by the stiff, traditional curriculum at Ecole Des Beaux Arts, Arnold and a group of American classmates rented villas on the small island of Formentera off the coast of Spain. For the next several months the group lived communally, taking LSD every day, experimenting with paints and costumes, taking up residence in caves, and exploring the small island. Arnold recalls: “This new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding… I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same.” Arnold also began keeping sketchbooks around this time, a practice he maintained throughout his life.
Returning to San Francisco in the Spring of 1965, Arnold resumed his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, turning his eye on film-making: writing, directing, and designing three short films over the next two years. By late 1967 Arnold was on the verge of receiving his BFA, and his final student film, Messages, Messages, was drawing critical attention. The film went on to win invites to Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Toronto Film Festival. Due to the critical success of their film, Arnold and collaborator Michael Wiese decided that Messages, Messages was worthy of a more elaborate hometown premier than the San Francisco Art Institute could provide, so in February 1968, shortly before their graduation, the pair rented the Palace Theatre in San Francisco’s north beach for the occasion. In addition to Messages, Messages, Arnold also curated “a rare collection of early surrealist films by Man Ray, Melies, and old French animations.” The evening was such a huge success that theater owner offered to allow Arnold to continue holding screenings. This led to the March 1968 inauguration of Arnold’s Nocturnal Dreamshows, the very first of the weekly midnight movie showcases that became nationally popularized in the 1970s. The Nocturnal Dreamshows also launched The Cockettes, an influential, groundbreaking psychedelic San Francisco drag troupe, into underground fame. Since 1967, Arnold had also been illustrating posters for local businesses, and was among the original group of rock poster artists in San Francisco, creating some of the first rock posters for the famed Matrix nightclub, which was later credited for originating the “San Francisco sound” of the psychedelic ’60s.
Tableau Photography, Paintings, and Assemblage
Arnold was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 at the height of his popularity and died in 1994. His works are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Frankfurter Kunstverein in Germany, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MoMA), the Oakland Museum of California, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive and Museum in Los Angeles, and the Cincinnati Art Museum.