By Elizabeth Siematkowski
We’ve all seen the headline stories about our fabulous renaissance: “Buffalo Fights Back” the New York Times; “Buffalo’s Comeback” Urban Land Magazine; “Millennials Love Buffalo” Syracuse.com; “Buffalo Tech Reboots the City” USA Today.
These are in addition to the cheery posts from local sites about the good life in Buffalo, and the heavy Instagram traffic of colorful appetizers and cocktails at trendy restaurants, and the feel-good hype from the local news media about billions spent in development projects, and talk of Solar City, 43North, Larkinville, Canalside, etc. If you didn’t know, CNN featured Buffalo as one of 16 travel hotspots to visit in 2016. And Buffalo adulation recently hit a high point with a visit by television star Katie Couric filming a special segment here titled “Buffalo’s Big Comeback.” While this is super exciting for Buffalo it is a hard truth that not everyone has cause to be celebrating.
Have you met the artist Steve Ardo? He’s not feeling the Big Comeback, and that’s true of a lot of individuals, particularly in the arts community. Ardo, who is from a small town outside of Batavia, has been on the WNY art scene for the better part of a decade. He graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2012 with a degree in graphic design–coupled to heavy student loans, no job and no home once he left UB’s dorms.
“I spent the entire summer after graduation couch surfing at friends’ houses,” said Steve.
Some of Steve’s most well known works are the beloved characters he has created like the lovable “Rad-o-saurus Rex,” a green, pizza-eating dinosaur wearing shades and a baseball cap. And there’s the bearded, mandolin playing Hobes Scruffington McBeardsley who graces the cover of this issue of Artvoice. Ardo also has a mural on display at UB’s Center for the Arts.
But Steve is probably best known for designing flyers, handbills, posters, and tee-shirts for the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) music and art community, mostly punk rock and ska bands playing at Mohawk, Nietzsche’s and various “punk houses” in Buffalo (underground punk venues scattered throughout the city) such as the “Flower House.”
“My friend had a band,” said Steve, “and he’s like ‘Hey you went to school for graphic design why don’t you do a flyer?’ A month later he’s like “Hey, I booked another show. Do you want to do a flyer for that too?’ He got me more contacts and I did more flyers and went to a lot of shows. So now I have all these people that really appreciate what I do, and I’m going to the shows and people know me. It’s a feeling I never had before, a feeling of belonging to a community of people who actually care about each other and support each other.
“But because it’s a DIY music scene no one has money, which was okay in the sense it gave me a chance to build up something to say I have all this experience. One cool thing that came out if it is that Flower House let me live there a couple times.”
Steve’s summer of couch surfing became a winter of couch surfing–and then continued. Sadly, because he was never able to find a full-time job in our busy rejuvenating city, Steve’s couch surfing turned into a way of life that lasted four years. Although he did get work, a seasonal part-time job at Joann Fabrics once and some work at Great Arrow Graphics, the little that he earned went to his student loans, over $800 a month, which he paid faithfully. The situation made creating art difficult. He struggled continuously to scrape money together for art supplies––to make art for people who couldn’t pay him because he loved the music they made. The job market and his student loans made an apartment completely out of reach and left him depending on the generosity of friends. He was in effect homeless.
“My homelessness was not the version where you’re sleeping on the sidewalk or under a bridge,” said Steve, “but it is still homelessness. It’s still not having any stability, not knowing if you’ll have a place to sleep tomorrow or next week or next month. You literally don’t have the money to pay for a place to live and so you’re living in a constant state of fear.”
How can this be? Steve Ardo doesn’t fall into any category of people who traditionally can’t find jobs or are discriminated against. He isn’t disabled; he isn’t uneducated; he doesn’t have a criminal record; he’s not black, or Muslim, or obese, or unable to speak English, etc., etc.
Steve is a young white male with a lot of talent and a college degree in a city that is supposedly booming and on the rise.
“I’m not homeless because I didn’t try to find a job,” said Steve, “ I applied for a job at every single ad agency that had an opening. I applied for assistant jobs, clerical jobs, answer the phone front desk jobs. I was like I’m a designer but I’ll take a secretarial job or whatever you have. Still nothing. Not even any call back. I applied at Block Club because I know everyone at Block Club. I applied at Abbey Mecca a couple times. Crowley Webb, all the agencies.
“Last year I did an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign with the idea that if I can’t find a full time job with my design degree and experience then I’ll try and start my own small business. I wasn’t saying ‘Hey, I want you to pay off my student loan.’ I don’t want you to pay off my student loan I just wanted to create my own opportunity to work. It was a modest $15,000 goal to cover supplies, screen printing materials, tee-shirts, buying a domain name for a website, and replace my broken 2007 laptop. I couldn’t get enough people interested. After months I raised less than $500, which I used to get some tee shirts.
“It’s a little disappointing when I look at how hard I worked to get through school, the loans I took and the amount of time and effort I put in to building a portfolio and I still can’t get a job in my field. Which is normal, I get that.
“At the moment I’m applying anywhere because I’ve kind of given up on trying to find a graphic design job. I applied to the Lexington Coop; I applied to Cafe Aroma to be a barista, cashier, waiter, stock boy, whatever. I applied at Ashker’s and the owners seemed to love me but they didn’t hire me. I tried to get a job at Evergreen. I know everyone there. And I know everyone at Pride Center and I applied for a couple of jobs there too––and it’s frustrating because I have these glowing recommendations from people who have actually worked at the Pride organization. I’d just like to find a job where I can at least barely survive.”
As a culture we seem to accept and even glamorize the age-old archetype of the “struggling artist.” There are even several businesses named Starving Artist Cafe scattered around the country––they’re not a chain, it’s just an agreed upon concept in our culture that a starving artist is a cool vibe to go with a cafe. In Ardo’s opinion the starving artist “shouldn’t be glamorized whatsoever.”
When talking with Steve about which comes first, the artist or the struggle. Steve explains that for him, while his struggle has made him who he is, “I could do a hell of a lot more without it. I don’t need the struggle to create. It’s hard to pour your heart into being creative when you’re constantly worried about the world falling apart around you.”
After years of unrelenting worry of where he would lay his head at night, for the first time in his life Steve, now 28, moved into his own apartment this past December. This only happened because his mother’s situation changed and she was able to help with his student loan payments. Steve said that having a roof over his head that he can count on every night still feels altogether foreign.
It’s easy to feel the excitement felt around Buffalo right now. This “renaissance” of the city, the creativity flourishing, the innovation and all the construction is wonderful. Architects, engineers, carpenters, masons, steelworkers are all getting jobs. Doctors and researchers are flooding the medical corridor. Developers are building apartments and condos in the city. Many factors are responsible for this resurgence and one of them, a big one, is quality of life. People as questions before deciding to put down roots somewhere and quality of life is among those questions. Does the city offer art, theatre, music, dance, Broadway shows, well-designed parks and streetscapes? Would I want to live there with my family or should I take that job in Baltimore or San Francisco instead?
When it comes to cultural assets Buffalo measures up very well–Olmsted parks, great galleries, a philharmonic orchestra, an extraordinary theatre community, and strong music, art and dance communities, too.
Richard Florida in his book Cities and the Creative Class notes that there is a significant correlation between economic success in cities and the number of individuals in the ‘creative class’ (arts, music, education and other socio-cultural occupations). He has found that the higher number of individuals in the ‘creative class’ in a given city, the better the economic climate and success of the city. Unfortunately, many of these artists, like Steve, who are at the front lines of this ‘creative class,’ are not seeing the economic success they are so instrumentally helping the city achieve.
“Everyday I hear about Buffalo’s renaissance,” said Steve, “It’s frustrating, because people and the media focus on Canalside or the Harbor Center or Larkinville or 43 North, and major multi-million dollar developments like Solar City, Delaware North and the medical corridor.
“Those entities are bringing in jobs and people, I’m not denying that whatsoever and that stuff is important. But people and media look at corporate entities as idols of salvation and some of that is questionable. Take for example the Pegulas. Somehow people think that buying the Buffalo Bills saved the city. But the reality is the Buffalo Bills are not really impacting the day-to-day life of most of the people in Buffalo. The Buffalo Bills have no impact on where people live, what jobs they have, how much money they make, health insurance, where their kids go to school and every other measurement of what’s important in our lives. So we celebrate the Bills or a new office building for Delaware North and we overlook the fact that we still have this unemployment rate and failing schools, we still have people homeless.”
With all the attention on huge multi-million dollar projects Ardo, like a lot of artists, probably feels like he wasn’t invited to the renaissance party. But Steve’s involvement with the punk rock community coupled with the arts community in Buffalo, specifically the WNY Book Arts Center, WNYBAC, where Steve volunteered for three years, have played pivotal roles in his life, helping him form a strong sense of self-regard. Ardo shared that until last year he felt “ashamed” for being homeless.
One of Steve’s life aspirations is to work with LGBT homeless youth and young adults or with organizations that do education and outreach for individuals with HIV. Organizations he admires are Gay & Lesbian Youth Services (www.glyswny.org) which operates a safe space for youth and provides family resources, and Evergreen Health Servies, (www.evergreenhs.org) an organization focused on adult care through STI/HEP C/HIV testing and treatment, assistance in finding housing, care for trans* individuals, a food pantry, support groups for drug and alcohol addictions, primary care services, and mental health counseling.
Steve is involved with the Just Buffalo Writing Center recently designing a poster for the bi-monthly spotlight on youth. He participated in the first annual Sugar City Zine fair last November and the Small Book Arts Fair, and has attended the annual Jack-of-All-Trades at Larkinville and Riverworks.
Steve continues making his endearing character creations, which are an extension of himself and a metaphor for his life circumstance and struggle, as well as hope for a better day. Take his all time favorite character “Hobes”, our cover image; it’s the first character Ardo created. “He is the one who kind of started all of this,” Ardo says of Hobes, “he is perpetually happy, choosing to smile through all he has dealt with,” something Steve sees as a strength, something to aspire to.
Steve created Hobes in 2013, a year when lost his best friend, a man he loved deeply and was in and out of an ongoing romantic relationship with for over eight years. His friend is characterized by a fox in some of Ardo’s works. Learning of Fox’s death sent Ardo into a debilitating depression. “I felt so rejected by the world because everything had gone so wrong for so long.”
Steve told me of someone he met through volunteering at the WNY Book Arts Center, Chris. “He told me, ‘don’t live under a fucking raincloud, find rainbows.’” Out of the darkness of that year Steve created some serious light and has since become a force in the DIY arts and underground punk rock communities in WNY. Steve said he decided that year that he was going to keep going, that it was worth fighting through the paralyzing depression and anxiety. He wanted to do it for Fox, to “become a living legacy for the part of him that no one knew about.” And he wanted to do it for himself, “if the world was going to reject me then I was going to reject the world rejecting me.”
Steve Ardo has managed to find joy in the face of all his challenges. He has shown an uncanny knack for dealing with a lack of resources. He simply replaces resources with resourcefulness. I asked Steve for three ways he would identify himself.
“I would identify myself as a punk first and foremost – a fighter who hasn’t given up. Second, I’m a compassionate artist. And third, I’m a proud gay man – that’s something that took awhile for me to realize and to find pride in myself because I never had an opportunity to do that when I was younger.
After speaking with Steve, here are some ideas to think about. Pay artists for their work- even if, especially if they are friends. Give people a chance even if they do not have bells and whistles ringing from their resumes. Meet them face-to-face, take a look at their work and see what they are made of. Keep appreciating, loving and showing up to art events. Buffalo culture is the cornerstone of our city. Support it and the people who make it. Remember that the creative people with artistic sensibilities make the quality of your life in Buffalo more enjoyable. Whether they are playing music, making art, acting on a stage, creating culinary delights at your favorite restaurant or any number of creative things, we should appreciate them. And if you see Steve Ardo on the street give him a hug because he is an absolute hero.