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Man with white hair and glasses smiles while sitting in front of an art exhibit
Bloom Blog

A camera gave Steve a way in to making art

By Louise Kinross

Back in 1983, Steve Kean spent three weeks living at The Independence Program (TIP), then housed at the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre* in Toronto. Youth aged 15 to 20 lived on one of the wards and attended programs geared to promoting independence, including City Survival, where they learned to navigate the city and the TTC.

"Up until TIP, I had never done a load of laundry in my life because the laundry room in my home was not wheelchair accessible," Steve recalls. In pairs, participants practised apartment living for a night in the occupational therapy apartment. 

In the decades since, the Holland Bloorview program has been moved to local universities and colleges, so youth get a chance to live in residence. 

This year the hospital is celebrating 125 years, and we're checking in with former clients to see what they're up to.

Today Steve spends his days "making pictures" as a fine art photographer in Toronto. He retired from over 27 years in communications at Hydrocephalus Canada last year. 

Photography was "a serious passion from the time I picked up a camera," Steve says. "My father's cousin Eddie lent me an old manual camera and I was totally fascinated by it and took it up. At that point, I knew I had a need to create art, but I couldn't find a medium to work with because I have some issues with fine-motor control.

"I failed art class in high school because I couldn't make my hands do what the teacher wanted me to do. I'd get my mother to buy sketching pads and charcoals and pencils and I'd try to learn how to draw. But I'd get frustrated and throw the pads across the room. From the first picture I ever took using a camera, I was sold. It gave me a way to create."

While he's had experience doing corporate portraits and even food photography, he's most at home shooting the natural world. "Right now it's flowers," he says. "I've found a fascination with dying flowers and what's left behind and how beautiful and graceful they can be at the end of their life cycle.

"Oddly, that came from bearing witness to my stepfather's death. We had our differences growing up, but the courage, vulnerability and grace I saw when he lay dying was so beautiful and inspiring. At the time I described it as the most devastatingly beautiful experience of my life. It gave me a greater appreciation for grace and beauty in all aspects of life." 

One of my favourite collections of Steve's is called Canada's Heartland, with dreamy landscapes Steve shot from moving vehicles. They convey so much emotion.

BLOOM interviewed Steve in 2015 about his Front to Back exhibit, which featured adults with spina bifida. At the time, he recalled sitting, as a child, on a stretcher, “nearly nude, and being talked about as if I wasn’t there by this doctor and that doctor. There was an amphitheatre with tiered seating and [medical students] watched. I was looked at as spina bifida, not as a person.”

That early indignity at what is now Holland Bloorview fuelled Steve’s desire to shoot portraits where he’d give adults with the condition “a choice about how they wished to be looked at and what they wanted to show.”

Steve says it wasn't until he was in his 30s or 40s that he gained a sense of disability pride.

Today, he values his freedom to pursue photography and "spend time with friends, the family I was born into and my chosen family."

That includes partner Joeanne. "We like to go to movies and concerts, and just spend time together," he says. "I'm kind of laid back and not making plans, except to make deeper connections with people and have fun."

If Steve could give advice to his younger self he'd say: "On the other side of the tough stuff, everything is all right. Just keep going. If you want to consider moving out on your own look into it and give it fair consideration. Every once in a while the world still slaps me in the face and reminds me that I have a disability and things aren't easy, but just because it's not easy doesn't mean you don't do it. Lean on the people around you. I'm so lucky that I have a fantastic life and I've found people who care about me and I care about them. It's been a good, rich life so far."

*The Ontario Crippled Children's Centre was one of Holland Bloorview's predecessor organizations. Learn more about our history

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