Moments and moods are what artist Ricky Steele aims to capture in his paintings. His work so brilliantly embodies both that he has been dubbed “the emotional painter.”
“I won the Houston International Festival in 2001,” Ricky recalls. “They said, ‘Ricky, your stuff is so emotional.’ There was a sign guy there, and he made me a sign, ‘The Emotional Painter.’”
The description—and the sign—have stayed with him.
Ricky exhibits at a dozen or so shows each year. As customers explore his art, they are struck by the emotion it evokes.
“Look at that guy’s eyes,” Jacque Ross says of one portrait, taking in Ricky’s art at a show in her hometown of Pensacola.
“Those people adore each other,” she says of another painting. “I think his art tells a story. It draws you in. You want to know their story.”
Jacque, who bought an original painting, posed with Ricky for a photo—at his request. The practice is his way of honoring the people who are moved by his work.
Whether through a portrait of a famous figure or depiction of anonymous children at play, Ricky’s hope is to bring people joy.
“People tell me all the time how my art evokes emotions,” Ricky says, “and they ask, ‘What emotions are you mostly seeking?’ And I say happiness, joy.”
Another collector at the Pensacola show acknowledges the emotional connection that inspired her purchase.
“I said, ‘It won’t fit into my decor but it fits into my heart,’” she says. “It’s absolutely beautiful. It speaks to my heart.”
Ricky grew up in Panama City in the 1960s. His father—one of the area’s first African American police officers—worked with white officers who became family friends and part of what Ricky calls the village that raised him.
“We didn’t know what racism was because all my uncles were white guys,” Ricky says. “They were police officers. Back then, the whole neighborhood raised us. They say it takes a village; we had a whole village that raised us. That’s just how it was.”
His art career that has spanned more than 40 years began with commercial art school—a path he took after realizing a college art degree was not feasible for him.
“I tried to go to college, but I was a father of six,” Ricky says. “I couldn’t afford to pay for classes that didn’t have anything to do with art. So, I got out of it and went to commercial art school.”
It is where he met one of the most influential mentors of his career.
“I learned under the late, great James Chichester,” Ricky says. “He was a great inspiration to me as a young African American. He made me the first African American airbrush artist to do T-shirts.”
Breaking that barrier was not easy. Racism became a part of his everyday life.
“That was the roughest time of my life,” Ricky says, noting he had to be escorted to and from his car when working on the beach.
He says he frequently was stopped and questioned by the police who would often say, “There aren’t any Black airbrush guys.”
Ricky would reply, “Well, I’m one. I’m the only one.”
He quickly moved on from airbrushing into what has become his enduring passion.
A professional artist since 1981, Ricky works on as many as six paintings at a time. Much of his work depicts African American subjects, but its emotion and appeal transcend race.
His art captures people in a variety of settings. Each piece tells a story.
Some illustrate familiar triumphs or struggles, with subjects such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali or Kobe Bryant. Others are in jazz clubs, with musicians seemingly frozen in time, and of tribal dancers joined in procession.
Perhaps the most intimate are the quiet moments peering into the eyes and the lives of strangers: a boy with a violin, a man with a piercing stare, a worshipper raising her hands to the sky.
Ricky’s work has earned him national awards. He was nominated as one of 16 Tri State Legends—from Florida, Georgia and Alabama—at the 2022 Tri State Expo and Juneteenth celebration in Dothan. He has been recognized for his humanitarian efforts and community support, and is proud of the creation of a Ricky Steele Scholarship Fund at Florida State University.
While Ricky enjoys much acclaim and his work is displayed in galleries around the country and available through his online store, the 63-year-old artist still chooses to spend much of his time in a booth at art shows and exhibitions, telling the stories of his subjects and connecting with customers and passersby.
“You know, my thing is, I just love meeting people,” Ricky says. “I’ve made enough money to where I’m comfortable, but I just love meeting people. I love making people laugh. I think God has truly blessed me to be in a place where I can put a smile on people’s faces. I enjoy that more than anything.”
His family is what makes him the proudest. His six children all are successful entrepreneurs, and his wife works with him on the administrative side of his business.
He takes none of it for granted.
“Just waking up, I tell people, is a blessing because we’re in a society now where every day when my phone rings, I’m scared that this can be bad news,” Ricky says.
He believes the connections he makes with people of all backgrounds—at the shows he attends and through the moments and moods of his work—have the power to diminish that fear and make positive change in the world.
“Goodness and mercy are always with me,” Ricky says. “My goal is to change the world with art.”