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Geoffrey Stein

Slade School of Fine Art, London, MFA Painting 

New York Studio School, New York, NY, Certificate in Painting

New York, New York

Past employment includes:, associate, Mendes & Mount

Former litigator finds inspiration as a collage artist

g.stein studio

On the difference between trying to make it as an artist and practicing law

On what it means to try to be an artist

On creating one of his political portraits

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Full Transcript

ex judicata: Thank you for taking the time to talk.

Geoffrey Stein: My pleasure. I have a question. Where did you get my name and stuff from?

ex judicata: Oh, I did some research. I was looking for people who have interesting careers, who had been lawyers, got sick of practicing, or for whatever other reason left law. You came up right away. I said to myself, “This is a guy I want to talk to.” 

So you went to Bard, Albany Law School, clerked for an appellate court, worked at a trial firm, and then got into reinsurance litigation in London. It sounds like you had a clear career path. What made you choose to become a lawyer?

Geoffrey Stein: My past is a little bit of a mixed bag. I was very concerned about earning a living when I graduated from high school, and I ended up studying product design for a couple of years at Parsons School of Design in New York. Then after that, it occurred to me that basically I was learning a trade, which is great, and Parsons places its people, but I wanted to go to college. So I went to Bard for a couple of years. After I graduated, I was walking around New York clutching my thesis, not getting a job. It was raining, cold and dark. I kind of fled back to school. I didn’t have enough math to do business school and I didn’t have any science particularly. So I wasn’t going to med school. I took the LSATs and went to Albany Law School.

ex judicata: After going through law school and working in law, you left. Why?

 Geoffrey Stein: I never found that creative thing in law, that spark that so many people do find. Maybe it would have been different if I had done public service or possibly something else. But I didn’t.

ex judicata: Law is so analytical and art is all about being creative. They’re so different. So how did you go about leaving law to become an artist? 

Geoffrey Stein: For me, leaving law and going to art was a process. I tried and failed for about 10 years to combine the two. I was working full-time and taking classes at the end half time and on weekends and on holidays. I did workshops. But I wasn’t able to combine them well. I was getting a little more senior at the firm and it was harder to say to a judge or to a partner or to a client, “Yeah, sorry, I’m not coming in tomorrow morning. I have to go to class and draw.” 

My wife, who is an attorney also, basically got fed up with me complaining about law and wanting to do art or something creative, whatever that means. She said, “If you want to paint, go do it. But if you don’t, you can never complain about being a lawyer again.” So with some tough love and to mix a metaphor, I got kicked out of the nest and had to fly. I had to go forward.

ex judicata: You left a lucrative career to go into something new and unrelated. What steps, in addition to art-related classes did you take to hone your skills to improve your likelihood of success? How did you prepare financially and mentally?

Geoffrey Stein: My wife was a law firm partner and we had a number she needed to make before I could leave law. By the time I left, we were many times past that number. So we were prepared financially. We don’t have kids, so it was an easier thing for us financially. We had a brownstone with a tenant in Park Slope back before the prices exploded. For two lawyers, our lives were very simple. We’re not big shoppers and we both paid off our student loans, which were very low compared to the folks today. I tried to do it intelligently. I didn’t want to be impulsive or bounce around. The way I felt I had done as an undergrad. 

But there are also psychological dangers, even when there aren’t economic risks. When you say you’re a lawyer, there’s a status attached. Even if they don’t know what you do day-to-day, people know what law is. You do deals. You litigate. If you are a trial lawyer, you win or lose cases. There are measurable results. But who knows what success means in the art world? Just because something is marketable and sells does not make it good. And just because something is good does not make it marketable or ensure that it sells. So there are tensions in that. 

ex judicata: So overall, you just really weren’t happy in law.

Geoffrey Stein: Well, I never found my thing. 

ex judicata: When did you realize law wasn’t for you?

Geoffrey Stein: I was ready to leave law school after the first year. But then I got my grades. I was eighth in our class and walked onto law review. It seemed it would be self-destructive to leave. It turned out that I liked law school better than I liked practicing law. I never wanted to go and do the big law thing. During the fall of my first year on law review, Cravath did one of these salary bumps from like $60,000 to $90,000 and everyone on law review thought that was great. We’re going to make all this money. But all I could think was that this meant I wasn’t going to get a weekend off or time away. I wouldn’t be able to say no to a partner. Maybe without knowing the word for it I was articulating a desire for a life-work balance.

ex judicata: You worked as a lawyer for a lot of years and it seemed like you had a clear career path while you were practicing. Then you made such a dramatic change. Was there a plan at some point?

Geoffrey Stein: I can make sense of it in hindsight. But it wasn’t planned. It was very random.

ex judicata: I know you were doing art all along but going from law to the challenges of art sounds pretty daunting to me. Did you have an “ah ha moment” or did you move toward full-time art gradually? 

Geoffrey Stein: It wasn’t all of a sudden. When I quit my job at Mendes & Mount, I’m sure they would have given me a leave of absence if I’d asked. But it was important to draw a line in the sand and move forward from there. Every day for the next three years while I was not in art school I was a contract lawyer at my old firm, working on my old cases at my old desk, using my old phone number. After three years, the cases started settling. It was more of a hassle than it was worth to keep going in law. I wanted to do some other things, so I basically stopped practicing law, although I’ve kept my license, which is weird. 

ex judicata: I kept mine too. As you said, there’s prestige associated with that, so people really respect it. It’s a good idea to keep the license active, at least initially, so you have a safety net in case a career change doesn’t work out. With an active license, you can always go back to practicing law.

Geoffrey Stein: Right. If it didn’t work out, I would need it because I would end up going to a firm or working in-house. Over the years, I’ve helped people write bad-faith letters to insurance companies and I’ve gone to small claims court with friends on real estate nonsense. I like being able to do that.

ex judicata: Which legal skills have come into play in art? I know, a lot of your art relates to politics and law.

Geoffrey Stein: I use my research skills to find materials for my collages, cases, news articles, or photos of different things. 

ex judicata: What surprised you most in your art career? What did you wish you knew before you left law?

I was shocked by how much writing and marketing I have to do as an artist. I thought I’d be sitting there staring at the wall, trying to paint, trying to put pigment on a flat surface for about 95% or 99% of the time. But I’d be happy if I could paint 50% of the time.

There’s just a lot of stuff that has to get done. There’s making the art, there’s applying for shows, there’s applying to residencies, there’s pitching galleries, and blogs and papers and magazines and stuff, and now podcasts. So I’m kind of shocked at that. I think that being older, being allegedly more mature, and having functioned in the business world were all helpful to me. My experience as a lawyer provides a focus that a lot of my nonlawyer art friends don’t have. They kind of wander around whereas I want to cut right to the issue.

ex judicata: What drew you to art? I know you were interested all along. You did woodworking, welding metal sculptures and photography, and more.

Geoffrey Stein: Yeah. I made sculptures when I was a kid. I didn’t particularly do painting or drawing other than what most young kids from the middle class do. I liked watching stuff happen. I liked the abstract quality of maybe making a pheasant out of a typewriter keyboard and the return bar. I liked the problem-solving involved. Art is more analytical than a lot of people think. 

ex judicata: What about your inspiration? What inspires you?

Geoffrey Stein: Inspiration for me often comes years after I’ve begun exploring something, and often not succeeding at it. Doing research and experimenting often leads to new ideas. Thirty-plus years ago, I remember trying to make a grayscale using text from The Wall Street Journal in a continuing ed class I was taking on Saturdays and it didn’t work out. But that led to an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere. The notion that you can use different things to replicate a tone or a color resonated with me. During the credit crisis in 2008, I wasn’t clear on what was going on and was trying to read up and learn about it. That led me back to that failed grayscale.

Oneday I’m sitting in the bar at Ben’s Deli having a corned beef sandwich for lunch and the Dow was going down 1,000 points because Congress didn’t pass the stimulus package. I was curious about the connection of the mortgage crisis and derivatives to what was happening on Main Street. I wanted to do something with Alan Greenspan. I had this really great photo of him, and I began playing with the collage and moving it in and out of the paint. And it was really out of that thought that I began a series of credit crunch portraits. After that series, I went back and I was working from life. I was doing figure and portrait stuff, and I made a portrait of late-night comedy show host Larry Wilmore. This led to a series of 14 collages I made in a year that became a show. The political stuff came out of that. I did a residency at the Slade School of Fine Art in London during August of 2015. I started doing some collages, painting and other stuff of friends of mine, I moved on to political figures. There were these huge rail strikes going on and bus strikes that summer because Boris Johnson, who was then mayor of London, was not doing anything about it. And I did a huge collage of him. It was like five feet by six feet. I used the throwaway papers they give you at the tube stations, the morning Metro, and the Evening Standard, along with some paint. Then for his eyes, I used tube maps. As I was finishing this portrait, it occurred to me that Boris looks very much like Trump. So I made a six-by-five-foot Trump portrait using paper pleadings from his third corporate bankruptcy. Out of that, other things evolved.

ex judicata: It seems like it just evolved and grew.

Geoffrey Stein: Yeah, it does evolve. It grows. It’s often a visual thought rather than an intellectual thought. 

ex judicata: How would you describe your work, your style, and how it evolved?

I’m doing a modern take on the Renaissance trope where you would put a symbol of the subject’s attribute in their portrait. You would put books in the portrait if the subject was learned or a dog if they were loyal or money if they were rich. So I was thinking, what if instead of painting or collaging that symbol I used stuff from the subject’s world, those attributes to make something? And so that evolved into using The Wall Street Journal to make the Greenspan collage portrait, which is 36 by 24 inches. I went on and did portraits of Geithner and a Bernanke using The Wall Street Journal, and I did a Madoff portrait using the Justice Department pleadings against him. 

I ended up settling on sort of a 30-by-30-inch square format, which gave me enough real estate to show detail. But it wasn’t so big that it was going to take forever to correct, change and finish.

ex judicata: That’s a really good size. Not everyone has room for a huge piece. 

Geoffrey Stein: Yes, absolutely.

ex judicata: And I like bringing in who they are by the written word.

Geoffrey Stein: Right. Exactly. I did Jamie Dimon with The Wall Street Journal. I did Gordon Brown using the Financial Times.

ex judicata: How about commissioned work?

Geoffrey Stein: I love commissions! I’ve done commissions of a musician friend for his 75th birthday. I used text from his favorite pieces of music and then photos of his piano. I did a piece for an old college friend, an energy trader. I used climate change and energy-related newspaper articles from The New York Times and also the federal regulation that allowed you to sell back the energy from your solar panels to the energy company.

ex judicata: It sounds like the commission work involves significant collaboration with the client.

Geoffrey Stein: Yes, very much so. When someone wants a commission, we do a bunch of meetings or Zooms or phone calls to figure out what of my work they like, what style interests them, and what palette they’re interested in. We go back and forth on selecting materials. Then we generate a memo that says what I’m doing, the cost, and expected delivery date. I send an update with a current photo of the work every 10 to 14 days to make sure the person is happy with where we’re going. I tell people I will not change my work when it’s done, but I’ll give them one change. Basically, if there’s some small change, I’ll make it. Otherwise, I’ll keep it and sell it myself.

I like when people commission art becausethey’re looking at art from living artists. That pleases me. And it’s not this insane, crazy, post-modern, allegedly conceptual nonsense where the most interesting thing is the wall card describing it. I like that someone actually has a view. 

ex judicata: How about the biggest surprises? What did you really not expect? You mentioned you have to market yourself and sell your art. How did you learn the other skills of operating your own business – finance, marketing, etc.? 

Geoffrey Stein: Basically everyone I know who left law for an art field has gone through and taken some classes in art administration. And I did that, too. I took a couple of classes at NYU because my wife wanted me to explore art administration as a money-making career path. I took the classes and realized I didn’t need a master’s in art administration. I didn’t feel I was really learning that much that I couldn’t pick up or I hadn’t picked up over the years or that I couldn’t pick up going forward.

ex judicata: I think a lot of people are not aware of how much there is to do aside from creating the art. Like anything else, it’s a business too. 

I read that you were an artist in residence at Pace Law School.

Geoffrey Stein: I’m still an artist in residence at Pace. I was supposed to start at the beginning of January 2022, but because of COVID, it got pushed to very late March or very early April. So we’re going to run through to the end of whatever the year was. It’s been really interesting. I work in an open space outside the library. People come and go. They’re studying there, buzzing around after class, eating lunch.

ex judicata: Is it hard working that way with people going back and forth? Also, I imagine Pace wants you to create art that relates to the school, the founders, or other people related to the school.

Geoffrey Stein: I love having people around when I work. Being alone in my studio can be isolating. Pace has been incredibly generous. I actually donated a portrait of one of the environmental law professors, the gentleman who founded the program. I wasn’t asked to do it, but they’ve been so good to me that I donated it. They’ve also bought a number of prints and I’m going to speak at an intellectual property course. The professor wants me to talk about my process and how that interacts with law. In my case, “fair use” is always my fear. Although, I’m such a lawyer. Please sue me. I could use the publicity. 

I was in a show in London with the virtual gallery where I had shown my work for a while, and they had this painting of mine, which was of a person lying on her back, and the gallery thought it was a sexual thing. It wasn’t, but they didn’t bounce me from the exhibit. Instead, they put the painting in the back where no one would see it. It’s like, guys, you’re killing me. Please ban it. I have the telephone number of the critic at The Guardian. I can make that phone call, or I can send it to an editor, a desk somewhere. But sadly, no one sued me.

ex judicata: (Chuckle) What advice would you give someone who wants to leave law for an artistic-type career?

Geoffrey Stein: I think you have to be very clear about how you’re going to survive financially. In my best year as an artist, I made the equivalent of six weeks’ worth of my old law firm salary, and that was not a “Big Law” salary, and that was a good year. That was a really good year.

ex judicata: How do you know what will sell and how do you balance the desire to create with the need to make money?

Geoffrey Stein: Some pieces are easier or harder to sell. The political portraits are a double-edged sword. Some of them are basically unsellable. I did a Trump portrait, “Individual One,” using the Mueller Report as collage material, and I think it’s one of the better works I’ve made. But if you’re a liberal, you don’t want to have breakfast with Trump’s portrait for the next five years. And if you’re a conservative, you think I’m making fun of Trump by using the Mueller Report. So it’s essentially an unsellable piece.

The art world is a fickle place. There are a huge number of people chasing a smaller and smaller collection of galleries and opportunities, and it’s very random who gets chosen and who doesn’t.

ex judicata: And it’s incredibly subjective. 

Geoffrey Stein: Yes, it is so subjective. As an older artist, there are other issues. I’m not a 22-year-old art star. I’m a 62-year-old white, straight ex-professional guy. But I’m very happy to have done it, and I’m very lucky that my wife is supportive of this insanity that I undertook. 

ex judicata: It takes a team.

Geoffrey Stein: It does take a team. It takes many people to achieve success.

ex judicata: I think that that’s another key, having the support network in place.

Geoffrey Stein: I think so and the financials are very important. My wife was the one who asked if I really wanted to go back to school in the fall or if I wanted to stay or find a different job as a lawyer. I took courses over the summer to see how I would feel about going to school full-time. That was helpful. 

ex judicata: Did you consider other law jobs?

Geoffrey Stein: After a year of working at a small trial firm, I went to a headhunter, and I got placed in an environmental law insurance coverage litigation firm. I remember getting up to go in the first day and thinking, “Oh, shit, I’m still a lawyer.” It turned out to be a much better place to work. Then I ended up working for the guy who did reinsurance, and I did that kind of work for the London Market. I had a very civilized career.

ex judicata: It sounds like it was a long journey. But you got to where you wanted to be. And that’s really the key, finding what you love and making it happen. You were able to do that with the right support, determination, classes, and all of that.

Geoffrey Stein: I consider the universe to have been unbelievably kind to me. I met my wife in law school. We’ve been married going on 34 years. I’m incredibly blessed. 

ex judicata: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Geoffrey Stein: My pleasure. If you have any questions just shoot me an email. Also, I am happy to talk to any lawyers thinking about transitioning to the art world.

ex judicata: Will do. Thanks so much. Oh, one last thing, where can those interested find your work?

Geoffrey Stein: You can see my work at Thanks. Have a good one. Bye.

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