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Steven Trefonides, painter and photographer in Boston’s art scene for 70 years, dies at 94

Steven Trefonides in the studio of his Brookline Village home in 2004. (Tony Rinaldo)
Steven Trefonides in the studio of his Brookline Village home in 2004. (Tony Rinaldo)Tony Rinaldo

Of the details in each of his paintings — an article of clothing, a casual gesture — Steven Trefonides once said that he hopes people will “look at the picture and keep seeing new things all the time.”

That was true for the artist as well. Glancing at a shape in one of his paintings in 2009, he ventured: “That’s a snake. No, an elephant. An alligator.”

An enduring and integral part of Boston’s art scene for more than 70 years, Mr. Trefonides died Aug. 30 in Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln. He was 94, had lived for many years in Brookline Village, and his health had been failing.

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His Brookline home was a museum of his work, filled with canvases, drawings, and photographs.

The most memorable revealed him “not only as a bold and brilliant colorist, but as a powerfully idiosyncratic dreamer,” former Globe art critic Sebastian Smee wrote of a 2009 visit to the artist’s house.

Mr. Trefonides had his first Boston solo show in 1953, a couple of years after he began drawing the attention of Globe critics. By 1996, when he had a show at the Boston Public Library’s Wiggin Gallery, “there wasn’t enough space in the capacity crowd to accommodate an extra stray elbow,” Globe critic Robert Taylor wrote.

The paintings drew from the artist’s experiences, and ultimately from a viewer’s interpretation.

“I do a lot of pictures based on feelings,” he told Smee.

A 1960s-era drawing, which included figures, a lake, and a rainbow, evoked “that feeling you get when you say goodbye — or hello — after a long time,” Mr. Trefonides said. “You get an ache in your stomach: Am I here or not here? It’s a feeling picture.”

“Trefonides doesn’t pin down his meanings,” the Globe’s Taylor wrote in 1988 about “Four Decades of Romance,” an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and graphics at a Newbury Street gallery. “Like his hero Degas, he knows the importance of what is withheld in the multiple reworkings of ideas.”

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For many years, Mr. Trefonides was as well known for his photography as he was for his painting.

“In 1955 I was walking down Newbury Street and saw a kiosk of photographs by John Brook. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do,’ and I visited John’s studio, and he demonstrated his camera techniques,” Mr. Trefonides told Taylor in 1986.

After shooting a photo essay at Boston’s Hebrew Home for the Aged, “I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and got an appointment with Edward Steichen, and he looked over the pictures and purchased six,” Mr. Trefonides said. “And that’s how my photography career began.”

In 1955, Steichen — one of photography’s most influential figures — had curated “The Family of Man,” a landmark Museum of Modern Art exhibit that was seen by millions.

Steichen told Mr. Trefonides that he would have included his photos in “Family of Man” if he had seen them a few days sooner. The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York have his photos in their collections.

Among Mr. Trefonides’s many honors was a Tiffany Grant early in his career to study in Florence.

Then in 1959, in his early 30s and married, he was traveling on a Fulbright grant when he found himself “seeing Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of India everywhere I looked.”

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Using a Leica M3 camera — French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s favorite — Mr. Trefonides produced “India,” his own book of photos.

“En route from India to Boston we stopped in Venice, where I bumped into a fellow who said he’d give me a 24-hour exhibition of the Indian photographs,” he recalled in the 1986 interview.

“Peggy Guggenheim came to the opening. She was wearing dangling gold earrings shaped like galleons, and her escort was Douglas Cooper, the Picasso expert. They were in evening clothes, but Gregory Corso, the Beat poet whom I’d met in Florence, also turned up with all his friends. Everybody sat on the floor. My wife and I were too busy to give this scene proper attention. Our daughter was roller skating outside, and we thought she might fall into a canal.”

The older of two brothers, Steven Trefonides was born on Sept. 26, 1926, and grew up in a Greek family in New Bedford.

His father, Nicholas Trefonides, ran a diner and died when Steven was 7. “I remember my father’s shiny orange shoes,” Mr. Trefonides said in 2009.

Despina Mistogliou Trefonides raised her two sons and then returned to working as a seamstress. When Steven was young, she recognized his talent.

“She encouraged his interest in art,” said his wife, Phyllis, and that included sending Steven to study at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, where at 12 he did manual labor at the school in exchange for lessons.

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After that, he commuted by train to Boston to study at the Vesper George School of Art, and then at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Amid his studies, he served two years in the Army Air Forces at the end of World War II. “He was on the ship going to the Philippines when the war ended,” his wife said.

Though Mr. Trefonides didn’t graduate with a degree, he was hired years later to teach at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

A key force in establishing photography as a serious art form in Boston, he staged the “Photovision” exhibitions in the Cyclorama building in the South End in the 1970s.

Mr. Trefonides also was a leader of regular meetings of photographers, though he later returned to painting and drawing almost exclusively, setting aside photo work.

“I still think of myself as a painter,” he told the Globe in 1973, adding that “I still don’t believe I’m a photographer. Whether that’s real or not, it’s in my head and I cultivate it.”

He met Phyllis Korejwa when he attended her first wedding “because his girlfriend was my bridesmaid,” she said. Phyllis returned to the Boston area after the death of her first husband, who had been friends with Mr. Trefonides.

On the day she married Mr. Trefonides, “Steve had forgotten we were getting married because it was so casual,” she said.

“We were married in his studio at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury streets,” she said. “He was out sketching in Copley Square, so his brother had to go out and get him and say, ‘Don’t you remember? You’re getting married.’ Two weeks later we were in India.”

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In addition to Phyllis, Mr. Trefonides leaves three daughters, Connie Rinaldo of Temple, N.H., Alexa Mase of Medford, and Jessica of Warwick, R.I.; a son, Adam of Brookline; and eight grandchildren.

A celebration of Mr. Trefonides’s life, at which his work will be exhibited, will be announced.

During a career that drew steady attention, though perhaps not as much as his work deserved, Mr. Trefonides was often honored with awards and grants.

“As my husband said to my nephew, ‘You know, when you are an artist, you have to live from miracle to miracle,’ " Phyllis said, “and that has been true.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.