A South Dakota boy and USD alumnus rises quickly to become the youngest partner in Salomon Bros., the giant investment banking firm in New York, then quits at age 43 to start his own real estate investment business. And while he’s at it, he begins an intensive third career, becoming a successful abstract painter
If you ask J. Steven Manolis what is important to him now, at age 70, he’ll tell you it’s not enough that he’s produced critically-acclaimed paintings or sold his work to collectors around the world. He is motivated to communicate the philosophy that drives him. He wants his art to be a medium for social activism.
“There’s more for me to do than there is time in a day,” Manolis said. “This will be one of my life legacies.”
Manolis, a 1970 USD graduate, has donated seven canvases, collectively valued at $550,000, to the University of South Dakota. The paintings hang in the Muenster University Center, the Beacom School of Business and the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts.
“This could well become my most influential and chief lifetime artistic feat,” Manolis said. “My future intent is for these REDWORLD works to provide daily inspiration for the USD students, faculty, alumni and campus visitors.”
REDWORLD is what Manolis has named the series of works he donated. The paintings are massive—one measures 7 feet by 36 feet— and they are very, very red. He has included symbols in the paintings that represent his life, his family, the four seasons, and male and female sexuality.
The USD paintings were created to fit specific locations in the USD buildings and to convey a strong message. Alongside the paintings hangs a poem Manolis wrote that captures his philosophy and his motto, “Fullon, all-in.”
He wants to inspire students to fully invest in life, give every opportunity their maximum effort, achieve more than they thought possible. “Take ownership of your life. You. Not your parents, not your grandparents, not your professors. You,” he said.
“My great fortune in life has been my Midwest values,” he said. Now he’s turning back to his roots in South Dakota, a place that set him up to succeed.
“I haven’t made the difference I could make,” Manolis said, looking at his life’s work. “Now my leadership position is as a painter. Now I want to make a difference.
“What I’m trying to do is be a living example of someone from South Dakota who became successful.”
Larry Schou, D.M.A., dean of the College of Fine Arts, has been instrumental in reconnecting Manolis to his alma mater
“Steven’s monochromatic color design and his large scale of artwork have rarely been created in the art world,” Schou said. “He is selling his work all over the country, and the prices of his pieces range from $5,000 to $250,000. Last year Steve sold more than a million dollars of his artwork to collectors.”
Next spring a different group of Manolis paintings will go on display in the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, said Larry Toll, president emeritus of the Pavilion, who says he was struck by both the size and the quality of the paintings. He expects the show to run May through October 2018.
“It’s a great way to do some education,” Toll said. “We are visited by a large number of school groups, sometimes 400–500 students a day. We are excited to create this opportunity for them to see his art.”
Toll also is considering another opportunity, inviting business people from the area to hear Manolis talk about his path from business to art. “It’s so unusual to find somebody who has both the left brain and the right brain thing,” Toll said.
It’s not so strange for Manolis. He says many great painters were also skilled in business. He believes he was born with an innate appreciation and understanding of color. Today he describes himself as a colorist, someone who communicates through the color itself and the emotional reaction it creates.
His painting technique uses layers, shades and nuances of color. He starts working with the large canvases on the floor, where he applies multiple coats of one color, sometimes in a wash over the entire canvas, sometimes in splashes and dribbles. He brings the paintings to the vertical position to do finishing work.
He paints seven days a week in his 5,000-square-foot Miami studio, scrambling and stretching to reach all parts of his canvas. “I’m up and down probably 500 times a day,” he says. To keep his body working he does Pilates three times a week.
Manolis was born in Vermillion but grew up in Huron, South Dakota, where his father, Ronald J. Manolis, ran a coin vending business. R.J. Manolis was the son of immigrants, a Greek father and a Swedish mother. His family at one time ran three restaurants in Huron and became very involved in the community. As a civic leader, R.J. was instrumental in erecting the statue of the World’s Largest Pheasant that has greeted generations of tourists and hunters to Huron
Manolis was always interested in art, but his family steered him toward what they believed was a safer career in business. During his high school years he was a co-founder of the rock band, The Torres, which performed around the Midwest and was named to the South Dakota Rock & Roll Music Association Hall of Fame in 2011.
Manolis received his bachelor’s degree in business from USD in 1970. He served two years in the U.S. Army and then joined Salomon Brothers and earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1975. His career took off at Salomon where he helped found the Mortgage Securities Group, which became a multi-trillion-dollar, global business.
Manolis also became involved in the National Academy of Design and the Vermont Studio School, and he started collecting art, especially works by Wolf Kahn, a significant painter of abstract landscapes. Kahn became mentor, teacher and friend to Manolis over the span of 35 years
“The greatest gift of all in this process has been the development of a close lifetime friendship with Wolf Kahn, artist extraordinaire and master colorist,” Manolis wrote about his mentor. “He taught me the dynamics and beauty of color and, most importantly, how color combinations and expression literally speak their own narrative language, which, when successful, take the form of ‘evoking human emotion.’
‘My goal is that every single painting I complete meets my definition of beauty and standards, as well as evoking emotions in me.’
“Throughout my painting process I am always reminded and aware of two artistic guidelines (and quotes) from my mentor Wolf Kahn: ‘Keep painting on that surface until you feel that even one more drop of paint applied anywhere would ruin the painting,’ and ‘In painting, as in life, one should always go further than one should go.’”