Tag: Isthmus

ertainment Editor at Isthmus

Jessica Steinhoff


Jessica Steinhoff is anything but ordinary. She doesn’t own a car, but she does own a piano. She was writing professionally at age 14. This classically trained violinist also enjoys listening to noise music that — in her words — sounds like bacon frying. Besides her dual first love of music and words, she is a photographer, a gardener, a cook, a traveler, and a communitarian.

As the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Isthmus, she carefully documents the Madison art scene, and she also shapes it. Through writing and relationships, she endeavors to stitch together the distinct pieces of Madison’s art scene into one whole patchwork design for the benefit of artists, art lovers and the community at large. Through her inquisitive nature, voracious research and clever writing, she infuses new ideas from around the globe into Madison.

Jessica’s life seems to be a creative journey toward the unconventional. If it weren’t for her modest character and serious case of stage fright, she would no doubt be the one in the spotlight.  So, I was excited when I had the opportunity to turn the tables: interviewer becomes interviewee. Here is a glimpse into the fascinating life Jessica Steinhoff:

Jessica Steinhoff – Arts & Entertainment Editor at Isthmus

I’ve been there in this position for over a little over a year, but I was a freelance arts writer for almost 4 years before that, and I did some writing for Isthmus while I was in college before then.

At the UW I majored in journalism and political science and then I went out to New York and studied at NYU. That’s where I really got immersed in the gallery scene. And that’s where I really learned a lot about visual arts because that’s where the center of the American scene is.

How has art shaped your life?

In so many ways. I guess I’ll just give you a couple of snippets. I got really interested in photography in college. This was right when digital cameras were starting to get popular, but I really wanted to learn how to use a film camera. My dad gave me this camera that’s significantly older than I am. So I started taking it out and trying to figure out how to use this contraption with film in it and seeing what I could capture. But then digital got really popular and I sort of switched over to that. But through photography I’ve met a lot of people who I really like and whose work I admire. That branched out to meeting people who paint and who sculpt and do all sorts of other artistic things.

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View works by Jessica Steinhoff:



During that time were you still focused on writing?

Yes. I’ve been writing professionally since I was 14 years old. I had kind of a silly job with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. They had me review movies and write about fashion from a teen’s perspective. And I wrote about the awkwardness of being in high school, sort of like the essay version of “Freaks and Geeks.” I loved it, and I met some really incredible editors. So I was pretty determined that I wanted to do a journalism program once I graduated high school. I’ve been a musician for a long time too, so I kind of felt like I had to choose between those two things…which wasn’t that hard because I have a bit of a stage fright problem. I like to create the music more than I like performing it. Also I realized I could write about music too and merge those two passions. I am a classically trained in violin and piano. I’m also interested in the mandolin but I don’t how to play very well yet. And I taught myself a little guitar at one point, but that skill has kind of withered. I’d like to pick it up again.

Do you still play?

I bought a house recently, so I finally have a piano. I haven’t had one of my own for a long time. So I’ve been playing again but I’m really rusty. I’ve been playing some ragtime piano and some easy versions of George Gershwin songs. As far as violin goes, that was always my main instrument and the one I was good at. I did a lot of classical works, I’ve played in the Milwaukee Symphony and toured a little bit with that group. So sometimes I’ll dig up the old repertoire and play. I’m really interested in other things the violin can do. I’m interested in fiddling and how people explore different branches of Americana using the fiddle. I like Irish and Scottish style fiddling. I’d like to develop that skill more. Maybe that’s what I’ll be doing when I’m 80. I also listen to a lot of rock and roll and noise music, stuff that sounds like bacon frying. Totally different than what I play.

So you don’t sit in your car and listen to the symphony?

Well, I don’t have a car. As far as classical music goes, I really like chamber music and smaller ensembles especially romantic works. And then I’m always curious to see what really contemporary composers are doing with avant-garde stuff and things that bleed into the jazz genre. Or people who are making their own instruments and composing for them.

ertainment Editor at Isthmus

How long have you lived in Madison?

This is my third time living in Madison. I’m a boomerang person. My first time here was in college as an undergrad, and then I moved back to Milwaukee and did some grad studies there. Then I moved all around, including New York City. I was there for almost 4 years. Then I moved back to Madison in 2008. Then I was here until 2010 and then I moved to Chicago working for Groupon writing jokes. Then I had the opportunity to apply for the job I have now, and to my pleasant surprise, I got it.

You’re obviously an expert in the Madison art scene. What have you observed about the Madison art scene, especially compared to what you’ve seen in New York, Milwaukee and Chicago?

Madison is its own special place. I would never want to compare it to New York or Chicago. It has special characteristics that those places don’t have. Madison is very community oriented, which I love. You can see that reflected in a lot of the art. There seems to be a real trend in terms of visual artists in making work about the environment. One of my big goals in my job has been to help foster community even more. People often complain about bubbles in the art scene. So I see my role as someone who can help bring those people together and spur discussion or at least help them become aware of each other.

If you could change something about the Madison art scene, what would it be?   

I’d like there to be less fear. It’s not uncommon to be intimidated by things like classical music, dance or visual art. I think there is a tendency for people to avoid those things because they feel like they don’t know how to talk about them as deeply as they’d like to. They don’t want to feel silly. Art is really for everyone. Even I you’re just a true beginner at observing a certain art form, there’s something in it for you still. You have to start somewhere.

What do you think makes someone an artist?

There are definitely art lovers and artists. Those two groups often overlap. Part of being an artist is having a certain type of curiosity, asking questions about the world we live in. I’m really interested in how the mind works. I studied psychology for a while in school. I’m interested in perception and different things going on in the brain that can shape that. People who are thinkers can be artists. Some people just have a visceral approach or a natural gift for color or they instinctively know how to frame a photo. I think art lovers are equally important. It’s not just the pieces on their own, it’s everyone talking about them.

Describe your contributions to “Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music”

This is one of the projects I’m really proud of. So I wrote this chapter about synesthesia, which is this situation going on in the brain where two senses kind of get blended together.  So someone might be reading and the letter C might appear to them as yellow. It’s not exactly seeing it, it’s sensing it in a way. It’s hard to describe, which is why I took on the project because it was just so challenging. Some people sort of see things when they hear music. So I interviewed a lot of people with that type of synesthesia, and then I talked to neuroscientists.

I’ve been a contributor to “Alarm” Magazine for many years. They branched out and started publishing books and design magazines. So this started out as a cover story for the magazine, but then it became a book chapter.

Name 3 adjectives that describe your personality.

Curious, community-minded and creative.

[quote float=”right”]”I think there is a tendency for people to avoid visual arts, classical music and dance because they feel like they don’t know how to talk about them as deeply as they’d like to. They don’t want to feel silly. But art is really for everyone.”[/quote]

What makes you feel young?

Being outside and exploring. If I go to the arboretum and I discover a tree I’ve never seen before, I get really excited and I feel like a little kid and I want to tell everyone about it. Also dancing. There’s just something about it.

Do you dance out while you’re covering shows, or do you mean dancing in your kitchen?

I will dance anywhere if given the opportunity and if I don’t feel too stupid doing it. You kind of have to be brave to be the person out in the crowd moving around if no one else really is. And I can’t say I’m brave enough to always be that person, but I think about it a lot. And yes, I also dance in my kitchen.

What makes you feel old?

I interview a lot of people, and it’s really fun to interview people who are younger than me and people who have grown up having the Internet their entire lives. For example, people who don’t remember thick newspapers that are actually in print. That is interesting to me but it also makes me feel old. I like certain things that are old fashioned too and have a little bit of nostalgia for those types of things.

What was the first tape / record / 8-track / CD you remember buying?

One of the first ones that I bought myself was Mariah Carey’s “Music Box.” I really liked her cover of “Without You,” which I later discovered was a song by Bad Finger, kind of a power pop group that was popular in the 70’s. They’re bassist is actually from Madison. I sort of have a thing for Bad Finger; they’re a guilty pleasure. But I don’t listen to Mariah that much anymore.

What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

I have this uncle who lives in upstate New York. He used to live in New York City where he designed high end gardens. So he’s this really interesting creative person who works with plants, which I also love. When I was a kid one year he sent me a rose bush to plant, and it was called a Pretty Jessica. It was such a wonderful thing to send a little girl, and I’ve been able to watch it grow in my parents’ yard most of my life.

Name the top 3 things you would take with you on a desert island?

I would definitely like to write some music if I were on a desert island and I find that easiest to do on a piano. I don’t know how I would get a piano onto a desert island. Maybe an airdrop or something? Some kind of writing instrument, and I’m hoping I could find something that’s sort of paper like to write on because I don’t want to use up my third one. If I could bring a friend or family member or a pet with me that would be great, but if that’s not allowed, maybe a photo album.

If you could interview anyone in the world for The Isthmus, who would it be?

Some of the people that I look up to are the hardest to interview. I absolutely love Morissey. He recently released his autobiography, and I would love to talk to him. He’s just so fascinating.

What is the best part about your job?

I get to work with words and I get to work with people. It’s a nice well-rounded combination. And the thing I love the most is that I get to create something new every week. Every Wednesday once we’ve submitted the next issue of the paper, I feel really good. I feel really privileged being able to work in some facet of the arts.

What is the worst part about your job?

There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do. I’ve got a lot of ideas and there’s never enough resources to make them happen, especially time.

What do plan to be doing when you are 80 years old? 

One thing I’ve wanted to do in retirement is teach English in another country. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. I’m fascinated with the pop culture there. I’m fortunate to have been able to go travel in Europe. I got to go to Berlin, which is just an amazing city artistically.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

I think I’d like to be something that can both swim and fly, so some kind of beautiful sea bird or a graceful bird like a crane. Or some kind of fish or whale that can swim deep in the ocean and see things that humans don’t get to see.