Ephraim “Ed” Steinberg (BFA ’86) had his most recent solo exhibition in 2016 at the age of 96. At the Weinstein Jewish Community Center, his paintings, prints and photos were celebrated by the local press, and he even sold 12 original works. It was affirmation that the art community he’d once beckoned to his little laundromat still appreciated how important he was to Richmond.
“The money is nice, but it is the acceptance,” said Steinberg. “The fact that someone wanted your painting. Something you created.”
Steinberg came to Richmond for good in the 1950s, after getting his chemistry degree from the University of Richmond, serving during WWII, and making a living in Baltimore as a paint chemist. In Richmond, he worked part-time as a chemist while running Meadow Automatic Laundry on the corner of N Harrison and Grace St. But Steinberg’s business wasn’t listed as a laundromat; it appeared in the papers far more frequently as a venue for up-and-coming artists.
The laundromat was located at the heart of Richmond’s counterculture. The RPI art students who frequented Grace St’s theater and eclectic restaurants would also do their laundry at Meadow Automatic. So by the summer of 1955, Steinberg decided to give students an affordable space to hang their artwork.
He repainted the interior, installed new moulding to hang canvases, and even arranged sales and publicity for each show.
“He told RPI art students they could display their paintings on the walls of his laundry,” reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch in March 1957. “The exhibitions have sold—with no commission to Steinberg—more than $1,000 worth of paintings.” That’s more than $9,000 today.
Prints by Ed Steinberg: “Roof Tops, Israel” (top), “Woman on Bike, China” (bottom).
Students at RPI were immensely grateful, even writing in to the Times-Dispatch to thank the business owner publicly. Artists James Drinard, Richard Carlyon and James Bumgardner wrote in July 1956, “In a city which boasts of its cultural achievements, this laundromat is practically the only public outlet for young painting talents.”
Maintaining such a close proximity to working artists influenced him to pursue a career in the arts himself. He enrolled in night classes at the RPI School of Art in the late 1950s—but he wouldn’t earn his degree for many years. Dubbed a “modest impresario” by the Times-Dispatch, he soon became an important and much-talked-about figure at the center of Richmond’s growing art scene.
Over the decades, Steinberg organized art shows at venues around Richmond, exhibited his own work at the Valentine and VMFA, opened the popular women’s boutique A Sunny Day in the Fan, and traveled around the world taking photographs. All the while, he continued his studies at RPI and VCU intermittently, at a pace that followed his personal curiosity and interests rather than a set curriculum.
By 1986, he’d finally taken enough classes to graduate.
“One day I looked and I saw I had enough credits,” Steinberg told RVAmag in 2016, “I said ‘okay, I’ll take my degree’.”
Steinberg eventually joined the VCUarts faculty, teaching screen printing for about 10 years.
When CBS 6 interviewed the 96-year-old artist and collector in 2016, they discovered that his home was packed to the brim with paintings, prints and photographs created and collected over decades of devotion to the arts. He hardly had any wall space left to display it all.
“I guess It’s another way of keeping me off the streets,” he said.
Lead image: Ed Steinberg, taken by WTVR, CBS 6.
2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCU School of the Arts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.