Martial arts brought blind artist back to his true calling
By Gary Massaro, Rocky Mountain News
massarog@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5271
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Photo by Matt McClain / The Rocky
Scrimshaw artist Jim Stevens displays his work at his Wheat Ridge home studio.
Stevens stopped creating his art in the early 1990s after having lost the majority of his eyesight.
He picked up scrimshaw again about seven years ago.
When Jim Stevens lost his sight, he lost his way. It took the voice of a child, his youngest daughter, Megghan, to bring him back.
Stevens, 57, is an internationally known scrimshaw artist.
But for a seven-year stretch in the 1990s, he didn't do any art. Basically, all he did was fold himself in a blanket of depression.
A bullet wound to the head during the Vietnam War in 1970 affected his eyesight and eventually led him to become legally blind.
"The Army taught me everything except how to duck," he said.
For years, his sense of humor was as dim as his eyesight.
He suffered migraine headaches from bullet fragments still lodged in his brain. One day, one of those migraines hit harder.
"I was blind in all of 30 minutes," he said. "When the doctors told me I would never get a driver's license again, I took a crowbar to my motorcycle. My wife stopped me before I could get to the car. So I took a ball bat to my studio."
His spiral downward affected his family. His wife left him and their daughters, Sara and Megghan, behind. His kids were having a hard time, too.
He enrolled Sara in karate lessons to help her develop discipline and patience.
One day, Megghan, now 23, said, "Karate's been real good for Sara. Why can't you try it?"
So he asked Sara's sensei to teach him. The instructor figured he was kidding. But when he saw Stevens was serious, he laid out even more serious rules - do what he was told instantly.
Stevens stuck with it, eventually earning two black belts in as many disciplines, and is proud to say he's the only blind guy to win the Tournament of Champions.
"One day, my sensei said to me, 'Art teaches art. Why don't you take what you learn in here and learn your art again?' "
So Stevens went back into his studio - slowly and badly at first. With encouragement from his daughters, though, he soon was good again.
He uses five high-powered lenses to help himself see.
He uses legal ivory, usually fossilized mastadon tusk or bone, to craft crosses and pendants. He restores other artwork for museums and private owners. He also sculpts.
Scrimshaw was invented by wooden-ship whalers who would take walrus tusks or whale teeth and carve or drill outlines on them. Then they'd use ink to make the image stand out on the white background.
Stevens uses similar techniques.
He was a born artist, but his grandmother taught him to draw. He grew up in Golden and quit high school to join the Army. After 11 years, he got out and later went to college. He taught English and law at the University of Colorado at Denver until he took a disability retirement.
He has written a book for beginners called Scrimshaw Techniques, and the publisher, Schiffer Books, has asked him to write another for advanced artists.
"I'm pretty proud that a blind guy got a book published about art," he said.