“Meet Jim Stevens | Artist & Author”
By Shoutout LA
August 17, 2020
We had the good fortune of connecting with Jim Stevens and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jim, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking.
I see risk as accepting the possibility of loss, danger or injury but being courageous enough or foolish enough to go for a goal anyway. When I was in the Army, risk meant something different than it does today. Then it was life and death. Now it requires a different, more subtle, type of courage that in some ways takes even more commitment and strength.
Since losing my eyesight the definition of a risk has changed so much for me. Many things I used to take for granted have either become a risk in themselves or increased the danger surrounding a risk. But what I’ve come to realize is that when you want it badly enough, any risk is worth the effort to overcome it.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
When I was young, I told my father I wanted to be an artist and a writer. He beat me black and blue, shouting no son of his was going to grow up like a starving artist in an attic. That day had an impact, resulting in several careers over my lifetime except art and writing. Art and writing would remain hobbies.
While in the Army I was shot in the head during a combat mission and it left bullet fragments in my head. Twenty-three years later, one of those fragments caused a stroke in my visual cortex and left me legally blind in just 30 minutes. I was left with just a pindot of vision in both eyes. I lost my job teaching at the University of Colorado, ended up divorced and the blind single parent of two preteen daughters. With all the anger and depression, I did nothing professionally for the next several years.
But one day my children said something that would change my world. “Dad, you’ve always loved art. Why don’t you get back to it?” My first reaction was a scoff and a laugh. A blind man creating the kind of professional art I had always dreamed about? Yeah, right. But the girls kept pushing. “Take a chance. Try, Dad,” they repeated over and over until one day I surprised myself by saying it, and immediately followed that up with “Have you lost your mind? You’re blind and want to become a professional artist?”
What a risk!
Just the time, work and experimentation required to get anywhere near good was daunting. But daunting eventually changed to challenge in my mind and when I told the girls I would try, they immediately made me promise I wouldn’t give up. They were smart to get that promise, because over the next two years there were so many frustrations I began to believe I was crazy and wanted to quit. They wouldn’t let me.
I spent two years finding and even making my own special lenses to help me technically and then came the struggle of learning how to draw and paint in tiny patches and then blending that with the next small spot I could see. All of this tiny drawing and blending went on until I finally realized how to create a finished work of art.
Those two years of frustration sometimes felt like ten but it was during that time of struggle that I discovered scrimshaw, the art of etching with a steel scribe on ancient ivory, bone and other materials. I fell in love with ivory and learned all I could about how to care for it and restore damaged or broken works of art. It was yet another block on the stack of art I wanted to learn with no promise of success.
But success has a habit of sneaking up on you. One day, I sold a painting. Then I sold a work of scrimshaw. Then I was paid to restore a broken ivory sculpture for a museum. Then more people began buying and then others began collecting my art. As my sales and collectors rose, my girls reminded me I had promised not to quit and look what was happening.
With interest in my art rising, I took another risk. I was asked to teach the art of scrimshaw at the gunsmithing school at Trinidad State College. It was hard, but the art classes became a success. I wrote a teaching manual for the class and that effort led to taking yet another chance.
Many of my students asked if I had thought of publishing the manual as a book? I didn’t know if anyone would be interested, but after investigating different publishing houses, I sent a query letter and three sample chapters to five publishers. I received three rejection letters and then an email asking for the entire manuscript from Schiffer Publishing. Within two years, Schiffer published three books I wrote on art.
Then opportunity to take a risk unexpectedly rose again. My six-year old grandson cried for help from the back yard and when I got there, he had his little fishing pole and a huge bird nest of monofilament line. He had been practicing casting in the yard and now needed help untangling his fishing line. As I tried to help him, the clouds went overhead and the monofilament line on my fingers seemed like it moved and rippled, even though it hadn’t moved at all. It was an amazing illusion I couldn’t get out of my head. I had to make art with that illusion.
That desire to paint on strings of monofilament line set off five months of trial and error until I finally discovered that to paint what I wanted, I would have to paint the way I actually see the world – blending the empty spaces between the real spaces I could see. The result became my layered monofilament portrait paintings. My youngest did an Internet search to see if anyone else painted on monofilament and she found only one other artist in the world and he is in England, but he doesn’t paint portraits.
Another day, while working on an abstract realism painting, I thought there had to be a different way of combing the abstract with the real. That thought set off another five months of trial and error until, again, I finally realized that to paint what I wanted, I would have to paint the way I actually see the world – blending the empty spaces between the real spaces I could see. The effort resulted in trashcans full of failure until I finally succeeded in finding the fascinating beauty of my abstract linear paintings.
As my unique styles of art became more popular, I began entering juried competitions and to my happy surprise, I started winning awards.
I was then asked to create an art program for veterans in Denver. That led to the opening of an art gallery for veteran artists at VFW Post 1, now one of the largest art galleries in the Denver Art District on Santa Fe.
Thanks to the push from my kids, I took a risk. The result of facing that risk is something that is still unknown because every day brings new risk, new projects, new works of art, and new opportunities.
Facing risk made me realize that a man with a vision is never truly blind.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would have to take them to one of my favorite places, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. On another day we would visit the Denver Art Museum. But even more important would be a day trip over Quanella Pass starting from Georgetown and back around to Denver stopping at Red Rocks along the way (and going back later to catch a show)
I would also like to show them the art by veterans at the art gallery at VFW Post 1 and take them to dinner at Salsa’s, the little Mexican restaurant in Wheat Ridge. A trip to Dinosaur Ridge and a look around the Children’s Museum and Downtown Aquarium would also be fun.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My children reignited the embers of my imagination and passion.
Jim Stevens Marla Keown Photography
August 17, 2020