“I want my paintings to haunt you, so that you carry them away with you.”
Any internet search of May Stevens will inevitably turn up these words: activist, feminist, political. And, while it is true that these words describe important personal and artistic focal points that exist across her body of work, what May Stevens really was, was a painter of narratives, of intensely human stories. Political activist and feminist are then terms that could be viewed as facets in a long career, areas of interest that she delved deeply into, each a lens through which to view and explore her own narrative, and the narratives of those around her.
May Stevens was born in 1924 just outside of Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in the nearby suburb of Quincy. Her father Ralph Stevens was a pipe fitter and all around blue-collar American. Her mother Alice took care of May and her younger brother Stacy. Part of May’s outlook on life and society initially stemmed from her interactions with her father and her mother. Her father, while supportive of her interest in the arts was also outwardly racist. Her mother, a quiet woman, became increasingly reclusive following the death of May’s brother at the age of 15.
Following high school, May began studying at the Massachusetts College of Art in 1942. While there, she primarily studied the post-impressionists, and began to develop the narrative approach to painting that would connect all of her later styles. “I remember going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,” May would recount later in life, “to look at Postman Joseph Roulin by Van Gogh and being deeply influenced on a primal level—also by Gauguin’s painting Where Do We Come From? Where Are We? Where Are We Going? This kind of narrative painting that intends to speak philosophically about life itself was very important to my thinking, to the techniques that I used, and the way I put paint on a canvas.”
In 1948, May Stevens married fellow artist Rudolf Baranik, and the following year the two painters welcomed their first and only child, Steven, into the world. Throughout the late 1940s and 50s, May and Rudolf continued to develop as artists, and increasingly began to view art not just as a vehicle for personal expression, but also as a medium through which to comment on the political and social movements of the day. By the early 1960s, May was completely involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and in 1963 her painting Freedom Riders, for which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the catalogue preface, was exhibited at the Roko Gallery in New York.
For May specifically, much of her artwork was influenced by the poverty of, and lack of, opportunities for the women that she grew up around. “My favorite teacher, my painting teacher, was Otis Philbrick, the acting president of [Mass Art]. He liked my painting a lot, and he said he wanted me to promise him that I would never give up painting. I thought that was wonderful. It indicated that he understood how hard it was for a woman to go on, because they usually got married and had children. They don’t become painters.”
As her artistic career became increasingly political, May began to return to her “narrative” roots, she began to create in series—painting, and exploring, the same narrative different ways, approaching an idea from numerous viewpoints and perspectives, saying in an interview, “I start with an idea and look at it in different ways. There’s more to say—contriving to see it—think about it—go all around it and discover more. I want to really plumb the depths.” It was with this approach—an approach that necessitated multitudes—that May Stevens began to make a larger impact.
Big Daddy: political narratives of the father
Perhaps one of May’s first series to gain widespread recognition was the Big Daddy series, painted between 1967 and 1976. Initially based on a photo she took of her aging father, the Big Daddy series came to represent dueling aspects of her life: the personal and the political. Remember that May Stevens’ father was unapologetically racist and came to represent, in the artist’s mind, the white, male-dominated and unabashedly patriotic world of late 1960s America—a world and culture, whose viewpoint would eventually lead to the Vietnam War. So, the image of May’s father, and all of the memories and emotions that she associated with the man, became Big Daddy. She painted him as a “fat, white, self-satisfied, smug man who is totally naked, and with a big bald head.” He was gross, fat and self-involved—a bland authoritarian—he represented, both physically and conceptually, the politics of the moment that she so detested.
Even May Stevens acknowledged that Big Daddy Paper Doll was her most effective and well known of the Big Daddy series. Painted primarily in red, white and blue, the painting (above) shows Big Daddy naked. He has been stripped of clothing and the power that uniforms convey. Transformed of into a child’s toy, Big Daddy is no longer deadly. On either side of him are different costumes, each costume representing an aspect of patriarchal authority. However, for May, the imagery went beyond the representational and into reality—into the riots and into the war those riots were protesting. “On one side of him is a soldier; on the other a policeman in a dark, blue uniform with a big, blue, shiny helmet for riot gear. Then there is a black-clothed, hooded hangman. At the end is the butcher. Both the butcher and his bulldog wear white aprons stained with blood. The butcher and the hangman are allegorical, but the policeman and the military are real.”
Ordinary/Extraordinary: feminist narratives of the mother
Based on nursing home photos of her mother Alice, Ordinary/Extraordinary explored the lives of women through the lens of her mother’s final years. And, again, just as there was duality in the Big Daddy series—a conflict of personal and political narratives—there was duality in the paintings that comprised this series. In discussing the painting Forming the Fifth International, May addressed these dueling narratives—that of the iconic, historical figure versus that of the commonplace woman—which comprised its subject matter.
“In [Forming the Fifth International, from] Ordinary/Extraordinary, it isn’t just a clash of cultures that I’m dealing with. I’m dealing with the lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Alice Stevens. Alice Stevens was born in Canada in 1895. Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871. These two women, who are important to me, were juxtaposed by me because of the differences in their lives and because, as a part of the women’s movement, I was very interested in the range, the span, the diversity, the problems, and the possibilities of women’s lives. So here I placed a woman who was a Polish Jew and became an international theoretician, organizer, and actual world-changer, and juxtaposed her with my own mother, who was a housewife, had two children, and ended up in nursing homes.”
We see in this painting, divergent paths, partly chosen based on expectation—societal and cultural—partly chosen based on character. These divergent paths, placed side by side, create a narrative that beautifully conveys the lack of opportunity for women that so disheartened May Stevens; on one side sits her mother, a woman given no choice in life other than to raise a family, opposite her mother sits a woman who chose the path normally reserved for a man, and a woman who eventually paid for that choice with her life.
Water: narratives of love and loss
May Stevens most recent series came into the being as a response to the loss of those closest to her: the loss of her son Steven, who committed suicide in 1981 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson river in New York; the loss of her mother Alice, who died in 1986; and her husband Rudolph, who passed in 1998 from heart failure. While she continued to work on the Ordinary/Extraordinary series for several years following the deaths of Steven and Alice, it seems that her water series really came into being following the death of Rudolph, her partner of 41 years.
The water series began with May scattering Rudolph’s ashes in different bodies of water that were important to May and Rudolph—in the Charles River in Massachusetts; in the Santa Fe River and in Galisteo Creek, both in New Mexico. As she put it, “My new paintings tell the story of Rudolph, our life, and of our love together.” Perhaps what sets these paintings apart from any previous water painting is her use of words within the painting. She paints tens of thousands of words across the water. They represent the ashes of her loved ones, but appropriately take on the quality of light dancing on the waves. The words serve a spatial purpose too: floating on top of the water, they add a luminescence and depth that I find remarkable. And of course the words add another layer of meaning to her work. Initially, she picked up the technique from Rudolph, who began adding words to his work as a way to deal with the loss of Steven. For May, she initially added the words “Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto”—thanks to life, which has given me so much—the lyrics to a song Rudolph asked to have sung after his death. Eventually, words came to encompass so much more—eventually, she saw the combination of water and words as a means to connect the many aspects and narratives that had combined, like the confluence of many rivers, into her own life.
“It all ties in. It begins with the canal. Rosa [Luxemburg] was thrown into a canal, so I began working with the canal. I have my mother in one painting sitting on two sides of a canal, which started out as Rosa’s canal, but then I name it Fore River, which is my river where I swam as a child. So I do all these canal paintings, and eventually Steven dies close to the water. They all connect. It’s all one body of water that connects my childhood, my love of water, my swimming…and then it goes to Rosa, her being thrown into the water, the canal, her death, and then it goes into the Hudson river, yes. So there’s this kind of circularity, continuity, and it’s the way I feel about life and death, about circularity, continuity. There’s nothing strange or weird about it. It’s extremely natural. So, [the paintings] Galisteo, Connemara, and Atlantic, which refer to the scattering of Rudolph’s ashes, are part of the continuity.”
There is a world of techniques and ideas in the paintings of May Stevens that I find compelling. She paints large. Her paintings cover walls. They feel like a place, not a picture. And, her paintings, regardless of the often very dark subject matter, are always beautifully painted in rich and vivid colors—colors that feel like bruises. With May Stevens, it seems painting is a sensual act, but an act in which Apollonian control vies for dominance against Dionysian abandon. Textures move from the clear to the opaque, and the surface of a painting can feel meticulously executed while also being covered in the incidental drips of too much oil.
In particular, I love that she works in series, that she will explore the same idea for years. I am a serial painter as well, so I feel a connection to her philosophical drive, a drive that seeks to explore a limited number of ideas from an unlimited number of perspectives. Additionally, as she discussed in the quote above, a single idea in one series of paintings (in this case the canal Rosa Luxemburg was thrown into) can morph into a new series of paintings years later. I find a personal connection to this idea as well. In fact, my tree series—my exploration of the visual rhythms and plays of light that exist in a dense and wooded landscape—began as a study of table legs! Like the metamorphosis of certain insects, the central idea can, over time, undergo an essential change in its nature, and the original idea can become both unrecognizable and, in its transformed state, incredibly beautiful!
Perhaps what I take, more than anything else, from May Stevens is the fact that at 93, she is still painting—in other words, she has kept her promise to her painting teacher. And, as I am getting older, I find her ethic inspiring. To me it says, “Never give up!” and “Be who you are!” for as long as possible, regardless of what society, or any single person, tells you to do or be. Always keep painting. Art, or the act of creation, can become a lifelong friend, a friend that will be there for the good times, and will help you through the bad, a friend that will help you explore the world outside, as well as the universe within.