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 Nelson L. Stevens  (1938 - )

About: Nelson L. Stevens


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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Ohio      Known for: portrait painting, graphic arts, teaching

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
"Home to the Great Max Roach" 1979, mixed media on board, 30" x 40"
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Nelson Stevens, a native of Brooklyn, is an educator and painter, whose signature work is complicated figurative paintings and drawings and subject matter focused on his African-American culture, especially his interest in Jazz. From 1962 to 1966, he was an art instructor in the Cleveland Public Schools, and during that time regularly went to the Jazz Temple where he heard famous musicians such as John Coltrane. He has friendships with musicians Max Roach and Archie Shepp and has created album covers for both of them, who were colleagues with Stevens at the University of Massachusetts where Stevens became an Associate Professor of Art beginning 1972. 

Of this artist it is written: "In many ways Stevens's complex imagery is a snycretism of music (sound), kinetic performance, and visual expression. Although actually static, his images seem to vibrate with sound in ways not unlike Coltrane's work filled auditory space with energy." (Harris, 510)

In the early 1970s, Stevens was a member of Africobra, Chicago-based artists group whose members created images which feature uplifting, inspiring images of the black community Through interviews, exhibitions and art production, the goal is to make this art accessible and understandable to its intended recipients. With other members Stevens promoted 'Kool-Aid' colors, and he focused on studies of women including a long-running "Hoodoo Bone" series involving the female pelvic bone within a composition with a nude figure. He also did images of well-known blacks such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis and often depicted their heads above the viewer to give his subjects the aura of heroic status.

For many years, Nelson Stevens produced a black-culture publication, Drum magazine, at the University of Massachusetts, and more recently published an Art in the Service of the Lord calendar, which has Christian theme art by black artists from a black perspective. He has also created note cards, posters, prints and murals of which Ascensions, 1980, is the most notable.  Linking the history and famous people of the school including Booker T. Washington, the Flying Tigers, and George Washington Carver, he produced it at Tuskeegee University to commemorate the hundredth anniversary.

Of the book, Resistance, Insurgence and Identity: The Art of Mari Evans and Nelson Stevens and the Black Arts Movement, the editorial review on had the following:

"Resistance, Insurgence and Identity: The Art of Mari Evans, Nelson Stevens and the Black Arts Movement is an inquiry into how art was used to express the discontent and aspirations of Black America during the turbulent sixties and seventies. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many African Americans became more convinced that the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement were not enough to meet their needs nor deal with the increased hostility of white America. Thus, Black America shifted its interest from the Civil Rights movement with its emphasis on integration and equality to Black Liberation with its emphasis on nationalism, self-determination and separation, socially and culturally.

As sensitive members of the black community, some black artists decided to join the struggle, in what came to known as the Black Arts Movement. Larry Neal defined the Black Arts Movement as being radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement programs a radical reordering of Western cultural aesthetics. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique and iconology. The distinctive visions that unite the art of Mari Evans and Nelson Stevens exemplify the spirit of achievements and self-determination, consciously or not, that links them to the Black Arts Movement and thereby the Black Liberation Struggle. This inquiry examines how Mari Evans and Nelson Stevens ethos, fashioned by their lives and certain influences, causes each to create the unique messages and visions that became their personal resistance, insurgence and defense against the insidious ideological effects of racism. Their inimitable creations are cultural contributions inscribed with an ideology of a love for black people with whom they share an African identity.

Michael D. Harris, Essay "Nelson L. Stevens", St. James Guide to Black Artists,

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Nelson Stevens (b. 1938)

When artist Nelson Stevens looks at a person he sees a broad palette of colors. That vision illuminates his portraits with a multi-hued, mosaic-like style. "I look at people and see the image in them," said the professor emeritus of art and Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst "My art is anthems in praise of people."

Steven's career has spanned over 5 decades and a multitude of media and style, yet has remained consistently grounded in the black experience and his exuberant celebration of color.  One of the highlights of his career was getting involved with the Black Art Movement in Chicago in the 1960's.  He had recently completed his M.F.A. at Kent State University.  He recalled during this period he had to convince his teachers and fellow classmates that black art existed as its own entity.  Prior to the movement, there was no literature to back up black art as an absolute genre. Stevens also was one of the founding members of AFRICOBRA, along with Wadsworth Jarrell and others, and exhibited widely with them.

Stevens' work may be found in many private and public collections, including the Smithsonian, Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, and the Chicago Institute of Art.


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