Augusta Savage set to toast ‘Gems’

When Nelson Stevens began studying art in college, he had a hard time convincing his professors that there was such a thing as ‘black art.’

Stevens’ work, however, is an expression of black identity, inspired by the blending of African and American cultures by the first slaves.Instead of wholly adopting the culture of their captors, they created a hybrid culture of their own, incorporating both African and American elements.

The importance of African-American identity is evident in Stevens’ work, which blends color and medium in a way similar to that first blending of culture.

Stevens obtained his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Painting and Art Education from Ohio University.He went on to Kent State University in Ohio to earn his Master’s of Fine Arts in Studio Art and Art History.

While studying, Stevens became interested in Chicago‘s ‘Wall of Respect,’ an outdoor mural once located in the South Side of Chicago, Ill.‘ ‘ Several artists from the Organization of Black American Culture painted the mural in 1967.Unfortunately, the building where it was painted suffered fire damage and was demolished in 1971.

Stevens found the work inspiring, as it focused on the theme of ‘Black Heroes’ in a time when African Americans were hugely underrepresented in the popular media.This inspiration helped to spark his prolific career.

Over the next 30 years Stevens worked with a variety of materials, including canvas, doors, paper, and even album covers.A collection of various works from his career will be showcased in the exhibit ‘Gems in the Valley: A Toast to Nelson Stevens’ at the Augusta Savage Gallery on the University of Massachusetts campus beginning Feb. 9.

UMass is no stranger to Stevens’ work, as he taught for the Art Department as well as the Department of Afro-American Studies here for over 30 years.

The style of the pieces on display employs bold colors and strong lines.Much of Stevens’ work also depicts iconic black figures, both historical and contemporary, as homage to these people of important cultural influence.

One of Stevens’ series, for example, includes such influential musicians as Miles Davis, Bob Marley, John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder.The goal in these and other works is not only to depict the people but also to capture the emotion of the music and the culture.

In addition to his productive career as a visual artist and professor, Stevens has also held jobs as a layout artist, assistant commercial artist and even a gallery lecturer at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Stevens contributed much more to the African-American cultural movement than simply his own art.He was also a member of AFRICOBRA, a Chicago organization formed in 1968.The intention of the group was to provide the Black cultural revolution of the time with a visual element.

Fittingly, the organization was started at Chicago‘s ‘Wall of Respect’ that so inspired Stevens.

The project for which Stevens is best known is his work, ‘Art in the Service of the Lord.’The finished project was a Black Christian Fine Arts Calendar containing paintings that had been commissioned specifically from African-American artists.

‘Art in the Service of the Lord’ went on for four years, circulating 15,000 copies annually.

The Augusta Savage gallery’s presentation of Stevens’ work will include works that are still resonant today, even though some of them date to the 1970s.The pieces, which include works both on loan from collectors and from the Augusta Savage Gallery’s permanent collections, retain relevancy because of Stevens’ artist philosophy; he advocated that ‘art is for the sake of the people’ rather than art for art’s sake.

‘Gems in the Valley: A Toast to Nelson Stevens’ will run from Monday, Feb. 9 to Friday, March 13 at the Augusta Savage Gallery.The gallery is located in the New Africa House in Central Residential Area and is open to the public Monday and Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Wednesday through Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Michelle Fredette can be reached at [email protected]