“365 Days,” the world premiere of a collection of never-before-exhibited paintings by renowned artist Renick Stevenson, will open Saturday, Feb. 2 from 3-5 p.m. at the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts (CVCA) at 101 N. Broad St., in Globe.
Stevenson came of age during the “Beat Era” of the 1950s, hanging out with famous authors and artists who wanted to challenge the status quo and use substances to enhance cosmic awareness.
Seeming to be “at the right place at the right time,” he reportedly crossed paths with Jack Kerouac, was given painting tips by Clyfford Still and encouraged to move toward sobriety by Georgia O’Keeffe, while hanging out with friends Alan Watts and Charles Bukowski.
Growing up, Stevenson drank and drugged a lot. This impacted his work, relationships, military service and art. Still, he earned money as a rodeo cowboy, taught at universities (never having gone himself), wrote plays and acted, created street fairs and — through it all — continued to pursue his painting. After watching most of his beatnik contemporaries die and surviving his own near-death experience, he decided to get sober and clean.
In his new season of sobriety, he served as a substance abuse counselor, sheriff’s deputy and the Kellogg Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence tasked with organizing community murals and art programs in Michigan.
He wanted to use art to bring healing to people like himself who struggled with substance use, anger and a trail of failed relationships and broken hearts. Stevenson viewed art as a way to create healthy relationships and build vibrant communities.
It was in Michigan where he met L.J. Murphy, a professional dancer and artist. They married and, as a gift to his new wife, Stevenson committed to an art project different from anything he had ever done: attempting to do a drawing for her each day for a year.
These were a visual journal that included daily meditations, love notes, sketch ideas, reflections and poems. The couple married on Dec. 31, 2000 and the paintings began the next year. They planned to move to Utah where Murphy was to study ballet and Stevenson was to be a muralist; however, life threw them a curve.
Only seven months into their new marriage, Murphy’s 18-year-old son, Gabriel, survived a diving accident and had to learn how to live with quadriplegia. Stevenson was initially supportive, but the reality of 24-hour care for the son was more than he could handle. It did not fit the image he had for their relationship, and it changed their plans.
When he began to take out his frustrations on Gabe, Murphy asked him to leave. He did so, but he still loved her and wanted his gift of 365 paintings to remain with her.
Murphy served as the primary caregiver for Gabe for 13 years, which ended her career as a dancer but allowed her to pursue a doctorate in psychology. Unfortunately, Gabriel passed away four years ago of an opioid overdose, secondary to the over-prescription of pain medication by his physicians.
After several years of healing, Murphy moved to Eastern Arizona to serve the San Carlos Apache people as a child psychologist. She remains an artist and dancer. Murphy states art has healing power and allows a person to discover who they really are; consequently, she uses this in her psychological work with others and to address her own grief over the death of her son.
Murphy stays in contact with Stevenson and still cares deeply for him. However, he is fading. Because of his many head injuries during his rodeo and fighting days, compounded by his drug use, he now struggles with dementia and lives in a memory care facility in Colorado.
The art exhibit is a way for Murphy to pay tribute to him in his last days. It is also an opportunity for Murphy to honor her new town by sharing her gift.
“I sat on this for over 16 years,” says Murphy, “and now I feel accepted in this community. I am going back to painting and to who I am. I feel at home here.”
She is setting up the show in a way for participants to physically interact with the paintings. The work is strung on clotheslines, allowing viewers to touch paintings as they like, and discuss the way different paintings impact them.
She wants the show to be meaningful and to provide an environment where emotional connections can happen both with the work and between people.
Murphy currently rents space from the CVCA to paint and says “studio space allows me the opportunity to work on self-care and be self-reflective. Part of showing Renick’s work is wishing this for him. He is a beautiful spirit, but this was not always seen because of his inner turmoil and anger.”
Her wish appears to be coming true as Stevenson was overjoyed when told of the upcoming show. He said, “Wow! I can’t tell you how much this means. I am overwhelmed.… Holy cow, I am happy!”
Stevenson’s work has been shown at numerous art shows, collectors hold many of his paintings, and some of his murals can be seen still in Denver and throughout Michigan; however, his “365 Days” project has never been shared publicly.
CVCA is located in the 100-plus-year-old former County Courthouse at 101 N. Broad St., in the historic downtown region of Globe. It is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 12-4 p.m.
This column was supported by information provided by Renick Stevenson and L.J. Murphy, as well as an article by Alan Prendergast in Westword (Nov. 8, 2016) entitled “How Renick Stevenson Survived the Wild Beat Scene and Helped Transform Denver.”