By Gina Malone
As an Asheville gallery owner in 1972, John Cram was skeptical when a woman stopped in his studio and asked to show him her late father’s paintings. The body of work made an impression on him, however, and, a year later, Cram began researching Will Henry Stevens, a prolific, early 20th century artist. “I knew this would be a groundbreaking American Modernist,” Cram says, “and that has held true, with folks kicking themselves for not buying earlier on.”
For the past three decades, Cram’s gallery, Blue Spiral 1 (BS1) has represented the Stevens estate, offering an ongoing exhibition of works by the artist equally at ease with landscapes and abstracts. This month an exhibition of Stevens’ work, Into the Vault, will be on display in the gallery’s lower level from Thursday, July 5, through August 31. A gallery talk, Will Henry Stevens: Art and Journey, by art historian Dr. Richard Gruber will be held Sunday, August 12, at 3 p.m.
“I spent an afternoon going through the flat files to choose about 20 works that I felt might bring about a new and interesting exhibition,” Cram says. These works are available for viewing on the gallery’s website or at the request of interested clients, but they have never been professionally framed for public display.
Stevens was born in 1881 in Vevay, Indiana. At the age of 10, he was already taking private art lessons and, in 1901, he enrolled in the Cincinnati Art Academy. He worked as an artist for Rookwood Pottery before moving to New York City in 1906 to study at the Art Students League of New York. His first exhibition in NYC was at the New Gallery in 1907. By this time, he had married Grace Hall, an artist and metalworker, and, in 1912, their daughter Janet was born. Stevens found success teaching in New Orleans and painting Delta scenes in oils, tempera, watercolors and pastels.
“From 1916 to about 1926, Stevens spent virtually every summer in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife and daughter,” Cram says. In a video produced by BS1 on Stevens’ life and work, Cram says that the artist was drawn to “humble” scenes. “When he came to the mountains, it was the log cabin and the mountaineers that attracted him, just as the bayou and the common people of Louisiana had.”
Stevens is quoted as saying, “These bayou people have never tried to subdue nature, but have harmonized their lives with natural order. I feel the same way about the mountain people, but, on a whole, our Western culture has ignored the Oriental point of view. In the West, the idea is that man is superior; I think that’s a mistake.”
Stevens had long had an affinity with nature. He was influenced by the writings of Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau, and was exposed in his childhood to Utopian ideas by his parents. Critics detected this love of nature in his work. Painter Albert Pinkham Ryder was among those who called him a poet.
While in Louisiana, Stevens spent many years teaching at Newcomb College, now a part of Tulane University. “Besides being a pioneer for Southern Modernism, one of the reasons Stevens should be, and is, remembered today results from the legacy he left with his students,” says Andrew Glasgow, the original curator for the Will Henry Stevens Estate. “He was a beloved teacher; his students adored him and they recognized his devotion to nature when there was so much pressure toward abstraction. He instilled in them that devotion and helped them realize there didn’t need to be a choice between realism and abstraction. His lessons still resonate among contemporary artists and students.”
Stevens spent time traveling through WNC, including the Asheville region, and much of his work depicts the Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, TN, Glasgow says. Many of the WNC works are untitled or have vague titles such as Mountain Stream or Cubist Mountain View. Stevens’ work was exhibited at Black Mountain College in 1944, where Joseph Albers, an art professor and admirer, referred to his “sensitive musicality for color” and praised him for his color and composition.
“Keeping true to how he painted, Into the Vault includes both landscapes and abstracts,” Cram says. “He would switch back and forth between the two. There are a few Louisiana landscapes, but mostly Appalachian scenes with mountains, old churches, cemeteries and barns. The abstracts represent many different color palettes and compositions. They range from very light yellows with a Kandinsky feel to dark and mysterious, unlike other abstract expressionists of the time.”
The landscapes, with their “ability to capture nature in an honest and fetching way,” have proven more popular over the years than his abstracts, Cram says, although there is a sense of interwovenness that invites a pairing of the two styles.
Stevens left behind thousands of paintings when he died in 1949. The condition of these works remains pristine and brilliant to this day due to the fixatives and bold pigments he used when making his own paints and pastels.
His life and work inspired Cram, along with Lynn Hill, a great-niece of the artist, to set up the Will Henry Stevens Revolving Loan Fund, a land trust/conservation fund supplemented by a percentage of sales from BS1. These funds aid the work of organizations like Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Conservation Trust for North Carolina. “I think he would have liked what we’re doing here,” Cram says.
Blue Spiral 1 Gallery is located at 38 Biltmore Avenue in Asheville. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit bluespiral1.com or call 828.251.0202. Blue Spiral 1’s upstairs gallery has an ongoing exhibit of Stevens’ artwork along with an educational video, articles, books, and some of the artist’s original paints and pastels.