The late Nelson Stevens, who taught art at UMass for 3 decades, has two of his historic murals recreated, dedicated in Springfield
|Published: 09-25-2022 7:34 PM
SPRINGFIELD — The life and legacy of the late artist and educator Nelson Stevens was celebrated Saturday afternoon with commemorations at recreations of two of his historic murals.
Stevens, who spent more than three decades teaching in the art department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as well as the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies alongside Professor John H. Bracey Jr., died in July. He was 84 years old.
To celebrate his memory, two of Stevens’ original murals — Tribute to Black Women and The Wall of Black Music with his student Clyde Santana — were recreated by Common Wealth Murals at 1 Montrose St. and 38 Catherine St., respectively.
To officially open them for public viewing, two back-to-back ribbon-cutting ceremonies were held at the sites of the two new murals, which featured remarks from close friends and family as well as performances by Ammaya Dance and Drum, a collective of dancers and drummers who practice traditional West African and Afro-Caribbean dance and drumming.
“Nelson Stevens was a great artist and teacher, and greater friend. A best buddy for nearly six decades,” Bracey told the crowd. “Now family and friends, and people that love Nelson’s work, you’re gonna keep him alive in your memories. As long as you remember, he’s not dead. His spirit is carried on to the next generations.”
State Rep. Bud L. Williams, D-Springfield, and Springfield At-Large City Councilor Tracye Whitfield were also among those who shared a few remarks.
Stevens was also a member of the influential artist collective African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), which was established in Chicago in 1968 and originally known as COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists.) The group directed the creation of more than 30 murals throughout the city of Springfield.
“Nelson has a particular kind of thing that I’ve always found so extraordinary because one would never associate Nelson with being a mathematician. But I see Nelson, the manner in which he deals with the imagery is fractalism,” said Napolean Jones-Henderson, a long-standing founding member of AfriCOBRA, while motioning toward the mural The Wall of Black Music. “Like, he takes a hole, and it’s exploded into all of his fractal component parts. But the energy that connects them or the energy that pushes them out, draws them back. I mean, who can imagine two brothers coming out of the saxophone?”
Stevens was celebrated over the course of his life for his focus on African American culture and jazz. His signature style includes bold colors, unexpected lines and tributes to historical and contemporary iconic figures.
Artist Clyde Santana described Nelson as the father of Afro-kinetic expressionism.
“I’m going to tell you this is not a sad day. This is a day of celebration for a man who, I believe, started a new movement,” said Santana.
In addition to his AfriCOBRA membership, Stevens belonged to the College Art Association and the National Conference of Artists.
His work has been featured in exhibits in New York City, The Tate Modern in London, and in Venice, Italy at the Biennal. One of his paintings hangs in the Smithsonian at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Stevens, who held a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Ohio University and a master’s degree in fine arts from Kent State University, was honored by the city of Springfield on June 12, 2021, when the City Council declared it “Nelson Stevens Day.”
To recreate Stevens’ work, Common Wealth Murals Director Britt Ruhe said that artists spent hours tracing every single dot or line from photographs taken by Clyde Santana. Once that was finished, every dot, line or splash of color was numbered with a corresponding color.
Fresh Paint Springfield, the downtown mural festival that first took place in June 2019, hosted community painting parties and events to complete 10 murals over the course of a week in September. The annual event is produced by Common Wealth Murals, which also manages a Community Muralist Institute as well as individual mural installations that are intended to engage and uplift communities.
This year, Fresh Paint focused on four murals in Mason Square, four in the North End and two downtown, and apprentices of the Fresh Paint Apprentice Program worked alongside professional mural artists to recreate Nelsons’ two historic AfriCOBRA murals.
“We had over 300 people from the community help paint this mural,” said Ruhe, while standing at The Tribute to Black Women mural.
At the end of the commemoration at the Tribute to Black Women mural, Whitfield presented Stevens’ daughter, Nadya Stevens, with a proclamation from the city recognizing, commending and honoring the life and work of her father. The proclamation lauds Stevens for his passion and dedication to public art, Black fine art and for making a difference in the lives of many in Springfield.
“This is a very emotional moment for me. I’m so proud of my dad. And I’m so grateful to all of you are coming together to create something so beautiful that I’m sure will stand the test of time,” said Nadya Stevens. “He wanted to make art for the community. He wanted people in the community to have access to art, to open their eyes, to inspire them. … And now the community came together to make his art to honor him and to represent themselves and to show themselves how beautiful and how powerful they are.”Emily Thurlow can be reached at email@example.com.