HOW SUCCESFUL has Stevens been in distributing his work and motivating the Guyanese art community? According to him, not very much. “I should say it’s very challenging. Because some of those things that I expect to achieve I haven’t achieved yet, I did a lot of art earlier that I found not a lot of people were ready for. Society was not ready or prepared to accept it.” One his pieces,True and False, depicts reproductive organs and alludes to the harmony of sexual intercourse. Guyana, an extremely religious country that hesitates to speak of sex, found the piece controversial. Mysteriously, the piece was stolen after it was exhibited. Stevens never found the culprit. Another two pieces, Cooperation and Separation, caused a stir due to the political nature of its content. Painted in 1973, just seven years after Guyana gained independence, Cooperation shows six links joined together with each link representing one of the six races in Guyana. Separation, painted a year later, shows divided links that resemble ammunition such as part of a gun or part of a blade to illustrated the post-colonial violent and divisive political climate. The Guyanese population didn’t like this one either; it was too in their face, too truthful. Stevens was forced to hide it in his home.
Censored and discouraged, Stevens at an early age realized that Guyana was too young to accept radical art and now molds his art to his people’s wants and needs. But sometimes his people disappoint him and he looks to the outside for praise and encouragement. Most of his work is sold to foreigners who are in Guyana temporarily, Peace Corps Volunteers or missionaries, who are fascinated that a man his age with advanced cataracts is still producing beautiful pieces of art. One time, a visiting Trinidadian man promised he was going to purchase a large handful of his paintings. The man left, but assured Stevens he was going to send friends to check back with Stevens. That was in 1987. He still hasn’t heard from him.
As I listen to Stevens I start to feel sympathy for his plight. Like anybody who creates, he needs a reason and motivation to keep going, and his ego to be stroked. “When somebody calls you a good artist, it makes you feel like your effort has been valid, your contribution to the world accepted,” he says. I decide that I am going to help him break out into the world. I envision his work in the Guggenheim; “Claude Stevens: Native Son.” It is a good theory. But I am forgetting one thing.
I contact my old college in Boston and as it so happens, there is a project specifically devoted to international artists. The Transcultural Exchange is collecting tiles from artists around the globe to be displayed in public places in the US, as in a park bench or as part of a wall. The tiles would represent a part of one’s culture or country. Perfect, I thought. I buy ceramic tiles, acrylic paints and paintbrushes for Stevens after he agrees to be involved. I patiently wait week after week. Still, no tiles. I approach him after one month. “Just now,” he tells me. “You see, my eyes. I’ve stopped all painting for the time being. But, I’ll have them. I need to get my work out there.” How could I have forgotten? I know he’s not lying or lazy. Sometimes I don’t think he realizes I am there until I’m breathing on him. One night I even escorted him across the street, my arm linked in his, because he could not see.
I also learn, however, that he has saved enough money ($400 to be exact) to get an operation for one eye. I am very excited, but hold back because I don’t know if he is telling me this to appease me. I see him two weeks later on his market corner and he informs me about the operation. “I can see again!” he excitedly exclaims. “The world . . . is just so different.” I look down at the painting he is holding. There is finer detail, more defined brushstrokes. The leaves on the palm tree are starkly outlined, the man who is harnessing the donkey cart reins looks weathered and beaten and is slightly smirking. Stevens is grinning from ear to ear. His future is hopeful again.
This optimistic attitude slowly wanes, though. Stevens still feels limited in many ways. For one, he doesn’t have or have access to many tools such as easels, different canvas mediums, art books, facilities, even paintbrushes and paint. The one store in Guyana that has these materials is in the capital city of Georgetown, too far for Stevens to travel to often, and is very expensive. Stevens is not immune to the poverty of Guyana. Daily life is a struggle for him like most Guyanese. Stevens also is tired of painting rivers and town halls but feels trapped due to financial concerns. “I’m not happy right now,” he admits. “I’m hoping to go into my area of art which I have more pleasure in doing. I like to do a lot of symbolic and abstract art but it’s not lucrative. I have to cater now for the people.” He also is interested in portraits and human figures, as inspired by his love of Van Gogh and DaVinci. He loves how the features, the lines and expressions on a person’s face all convey a message, or messages. A portrait of a Negro Rasta man and another of a white girl, he claims, are his best two pieces of work.
Though Stevens has created little of the kind of art he would like to do, he has an advantage over most painters his freedom. For Stevens knows what he knows and paints from his own experiences, his own emotions. He is free from the stifling academics of art history. He is free from art criticism. He is free from the who’s who of the art world. He just paints. However, his position in a Third World society negates his freedom. His mind is free but poverty traps him. He has a strong desire to use his talent and contribute to society by opening an art studio for children to teach them art techniques from all disciplines painting, sculpture and drawing. But he has little money. He doesn’t have an art space. He is without books. “Someday,” he says.
I think of this word as I am preparing to leave Guyana for good. Claude Stevens is one of the last people I see. He brings me a final painting for me to give to my grandparents a river man resting on a boat on one hazy, lazy afternoon on the Berbice river. As he stands at my gate, painting in his hand, I pause and look at a man who has devoted his life to art but art hasn’t returned his favor just yet. He has been successful, I think. Despite the lack of support, the theft of his paintings and the significant loss of his eyesight, Stevens continues to paint. I look at him and smile. He smiles back, then quickly mumbles something about sending him color acrylics. I nod thoughtlessly. “Someday,” I say. We shake hands goodbye. He stands for a few seconds then turns and walks down the pot-holed dirt road, seeing life again with the patient eye like that of the river man in his painting. The river is beautiful, but he must wait to travel down it.