|A Writer Writes
YOU CAN FIND HIM EVERYDAY on the corner of the market entrance sandwiched between the shifty Indian currency-changing men and the women on their way to the market to sell splotched pink flip-flops or buy freshly butchered chicken. Irreverent and erratic chutney music blares from the dilapidated upstairs rum shop. On this crowded and dirty back corner of stands Claude Stevens, looking for the man who said he’d come back Tuesday to buy his coconut tree painting, anticipating somebody to discover his artistic talent. In the midst of the raucous hustling and transient bustling Stevens waits quiet, patient, stolid.
You can find him every night on the corner of the Demico Quik Serve, the fast food place whose specialty is soggy fries, cheap ice cream cones and service with a scowl. The hustling on this street corner is for a different commodity: sex. Boys wearing Sean John jerseys and sideways hats walk with a swagger and talk of dirty romance in hopes of securing a date for the next Bootyfest. The latest dub music blares from the trunks of cars in front of all the Chinese restaurants as dreadlocked Rastas sit on bicycles smoking joints, women with huge gold hoop earrings with the word “SEXY” in it sell cigarettes and little children scream in joy as they swing in the playground next door. In the midst of this menagerie of New Amsterdam residents and lively chatter, a bittersweet smell of rum and ice cream wafts over the spot where Stevens leans against the wall, making no movement except to adjust the painting he is holding with both hands.
Stevens has been standing in these same two spots for nine years now, struggling to sell his pieces of artwork. You would think that sharing his name with Monet would be a source of luck for him. But it hasn’t.
His native land Guyana leaves very little room for the art world and others like him. Only an independent nation since the 1966, Guyana is battling to find its cultural identity. Art is part of the process, and at age 55 Stevens is trying his best to open the eyes and consciousness of the Guyanese people, while making a few dollars on the side. Yet there is one problem. Stevens can barely see anymore.
CLAUDE STEVENS WAS BORN in New Amsterdam, Guyana and has lived there his whole life. His mom, a housewife and his dad, a mechanic both disapproved of his interest in art growing up. His older brother, an artist himself, encouraged Stevens to pick up a paintbrush at an early age. Stevens entered numerous art competitions in school and succeeded. But he needed to make money. He then started sign-writing and painting advertisements much like VS Naipul’s Mr. Biswas for various commercial businesses such as Pepsi, XM Rum and Banks Beer. Soon, however, the non-existent art community in Guyana became an issue for him. The only art to be found in New Amsterdam was tacky replicas of Hindu goddesses and mundane waterfall clocks. “I was very interested in selling my own work when I started looking around and seeing that a lot of walls here are very empty. I started building an interest in people by moving from place to place and having discussions about art,” he says. “I found that people started developing an interest in art in Berbice. Years ago there was nothing.”
It was only at the age of 40 that Stevens gave up lucrative commercial art for art that was his own. Walk into any Internet café, private home or Chinese restaurant and you will see a painting of Stevens’. His paintings are quaint and evoke feelings of calm complacency and satisfaction with life. Filled with bright colors and thick, broad brushstrokes, the people and landscape of Guyana come alive through his work. Scenes of the Canje bridge with one car traveling over it, the Essequibo river shimmering as if its waters were made of gold, a lone man carrying his cane down a coconut- tree-lined dirt road, the awe-inspiring Kaeiteur falls they all recall the rustic feel of 18th century masters. His paintings highlight the natural beauty of Guyana as well as pay tribute to the struggles and successes of its people. They make one proud to be a Guyanese.
I SEE STEVENS as I am walking out of my home on Kent Street one day. His hands capture my attention. In them, he is holding a painting of crude and starkly contrasted geometric black shadowy figures against a white background. I walk closer and see that the figures are of an African mother and a small baby she is holding. Immediately I am interested. Stevens, who is tall and lean, is wearing a collared blue and yellow striped shirt with a rip at the bottom and a faded NY Transit hat. His hat is pulled over his tight, gray Afro curls so far down that it almost hides the dark sunglasses he is wearing. I’m not sure if he ever knows what’s going on or if he knows everything that is going on. I wave; he does not wave back. I come closer and closer until my face is close to his and it is only then that he recognizes me. We make the introductions and his low and slow raspy voice informs me that he has advanced cataracts. It would cost $800 to fix his eyes, a hefty price for Guyanese standards. I buy the painting partly out of a desire to help and partly because I am captivated by it.
Stevens’ art has become his bartering tool for his eyesight. He diligently works during the day and fastidiously sells at night to save money for an operation. Though New Amsterdam’s interest in art is minimal, he describes the community’s response as “reasonable.” Many people would like to buy more of his work but since Guyana is in a bad economic state, they worry about providing food on the table more than tacking a painting on the wall. This doesn’t stop Stevens. He is persistent, motivated by his health and love of art, even though it has caused him to somewhat retreat from normal society. “An artist’s life is just really funny at times because the more that you get involved, the more times it puts you away from society,” he says. “I’m an observer.” Still, people make him happy and he confesses that people from all walks are life are his muses. At any given moment you can find Stevens deep in conversation with a local passerby or an interested foreigner, and sometimes I even catch him talking to himself.
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.
Celeste Hamilton is a freelance journalist. She has written for The Long Island Press, UR Chicago and Outlook Arizona. She is currently living in Arizona doing HIV Prevention with homeless substance abusers, and is working towards her goal of becoming a Bollywood dancer.