Editor’s Note: The Barbara Stevens Retrospective Art Show is on view at the New Deal Cafe now through July 24. Speaking of the New Deal, Barbara created the History of the New Deal Cafe, an interactive website. Ray and Barbara have lived in Greenbelt for 27 years.
The last movement of many many musical works is often called a “Retrospection” because its a repetition of the musical themes which have been heard before.
Barbara Stevens’s latest art show at the New Deal Cafe could be called “Retrospection” because the show is a collection of works created over past years – a collection of many styles and perspectives. It is also a tribute to the places Barbara has seen and lived in and loved.
The first painting of the show, as you enter the cafe, is one of Barbara’s green modern renditions. It is partly a painting, and partly collage.
Barbara asked me “How many faces can you see in this painting?” I replied that, in my imagination, I could see many, and I remembered William Shakespeare’s quote from the play “As you Like It” (Act 2, Scene 1) where a person could “see sermons in stones and good in everything.” I think I see, like the character in the Shakespeare’s play, faces of angels appearing in the leaves of Barbara’s trees.
And on we go. Amsterdam, Holland is the location for the next paintings, where in the canal water we see gestalt faces and gentle blue and white Dutch tiles.
A new work comes next, done just this year. Barbara explained that this is a version of the Earth with “unconsciously” painted faces on the sun and moon. Three bodies of earth, moon and sun seem to be happy shining side by side. In the next painting, one of two that were painted in the late 60’s, shows Zig-Zag men in the trees and a Hippie lifestyle, referring to Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” plus a field of Red and Black with men in blue approaching.
Barbara Simon is remembered in the next painting, with her face appearing as a tribute above the flowers. It echos a self-portrait Simon did not long before her death last year that shows her hair turning into waving grass. In Stevens’s work, the green grass is turning naturally into an image of light.
The next work is a 1990s triptych reflecting her 20-year stay in the New Mexico desert. Barbara calls this her “green period,” when she discovered a way to use acrylic as a cross between transparent watercolor and printmaking.
In the corner of the front room is a large work using recent NASA photos with the realistic face of a little girl on the face of the Earth.
To the left of the water fountain in the front room is a large, square, colorful acrylic that’s a family portrait from the Stevens’s farm in Northern Maryland. Ray tells me that Barbara ‘s late ’60s style showed the emergence of Pop Art, with help from Polaroid photos and the use of collage, all important in her artistic journey.
The next piece is of an Aztec Earth goddess, an ancient Jade statue in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington, D.C. The goddess is giving birth on Earth in the light of a blazing Aztec sun.
In the back room is a later green painting called “Longwood Gardens and the Wild Woods.” Barbara will donate the proceeds of the sale of this work to the New Deal Cafe to help “insure the on-going future of its art exhibits.”
Also in the back room I was also drawn to two round works painted in the most exquisite colors, and crafted in designs of intricate forms. I’ve learned that before she came to Greenbelt, Barbara painted on round objects, including metal road signs she found lying on the street. She recalls that a friend noticed her need for them and went to a lumber yard to cut out 14 circular pieces of wood for her. This was back when Ray and Barbara lived in New Mexico.
The central work in the back room is inspired by Ancient Mayan religious history, which seems to be a great influence in Barbara’s style. Titled “Coatlicue” after a Mayan goddess who was taken over by snakes, here she wears a skirt made of snakes and a necklace of skulls. She’s framed by sandstone rock formations, based on photographs taken in the beautiful New Mexico badlands.
One of Barbara’s large green paintings is on view in this same room. It expresses the shock that Ray and Barbara experienced as they drove into Greenbelt after living in the dry New Mexico desert. Barbara took many photos of the vegetation in her new surroundings, In leaves she saw images of faces and animals, and even animals turning into other animals.
In the middle of the room hangs “Messages for the Lowlands,” a lovely Dutch-inspired work of two herons holding a flag. These figures recall the time when the Stevenses lived on a boat in Amsterdam. Soon they were surrounded and living with these glorious birds.
On the edge of the stage is a small framed green painting called “Danny the Red.” This is a tip of the hat to the Danny who ecstatically faced the police during the 1968 French Revolution when workers joined with students in Paris.
The large, green painting at the back of the room near the stage demonstrates when in the 1990s Barbara began merging geometrical designs within the transparent light areas entwined with the shadowed areas.
I think I can speak for many of us here in our little city when I say I am in awe of Barbara’s keen outlook on life. It’s about what she sees with her eye plus her inward vision, which she interprets with her spiritual knowledge. These combine to form a style both sensitive and boldly exuberant.
I have been so influenced by Barbara’s vision that now, when I look out the windows of my Greenbelt home I can see not the sky and the trees and the other vegetation – no! I see a Barbara Stevens painting.