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Poetic Vision

The Art of Will Henry Stevens

The best thing that a human can do in life is to get rid of his separateness and hand himself over to the nature of things - to this mysterious thing called the universal order that any artist must sense. To put yourself in the way of that thing so that you become a vehicle of it - that will be your only merit - to put yourself in that way.

Will Henry Stevens

Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949) began working in New Orleans in 1921, when he was recruited by Ellsworth Woodward to teach art classes at Newcomb College. He remained an active and popular member of the Newcomb College faculty for more than 25 years. After his arrival in New Orleans, he established an annual pattern that dominated the rhythm of his family's life in the following years, spending the academic and art seasons in New Orleans, then spending the summer teaching and working in North Carolina and Tennessee. The mountains of the Appalachian Highlands offered a respite and inspiration for many of Stevens' works, both naturalistic and abstract. As the works in this exhibition demonstrate, Stevens developed an intimate relationship with these landscapes, one that reflected his spiritual connection to the world of nature.

Will Henry Stevens studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy under Frank Duveneck, and then worked as a designer and painter at the city's Rookwood Pottery Company during its most creative period. Rookwood sent him to New York City to supervise the installation of the tilework at the Fulton and Wall Street subway stations. He remained in New York until 1912, studying briefly at the Art Students League and also under Jonas Lie and Van Dearing Perrine. In New York he familiarized himself with the latest developments in art at the New Gallery on 30th Street, where he had a one-man show at age 20. He also saw and was deeply impressed by Sung dynasty paintings at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D. C. in 1912. His fascination with Asian Art led him to an interest in Taoist philosophy. Before settling in New Orleans, Stevens was active as an artist and teacher working in Louisville, Cincinnati and other cities in the Ohio River Valley near his hometown of Vevay, Indiana. Over the years, the artist returned regularly to New York, where he saw the work of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and others. As his career evolved, the expressive power of nonobjective painting increasingly attracted him, and Stevens became a pioneering advocate of abstract art in the South. In his later years, he painted both in representational and nonobjective modes.

The 56 works selected for this exhibition are part of the larger collection from the artist's estate that is being donated to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art by Stevens' daughter, Janet Stevens McDowell, and his niece, Lynn Hill. This generous bequest returns, in a very real sense, the vision of this pioneering Southern modernist painter to New Orleans, the city that served as his home for so many years.

The current exhibition was selected with the expert assistance of Dr. Jessie Poesch, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Newcomb College, a leading authority on Will Henry Stevens, and on Newcomb College. The documentary film, "Poetic Vision: The Art of Will Henry Stevens," was created in connection with the exhibition by Washington filmmaker Stanley Staniski, and is available for viewing at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The making of the film, and the advancement of this exhibition project, were assisted in notable ways by Andrew Glasgow, who was most generous with his time and his understanding of the artist and his family.

J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D., Director
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art

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