A few years ago Kalamazoo artist Jean Stevens was working on a large painting of fall leaves, but it wasn’t working out. She had the wood panel she was working on cut into squares to use for smaller paintings, but before she got a chance, she made a discovery.
“I was just going to paint the backs, but then I started fooling around with them,” she says. “I laid them on the floor, and I started moving them around, and I really liked it.”
Stevens decided to test the concept of a “faceted” work, entering her idea in a competition to create a large-scale work for the St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish. Her proposal won, and the piece now has a permanent home at St. Tom’s.
Memoria is a 16- by 14-foot cross composed of 34 panels depicting close-up views of nature scenes and manmade objects that represent memories Jesus might have had in the last moments of his life. Stevens liked the fragmented nature of the assembled panels. “For me it felt more like the way we experience the world in glimpses,” she says.
Now she has applied the concept again in a show titled Field Guides, which will be on exhibit March 3 to 29 at the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and will feature her usual subject matter: the natural world.
Every composition in the exhibit is a grid made up of 16-inch-square oil paintings, each representing a single species or variety of plant or animal. Each panel features a magnified detail of the subject, and the panels are arranged to create abstract patterns.
In setting out on the project, which is supported by a Kalamazoo Artistic Development Initiative grant from the Arts Council, Stevens studied field guides to learn about different aspects of nature. “I’m not very knowledgeable about nature,” she says. “I’m appreciative, I’m interested, I love to go on walks and notice a beautiful yellow flower, but I’ve never known what it is.”
She learned to identify all kinds of plants, birds, butterflies and clouds and became more aware of humans’ impact on the environment. Inspired to take action, she planted a butterfly garden and had her yard certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
She also learned more about seeing. “I realized that by being more of a naturalist, by having books, by looking around more and noticing the details of things, I actually see more,” she says.
Stevens, who took up meditation a few years ago, has long appreciated spending time in nature, and many of her paintings have what she describes as a “gazing ball” quality.
“If you gaze at something like the patterns of branches or light on water, it often quiets your busy mind and allows other, deeper aspects of your life to come out,” she says. “And it’s so good for your brain to have that spaciousness.”
She also has found that painting small panels has been an antidote to her tendency to spend too much time reworking her paintings and striving for perfection. “I think dividing it like this was a way to not have the painting that you’re working on be so precious and important,” she says. She tries to spend no more than a day or two on each panel, sometimes completing one in a few hours.
“The faster I go, the better I do. If I work quickly enough, I’m done before I have a chance to start judging it or fretting about it or going over and over it,” she says. The result is “more fresh and lively,” and since the paintings and the time invested in each one are small, if she doesn’t like one, she doesn’t have to use it.
Stevens has been experimenting with zooming in on her subjects even closer. By including the right details of a particular flower or butterfly, for example, “I could crop in much more and the whole thing could be much more abstract and you’d still know what it is,” she says.
She is currently making prints combining fragments of existing paintings to create new images. Some of these prints will be included in the Field Guides exhibit.