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Giving voice to the voiceless

“Forming the Fifth International,” 1985, acrylic on canvas, 78×120 inches. (Courtesy of Site Santa Fe)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

“The reason I’m an artist is because it’s the only place where you can be totally free.”

– May Stevens

May Stevens made the ordinary extraordinary.

The Santa Fe-based painter devoted her art to political causes, such as civil rights, feminist and antiwar movements. She believed in art as an instrument of progressive politics and personal liberation.

Open at SITE Santa Fe, “May Stevens: Mysteries, Politics and Seas of Words” surveys the artist’s career from 1970 to 2010. Stevens died in 2019 at the age of 95. Brandee Caoba and the writer/critic Lucy Lippard, an early champion of feminist art, curated the show.

Caoba spent about five years as Stevens’ studio assistant.

“She was a firecracker and she had a deep ability for empathy,” Caoba said. “She loved to give voice to the voiceless and the unseen.”

The artist grew up in a working-class family in Quincy, Massachusetts. She understood early on that class often went unspoken. She studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, New York’s Art Students League and in post-war Paris with her husband, Rudolf Baranik. They returned to New York for 45 years and moved to El Dorado near Santa Fe in 1996 .

Stevens came to prominence with the feminist art movement and was a founding member of “Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics” (1976) and an original Guerrilla Girl in 1985. The Guerrilla Girls wore gorilla masks in public, and used facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias, as well as corruption. When her son committed suicide in 1981, her work turned elegiac; to the universality of loss.

“She made the personal political” Caoba said.

“They feel like environments,” she continued. “They feel like places more than pictures. She used a lot of metallic paint. A lot of them have text.”

Stevens’ opposition to the Vietnam War surfaced in the “Big Daddy” series that became her best-known body of work. Its central image features a grim, phallic-headed white man based on a portrait of her politically conservative father.

“She painted a photo of her father watching TV,” Caoba said. “He was very pro-war, conservative, the establishment. He was the antithesis of what she believed in. He encompasses the white privilege persona. She put him in police uniforms, soldier uniforms.”

Her “Ordinary Extraordinary” series was inspired by the Polish Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, whom she considered her spiritual mother. She often paired Luxemburg with her own mother, an uneducated housewife. Luxemburg was murdered for her political beliefs. Stevens felt her own mother had been crushed by her marriage. The artist believed one woman’s political struggles were equal to another’s private pain.

“She was asking people to consider what makes someone extraordinary,” Caoba said. “She’s trying to find comparisons between women across time. Ultimately, she wanted to erode the notion that one woman was special and another wasn’t.”

In 1964, Stevens produced her “Freedom Riders” series inspired by the activists who traveled the segregated South registering Black voters. Martin Luther King wrote the catalogue introduction.

Stevens’ late works include water scenes without figures, but with quotations from female writers woven into the natural panorama. “The Canal,” 1988, depicts the body of water where Luxemburg’s body was discovered.

“After the death of her son and her husband, her work took on a universal narrative of grief and loss, and the cyclical nature of life and death,” Caoba said. “She used words in almost all of them; they’re illegible. They become almost like prayers and chants.

“To me, May understood that it’s everyday people that make history,” Caoba continued. “I always felt like May was my true education. She would bring me into her studio and say, ‘What do you think?’ In many ways, May helped me find my own voice.”

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