May Stevens—an extraordinary artist, poet, teacher, and social activist—was born in 1924 in Dorchester, MA. Growing up in a working-class family, she was fortunate to have teachers who recognized and encouraged her early talent for creating art. She later went on to study in Boston, New York, and Paris, and her major paintings are now in many prestigious collections and museums.
Throughout her long career, May Stevens has been a committed political activist. Her powerful work reflects her rejection of racism, imperialism, war, and sexism. Her “Big Daddy” series (see Pax Americana below) and her paintings about the life and death of Rosa Luxemburg (Forming the Fifth International and Rosa Luxemburg Attends the Second International) are two examples of this. She also has focused on the lives of women, using her mother, Alice, as the subject of many of her paintings (Go Gentle and Fore River).
Increasingly May Stevens has included words in her paintings (Sea of Words). As she has said, “Words are everywhere. When I use (them) in my paintings, they describe some of the ideas and emotions that make up that painting. But as they become illegible, they give up their identity to become a thread, a tone, a sound, a passage that is a vital element in the configuration but not necessarily one that is individually distinguishable.”
Her recent lyrical paintings of water (Three Boats on a Green Green Sea) address not only loss and absence but the vitality of life. In a lecture in 2006 about these paintings, she spoke about “the way the world outside of us, of ‘ourselves,’ makes its own decisions, goes its own way—ripens in its own time. And the world within us also ripens in its own time, recognizes what it needs, what it wants, when it is ready to do so—and something new is born. We can be very confused, at a loss, and then suddenly we know, we recognize what we have been waiting for, looking for. There it is. It’s there, here.”
1. Ordinary/Extraordinary, 1977
Collage and mixed media.