Black Life, Art, and Music is a Force: A Conversation Honoring Artist, Educator, Activist Nelson Stevens

Color Rapping

In April 2023, Broadsight’s founder, Dr. Jessica Payne interviewed Rosemary Tracy Woods and Britt Ruhe about the work of painter, educator, and activist Nelson Stevens (1938-2022). A native of New York City, Stevens honored and celebrated Black culture and Black life in his paintings and teaching. In 1969, he was one of the early members of the African  Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), a Chicago-based Black artist collective formed as an aesthetic expression and extension of the Black Power Movement. Later, Stevens moved to the Springfield, MA area to teach visual art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he served for 30 years. Early in his tenure, he involved his students in creating 37 murals in Springfield, MA, all but 2 of which were later removed, covered, or otherwise destroyed. 

In 2022, Common Wealth Murals (CWM), a non-profit dedicated to producing high quality public art that reflects those most impacted by that arts, worked with Mr. Stevens to recreate two of his murals, the ‘Wall of Music’ and ‘Tribute to Black Women’ as part of CWM’s Community Mural Institute. A retrospective, “Nelson Stevens - Color Rapping” is currently on exhibition at the Springfield Museums through September 3, 2023. 

Rosemary Tracy Woods is an art curator and consultant specializing in contemporary African American art and art from the Harlem Renaissance. She is the Director of Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield, MA, a gallery dedicated to exhibiting and uplifting art by Black artists and artists of color. Woods met Stevens in the 1970s through the Black Panther Party and remained close friends and colleagues until his transition. 

 Britt Ruhe directs Common Wealth Murals (CWM) and led the recreation of Steven’s murals in Springfield. Woods and Ruhe initially met and then partnered on CWM’s first mural festival, Fresh Paint Springfield in 2019 and have remained collaborators since then. Broadsight sought them out to shed light on the power of Stevens’ work and to inform and encourage readers to visit his stunning exhibition.


Painting by Nelson Stevens:

Painting by Nelson Stevens

Stevens’ paintings and use of color

 “It is not an easy task to paint Black people without using the color brown. These people were unmistakably Black folks, and there is nary brown inside,  which is pretty incredible.” - Nadya Stevens

Woods: The message of his artwork is that we as Black people still have struggles, but there's hope. There's beauty. There's color. We don't do black and white. We love color, it speaks to us. In general, artists of color, and Black artists in particular, tend to work in bright colors, and they’re mixed so well. Another difference is the subject matter. We didn't grow up looking at trees and flowers. We grew up in urban areas and we saw people and situations. We used to see the guys in the pink, yellow, and purple suits and the dandy dappers. We're colorful and loud and funny. And that was Nelson. He was the fun of the party. He was a very, very humble, kind person. But he could also be very radical. He believed in Black people. He wanted to express them in all manners and in all scenes, and represent what was happening in Black America. 

Ruhe: Stevens’ daughter Nadya shared at the opening that there's rarely any brown or black in his paintings. A lot of his work involves breaking things open and creating this fractal effect in the way he was depicting people. Clyde Santana, a student of Stevens’, told me that while they were painting murals they would talk a lot about color theory—particularly Munsell color theory—the relationships colors each have, and what emotions, feelings or affect they created. Nelson was reflecting his community, as Tracy said, with this embrace of color. And he was very intentional and thoughtful about it, from an artist perspective, thinking about the impact to the viewer of the particular colors he was using in each stroke. His work instills a sense of awe and it’s a counterpoint to feelings of discouragement, and frustration. Having a sense of awe is what gives you the energy to keep going and fighting the good fight. That's how I feel when I'm in the exhibit. It’s amazing how a person figured out how to communicate so much emotion, insight and directness with a blend of abstractness, realism and color. It's awe inspiring.


Photo by Clyde Santana:

Clyde Santana photo1

Stevens’ murals in Springfield, MA

“Unafraid. Unapologetic. Black-centric.” - Nadya Stevens

Woods: The African American community has always loved art. The earliest murals were on subway cars, doors, wherever. It's a tradition. I come from Philadelphia, the city of murals. It's a tradition in Philly that when a building is torn down, whoever is the hero or matriarch in that area gets a mural.

There are artists and there are masters. Stevens was a genius. He knew that black and brown paint on a wall wouldn't have any effect, especially if you're expressing feelings of rage, anger, love of the trials and tribulations that Black people were going through and are still going through. Most of the murals were in Black neighborhoods where people had an immediate connection with the art. Today, I don’t think he would have gotten permission to create the murals he did, especially in downtown Springfield. When Stevens was originally painting these murals, he didn't need a lot of permission because the neighborhoods were our neighborhoods. We beautified and did what we wanted to do. And that was part of the Black Panther Movement. We don't need your permission. This is ours and we'll do it. 

Photo by Clyde Santana:

Photo by Clyde Santana

Ruhe: Nelson’s mural ‘The Tribute to Black Women’ was intentionally painted over by the City of Springfield within a year or two of it going up. They had some bullshit excuse about why, but they literally whitewashed that mural off.

Woods: I think Britt may have problems getting murals in the area because the owners are not Black anymore. They have a say and they don't want to ‘ruffle feathers.’ But before, during our generation, it was totally different.

Ruhe: Most of the building owners that I deal with across the city do not live in Springfield. And some of them are far away. Some of them you can't even find because every building is owned by an LLC but typically you cannot find the person who owns the building to ask. We did have a lot of conversations in our studio about how, if these designs didn’t have historic significance, it would be very difficult to get approved by any building owners in Springfield right now. A lot of people have gotten so conservative and simplistic in how they feel or appreciate art. A lot of muralists now struggle with getting more forward-thinking and progressive concepts approved to be painted. That's another way that Nelson was just a really brilliant person. He got building approvals all over Springfield for these amazing, social commentary pieces. He was able to convince people to put his work up on their wall.

Photo by Isabella Dellolio:

Isabella Dellolio1

Recreating Nelson’s murals in 2022

Ruhe: As we started to work on the Tribute to Black Women’ and ‘Wall of Black Music,’ we learned very quickly that with Nelson, we were in the presence of someone who was on a completely different level as an artist. The fact that he did them as murals, not on canvases, and on such a big scale, and still created these amazing pieces. There are no other artists I've seen who have done murals like this. All we could do was try to learn by following the footsteps. 

First, we had to find photographs of the murals. We found a few of them, although we don't have pictures for most of the murals that he was involved with. Next we digitally outlined every line, dot and stroke of color and then color coded everything. Greta McClain who runs Good Space Murals did that work, so she really could look at it from an artist's point of view. It took her 50-60 hours to do all that tracing and then number every space according to what color it was. 

We were supposed to travel to Nelson’s home in D.C. with the color palette to show it to him and make sure we were getting it right. Unfortunately, he had to cancel my visit and then passed away the next week. So Clyde helped us and reviewed the palette. Sadly, we didn't get Nelson's eye on it. When he originally painted the murals, he painted in layers but there was no way to figure out what layers were behind the final colors that were on top. So we created it very flat and graphically. Between the two murals, there were almost 100 different colors–there were seven or eight shades of purple and multiple oranges and reds but no black and no brown. 

Next, we transfer the designs into about 80 different five by five mural fabric panels. We did that by projecting onto the five by five sheets and an artist would go in with a paintbrush, outline every section and line, and number it again by color. Then, with those big paint-by-number panels, we took them out into the community. Over 300 people helped to paint the first layer on the panels during a community paint party. We brought the painted panels back into the studio and kept painting and cleaning the lines and evening the color. This was very meditative work. It really felt like a labor of love. There were so many of us in the studio and we had an open studio so people could come in again to help. And you're spending hours just painting this little space and then getting together to make sure it was just right. The artists that we trained took it really seriously: They knew they were working on a master's work. And they were. Once it was painted, we glued it up on the wall and went back again to do final touch ups and make sure all the lines between each piece were exactly right.


Photo by Isabella Dellolio:

Isabella Dellolio2

Black Art, Music and Life

“I create from the rhythmic color-rappin-life-style of Black folk. I believe that art can breathe life, and life is what we are about.” - Nelson Stevens

Woods: In the ‘Wall of Black Music’, Nelson was depicting jazz music as a force, just like paint and color is a force on the mural. Artists were a force. The force of music spoke to you, you could hear Billie Holiday, and it spoke to you and told you about what was happening and what was going on in the world. It goes hand in hand. Nelson was also a lover and appreciator of Black women. And you can see that in his ‘Tribute to Black Women.’ Even though these two murals were created about 50 years ago, they are still so relevant because nothing has changed, it's no different. In the present day, they're killing Black men. Nothing has changed. Sure, we've made some strides. But basically, the U.S. has remained the same. 

Ruhe: In the social commentary element of his work, Nelson was very much of his time. He was reflecting on and commenting on what was happening right then. And it's still 100% relevant because of what Tracy said: Things have not changed. ‘Tribute to Black Women’ has six queens up there. That hasn't changed either, the role of Black women in the world, in their community and their families. The strength of the community, the strength of the individual people, the beauty, and the respect.

Photo by Isabella Dellolio:

Isabella Dellolio3

Exhibition at Springfield Museums: Nelson Stevens - Color Rapping 

Ruhe: Nelson was a brilliant person and artist who I only got to know for a very short period of time. Before I saw the exhibit, I had only seen his work in books or online. And as beautiful as they are in books and online, those images do not do justice to the work. To see almost 60 pieces of his work all together in one place and of the size that he created them, deepened my appreciation of him and was so inspiring, educating and enlightening. It made me regret all over again that I did not listen to Tracy’s immediate advice. The first day she met me, she told me: “Go do your homework, know your history, learn about this man and the mural work he did in Springfield.” I eventually did that work, but not soon enough. And because I didn't listen to Tracy right away, I missed months of knowing him. So the exhibit makes me feel like I'm in his presence, with his spirit

Woods: The exhibit of Nelson's work in the Springfield Museum is so rewarding, overwhelming and late in coming. I met Nelson during my Black Panthers days, and because he was an artist, we had such a kinship that lasted many years. He was such a humble and life of the party kind of guy. When I broached the subject about Nelson, I could not understand why no one would want his work exhibited, especially in the Springfield Museums. To see the work itself hanging where all of Springfield and Western Mass. can see it is very significant. It is like getting a raise or a bonus. It is also very sad to me seeing his work there after his death. I wish that he was alive and could see the exhibit himself. His work is breathtaking. I've always loved it.


Portrait of Stevie Wonder by Nelson Stevens:

Portrait of Stevie Wonder by Nelson Stevens

Nelson Stevens - Color Rapping exhibition at the Springfield Museums is up until September 3, 2023. 

Visit recreations of Nelson Stevens’ murals: ‘Tribute to Black Women’ is located at 38 Catherine St; the ‘Wall of Black Music’ is located on Montrose Street, both in Springfield MA.

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