by Tawsha Brinkley-Davenport
(The following originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2018 edition of the McCurtain County Daily Gazette, in Idabel, Oklahoma)
I have gone back and forth on how to even begin to write this story about the passing of Harold Stevenson, Idabel native, world-renowned artist and most of all, my friend.
I met Harold Stevenson in the summer of 2005. I had recently written a story about his protégé Poteet Victory when my aunt suggested I write a story about Harold as well since he had recently moved back to Idabel from his home in the Hamptons.
I had heard stories growing up of the illustrious famous artist that was from Idabel. My mom told me about how he had a studio there and would paint anyone who would come by.
He would bring famous people to visit our little community and wear outlandish outfits for everyday shopping, and of course, his lifestyle. I found her stories about him fascinating. I was intrigued.
Upon meeting him I didn’t quite know what to expect. I thought he would perhaps be stuck up, standoffish, act like a spoiled celebrity, but Harold… let me just say was quite the opposite.
He met me at the top of the steps to his cabin in the woods just outside of Idabel. He stood smiling with a pale blue scarf wrapped around his neck, shorts and a yellow pullover polo and leather sandals. In his hand he held a martini glass, which he waved at me as if to say “cheers.”
He had the most wonderful smile and greeted me with a simple, “Hello Darling, I’m Harold,” as he motioned me toward the front door.
And that was Harold, such hospitality, so welcoming, so easy to talk to, as if I had known him all my life. One felt comfortable with him. I must admit I was a bit starstruck with his stories from his life. Talking with Harold was like stepping back into history.
He made the 1950s and 60s come alive for me as he described how his life was then, places he visited, people he knew. I could spend hours just letting him talk, which in fact I often did without the tape recorder, on which now I feel a sense of regret.
“I thought I came back to Idabel to die, but when I got here I changed my mind and decided to go on living,” Stevenson told me in 2005.
And live he definitely did. After the first story I wrote about him was printed in the paper, he was asked to be the featured artist at the Kiamichi Owa-Chito Art Show. The next year he donated his Great Society, 100 Faces to The University of Oklahoma.
He stayed busy several years with art shows, meetings with galleries and more.
Which meant more time I spent interviewing him. It was usually in the morning and he always had his martini ready and a story to tell.
After a couple of years, he asked me to write his biography for him.
“You simply write beautifully about me, I would so love you to help me with my biography. Now remember if anything happens to me, you get this damn thing finished.”
Those words I will always remember. His confidence in me was so wonderful and meant the world to me.
We talked about a lot of things over the years: his art, his travels, time he spent in Italy, Paris and New York.
“Funny thing, I became one of the first real jet setters in Idabel. For me it was just a very simple solution. If I needed to be in Italy I went, Paris I went. But I always came home to Idabel,” said Stevenson in 2006.
That was indeed Harold. No matter what he experienced, no matter what his success, the famous people he mingled with and places he had been, his conversations always would lead back to his love of Idabel.
It bored him to talk about famous people he had known, or even any of his past artwork. He would quickly change the subject and go back to someone from his childhood. “Oh, we were great friends, let me tell you about him,” he would say.
About his art he stated, “I detach myself emotionally from my paintings once they are finished. I forget it and that’s it,” he would chuckle.
But when the subject would turn to Idabel, he would talk for hours. He loved the people, his family, his Presbyterian Church and the history of Idabel itself.
Perhaps his love was so strong for the town because it was indeed Idabel that shaped his love of art. At the age of six he would go to the library and study magazines and books about art. He loved the Idabel library, which was only a one-room building with one door when he was a child. When the current library was built, he donated one of his paintings, The Trail of Tears, in 2010 to hang in the library.
At the time there was a small controversy about the subject of the painting, since it portrayed a shirtless Native American. But it was short-lived. Harold was so pleased with how nice the painting looked in the building and so proud that those using the library today, where he received his love of art, would be able to enjoy his painting.
He was 10 he opened his first art studio in downtown Idabel.
“My studio downtown was a public place like the post office or the courthouse. It was never referred to as Harold’s studio, but as the studio. I started painting people from the early beginning. I am a figurative artist. I paint the human figure. I was more or less a professional artist at age 10, “Stevenson once said.
One of the first people Harold painted in his The Great Society Series-The 100 Faces, which was indeed a 100 portraits of Idabel residents in 1965, was native Laverne Deramus Cuzick.
“Harold was a wonderful friend, one that I will never forget. He came into my life when I really needed someone and he was a true friend. He was very special to me and will always remain in my heart. Rest in peace, my dear friend,” Cuzick said.
Even his New York friends knew about Idabel, and they now feel his loss profoundly. Penny Arcade, an artist from New York who interviewed and produced a video documentary about Harold a few years ago, had this to say about him:
“This is such very sad news. I am sending my deepest condolences to his family and friends. Just about everyone Harold painted with and knew has left the planet now. Harold Stevenson was that most extraordinary human -- the true individual. A painter who changed the course of modern painting with his use of scale, it all started as a 10-year-old in his studio in Idabel, Oklahoma. Harold went on to a storied artistic career at the height of the most glamorous decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, where he was the toast of the town in New York City, London and Paris. ‘I never became a New Yorker,’ he told me often, ‘I will always be a painter from Idabel, Oklahoma.’”
“A lot of people have asked me in my life in various places and all -- was it a disadvantage to come from a small town from the middle of nowhere?” Harold said in 2010. “And I always thought, on the contrary -- it was indeed a great advantage to come from a small town, where you were obliged to invent the pursuit, you were going to have such as a painter, an actor, a politician or whatever. And that was my case. I never had any regret of springing from a small town in the middle of nowhere.” He went on to give a little advice to young people of today.
“What I would like to get across to people that are young and starting out in life, I think it is very important to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you. I mean, you have to invent a lot of things, but you must also understand what is given to you may be one of the most important parts of your life,” said Stevenson.
Harold influenced many artists throughout the years, but none so much as Poteet Victory and Ron Clark, both of whom grew up in Idabel and were great protégés and friends to Harold.
“Harold was one of the most unique persons I’ve ever met. His influence is evident from the art movement he started to his individual influence on someone like myself. He was always eager to help and give his sage advice. His death represents the end of an era and a colorful one at that,” said artist Poteet Victory.
“Harold was a lifelong friend and mentor, he was an internationally acclaimed artist and writer who was an icon of the European Avant Garde and later a significant figure in the Pop Art movement alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others,” stated Ron Clark, artist and friend.
Harold always wanted to have an art show in Idabel where he would be surrounded by his friends, family and his art. Sadly, that never occurred after he was successful.
For me, I like to imagine that Harold is now surrounded with his old acquaintances and beautiful art at a lovely gallery while having the best martini. Rest in peace Harold. Thanks for the art, thanks for the friendship and thanks for the memories