Rick Stevens does by not doing. He’s a non-doer. An effortless doer. Or more clearly: he’s a believer in the “action of non-action.” In Wu–Wei, the Taoist concept of natural action, or in other words, action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. All that being said, he still has to paint. Not by not painting but by actually painting. Beautifully.
He’ll often cite Odilon Redon, Pierre Bonnard, George Inness, and Gustav Klimt among his influences, but because his work moves so fluidly from the representational to the abstract and back, and because he’s coming from such a spiritual place (thus infusing his work with the extramundane, the sacred, the metaphysical), it’s just as tempting to cite Miro, Monet, Chagall, or even Giacometti as tangible presences as well.
“The Taoist philosophy, and my Tai Chi practice, help me to see painting as a practice—like Tai Chi itself—more than as a career,” says Stevens from his south Santa Fe studio. “It’s of a piece of what I do, of how I live my life.”
Born in Sparta, Michigan in 1958, Stevens took to painting via his father, an outdoorsman, and mostly self-taught plein air enthusiast. After a few years at Grand Rapids’ Kendall College of Art + Design, then a final year at nearby Aquinas College, Stevens tasted success early on, snagging himself a gallery and selling his work. Not that it spoiled him (there were lean times to come), but it did give him the chutzpah to paint and only paint—only occasionally doing remodeling work or sign painting when the painting wasn’t paying the bills.
Not long after graduating from Aquinas, he did a kind of Thoreauvian year in the Michigan woods, living in a family cabin without a TV, radio, or phone. Just painting, reading Eastern philosophy, doing yoga, meditating (sometimes his meditation would be with headphones listening to music), and being in nature. This was his self-described “monk period.”
He came out of the woods wiser, more focused, and not so much concerned with results or sales or production and more into the process and growth and the work itself. Slowly, he reestablished himself with galleries, sales picked up, and in 2004 he relocated to Santa Fe.
He showed up at Hunter Kirkland Contemporary out of the blue with three pastel paintings in his truck. Which Nancy Hunter hung in the gallery and almost immediately sold to a woman who bought all three.
Although he’s back to doing plein air painting lately, he still does most of his work in the studio—which tends toward the abstract. “My work doesn’t go in a linear direction, it bounces around,” he says. He pauses and looks around at the 20 or so paintings, some huge, some quite small, that will be part of his upcoming show at Hunter Kirkland.
He’s trying to express what for him is the inexpressible. “I see painting as a whole other language,” he says. “So it’s hard to express what I do in a language that people understand. You feel elusive when trying to explain what you do and what it is. Sometimes I think I am elaborating as much about what it isn’t. I try to leave my work open-ended.
“One of the reasons I love to work abstractly is that it allows me to stay open to what the painting is rather than what I think it should be,” says Stevens. “And I love the spatial ambiguity. Either way, though, whether it’s abstract or representational, there’s an integrity that I want to maintain.”
Most of Stevens’ paintings are an abstraction of Nature—Nature with a capital N. And no matter which realm they fall into more—abstract, representational—is almost beside the point. Because really, his works are both and neither. They’re not amalgams but amalgam-ish. His oils and pastels, his landscapes, his abstracted landscapes, his purely abstract works—they all have elements, energies, that weave in and out of the real and the non-real. You may read it as one thing, but you may also read it as something other, something more than. Something subjective and intuitive—a feeling. A feeling that you’ve been there before—to that spot in the woods where the leaves tremble in the light, at that stream that winds its way through the overgrown grasslands, in that bit of valley sunlight where it’s as much a dream as it is a memory.
He brings that out through a process of layers. “When I put down a color it rarely stays that way,” he says. His applications include various glazing techniques, adding textures with cold wax and gel medium and adding gold-leaf. Oftentimes, he’ll begin a painting with no plans, just making marks on the canvas, eventually finding his way into the painting by doing. (The art of doing by not doing.) “When trees show up I say, OK,” explains Stevens, alluding to that Wu-Wei philosophy of letting go. “Maybe you can recognize things like leaves, trees, water. If all that disappears, fine. If it stays, it’s also fine.”
What often stays are the trees. And forests. Forests reminiscent of Michigan, but also of the Southwest, and most often aspens. Aspens always seem to inspire him. “I love the markings on them, their bark, the way the leaves intersperse,” says Stevens. “Visually, they’re interesting, and the symbolic meanings contained in a grove of aspens is very rich. Aspens grow as a community. They are interconnected by their roots and share nutrients and resources to support each other.”
Ultimately, it’s all about relationships. And energies. And that whole letting-go process. In which the body, for Stevens, is as involved as any other part of him. It’s the dantian. The “sea of qi,” the “energy center” that’s a focal point for Tai chi. “I try to center myself there,” he says, “in determining what a painting needs, instead of intellectualizing my approach.”
Having gotten married last August to a fellow painter, and now living in Tesuque, Stevens and his wife travel plenty. Sometimes just to get away, but just as much to come back recharged with more imagery to draw upon. “I like the combination of Santa Fe being a big art market and a small town,” says Stevens. “And I like jumping off into unplanned places.”
Spoken like a true effortless doer.