Remembering Jim Stevenson

And how he drew on Block Island
Fri, 07/07/2017 - 10:15am
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In the foreword for his 2012 book “The Dawn of the Sea Monster, and Other Wonders of Block Island,” Jim Stevenson, artist-writer, and all around whimsical observer of the world, recounted his first impression of Block Island upon a visit in the 1950s: “Open windows with curtains blowing in the breeze.” 

Four decades later his wife-to-be, the artist Josie Merck, brought him back. “And I’ve never left,” he noted in the foreword. “That’s supposed to be a laugh line.”

During the last quarter century, Jim, who passed away on Feb. 17, 2017, at age 87, went on to contribute ever more to the fabric of life on Block Island, primarily through his artwork for the Ocean View Foundation and The Block Island Times — and through the many friendships he forged along the way.

A celebration of his life, work and infectious, if understated, good cheer will take place this Sunday, July 9, at the Block Island Maritime Center (also known as BIMI) for family and friends.

Yet another island

Before returning to Block Island in the early 1990s, Jim spent time on that other island “discovered” by Adriaen Block: Manhattan. For decades he made illustrations and wrote articles for The New Yorker, producing 1,988 cartoons and 79 covers, innumerable Talk of the Town columns along with long form articles.

The New Yorker’s Lee Lorenz, writing after Jim’s passing, said, “a colleague at The New Yorker once suggested that, with the possible exception of poetry, James Stevenson could have produced the magazine single-handedly.”

In 2004, Jim began “Lost and Found New York” for the New York Times, in which he led illustrated explorations into the minutiae of city figures and places often long lost to history. 

Soon after his reintroduction to Block Island he learned a former New Yorker colleague was running The Block Island Times: publisher-editor Peter Wood.

There were few things Jim liked better than establishing a rapport with the local paper of record. After he and Josie eloped in 1993, the New York Times refused to print the elopement announcement, while Wood readily agreed to do so in The Block Island Times.

One of his first contributions to The Block Island Times was an illustrated letter to the editor, suggesting that between the island’s existing power lines and gargantuan antennas, it was a bit late to suggest that windmills might ruin the island’s natural vistas.

His artwork was most regularly on display in promotions for the Ocean View Foundation (OVF), founded by Josie and dedicated to protecting the island and promoting environmental stewardship. 

Longtime OVF director Kim Gaffett noted that Jim played a role in designing the foundation’s pavilion and created the artwork for annual events such as Earth Mothers Day, the Community Pot Luck, the Great Salt Pond Stroll and the Island Treasure Walk, as well as “thank you” drawings for volunteers. 

“Jim provided humor, curmudgeonly at times; and he often served an important function of tempering our exploding brainstorming ideas about connecting people and nature, or anything else,” Kim said. “In essence, Jim’s thumbprint, if not his signature, is on all the artful aspects” of the OVF.

His wry sense of humor was on full display in the OVF’s 10th anniversary parade in 2010. He wore a t-shirt with his own drawing of a Burying Beetle — an endangered species, infamous for its penchant for carrion, which Block Island is one of the last places to host — while sporting black rubber gloves. 

During OVF’s three-day walks around the island, Jim would meet the intrepid hikers at rest stops with healthy pick-me-ups in the form of lemonade, M&Ms or Klondike bars.

Packing a green punch 

In the summer of 2008, Jim began a cartoon series for The Block Island Times featuring an environmental superhero: “Rocky Block — He’s Mean and he’s Green!” Created at the behest of the late Pat Howe at the Block Island Fund, Rocky consistently saved the day whenever polluters or other unsavory characters attempted to exploit or despoil Block Island’s natural beauty. 

Jim was always “producing with a purpose,” Josie says. 

He was also arguably creating graphic novels before there was such thing as graphic novels.

In 2014 his three-page spread for the Block Island Summer Times entitled, “Stroll Through the Block Island Historical Society,” provided studies of a variety of objects and people from the island’s past with the inimitable Stevenson eye.

Done much in the style of his “Lost and Found New York” columns, Jim’s Summer Times piece introduced us to L.B. Rose, 1818-1865, “a carpenter who carried his tools from place to place.” We’re also treated to Jim’s rendering of a raisin pitter, among other curiosities.

His “gift,” Josie says, was not necessarily explaining what an object did, but rather “staying in the moment of looking.” In Jim’s hands everyday objects could become characters.

On a road trip to Texas (more on that below), Jim made pen and ink renderings of every salt and pepper shaker they encountered along the way. Each distinctly its own. 

Jim’s recitation about a child crabbing at the Boat Basin won an award for The Block Island Times in 2015. The judges noted that his “scribbly” drawings were “informal yet compelling.”

Which brings to mind his ever self-effacing personality. In a recent blog post, retired art teacher Fred Klonsky wrote of expressing his admiration for Jim’s art upon meeting him on Block Island. Jim smiled, and said, “You teach art? And still you admire my work? Quite surprising.” 

Music and food

He was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the old and the new, Josie notes, and made countless studies of the cell towers rising up over Calico Hill with century-old Victorian houses in the foreground. He recorded the machinations at the Block Island Power Company during its recent historic transformation from a diesel-fired plant to the hub for the nation’s first offshore wind farm. 

Jim loved his music and for many summers he and Josie were regulars for the Booze Beggars on Sunday nights as well as Marc Scortino’s piano bar. Hooked on musicals after attending “Porgy and Bess” as a child, Jim eventually launched his own successful musical, “Rolling in Dough,” which played at the Granbury Opera House in Granbury, Texas, in 1997. (The journey there resulted in the collection of salt and pepper drawings.)

Beyond strawberry ice cream, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and blue cheeseburgers, bacon was a favorite of both his and his beloved lab Chelsea. After eating breakfast at Ernie’s, Jim often wrapped up some bacon to go for Chelsea.

From Ernie’s Jim would make his rounds around town — or stations of the cross, as Josie called them — visiting Charon Littlefield at the Post Office, Jessie Edwards at her studio, Cindy Lasser at Island Bound, Martha Ball at Malcolm Greenaway’s studio, the Glass Onion,  Martha Nardini at her jewelry store.

For Jim, Block Island was forever “a village of beloved people,” according to Josie. In his “Sea Monster” book, Jim celebrated many of his favorite people and places on the island. “He really loved people who did stuff, real stuff,” Josie said. 

Jim was prolific, in large part because of his natural creative drive, but also due to the fact that throughout much of his working life he had nine children to feed. Beyond The New Yorker, Jim also wrote more than 100 children’s books, a number of novels, and, at last count, painted 408 oil paintings. The Block Island Times editor Lars Trodson recently stumbled upon a syndicated cartoon strip by Jim called “Capitol Gains” from the 1970s that even caught Josie by surprise. 

He likened writing children’s books to being a film director who had ultimate power to decide every aspect of the production, from wardrobe, to cinematography, to the script approval.

Speaking of films, when the Ocean View Foundation produced short films for the Block Island ferry, one of them was called “Block Island Blankie,” about a child’s blanket lost on Block Island. The larger story was an explanation of where Block Island’s garbage eventually goes, ultimately reaching the Johnston, R.I., landfill. 

Jim made a brief cameo in the film and also created a mock Block Island Times with the headline, “Where’s My Blankie?” 

A documentary on Jim’s life is currently in production (http://bit.ly/2upJcqA) and will, hopefully, be released next year. 

His works, written, drawn, which number in the thousands, are being prepared for their new home at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Josie recounted how a consultant recently observed the mass of collected works and declared, “clearly Jim was never blocked.”

Block Island was certainly a beneficiary of that block-less condition — or, as Josie calls it, his “frenzied life of creativity.” That frenzied life, along with the wonders of strawberry ice cream and PB&J sandwiches, will all be celebrated Sunday.

In the “Sea Monster” book, Jim’s paean to the island he loved so well, he offered up a succinct estimation of the place: “Incomparable. Strong, interesting people. And lots of dogs.”