The life and art of Jim Stevenson celebrated in documentary

Thu, 09/17/2020 - 7:00pm

Jim Stevenson. When most people hear his name, they quickly associate him with his cartoons and writings. But a recent documentary, “Stevenson - Lost and Found”, takes a deeper look into how Stevenson became the man he is widely known for, and not known for. Stevenson, who was an island summer resident since the early nineties and passed away at 87 in 2017, was revered for his prolific works as a writer, illustrator and long-time cartoonist and cover artist for The New Yorker. The documentary of Stevenson’s life was recently shown at the Block Island Film Festival and won its Spotlight Award.

Josie Merck, artist, partner, and best friend to Stevenson, recently spoke with The Block Island Times to share insights into his life, legacy, and the spirit that continues to exist through his work and the film.

Q: Hi Josie! Can you introduce yourself, your background, and your connection to Jim Stevenson? Who was Jim Stevenson, if you could describe him in a few sentences?

JM: My name is Josie Merck, and I grew up in several countries and eventually returned to the United States. I studied at Sarah Lawrence College for painting, married in 1971 for the first time and had two children, and then went on to receive a graduate degree in painting at Yale University twenty years later in 1991. I married Jim Stevenson in 1993 – he had nine children, and so we had eleven combined! The Block Island Times was the only newspaper that printed the news of our elopement! Jim had come to Block Island with me when I had begun to build my small house thirty years ago. Eventually we each had a studio, and little buildings for family members to stay.

He always described himself as both an artist and a writer. He was a rare person to excel at both – a great writer and a beautiful artist, and add to that, great wit and humor. He was very funny in life as well and in dreaming up thousands of cartoons - he worked hard his entire life.

Q: How did you and Stevenson first meet, and how long were you together?

JM: We first met in New York at a small club called the Coffeehouse Club, where many writers and artists gathered for lunch. I became a member in 1980 when they began to take women; it was originally a men’s club. I knew him then, and then I ran into him again when I was in graduate school. We shared 26 years of being together.

Q: What made you fall in love with him – as the artist, the writer, and the man?

JM: He was completely charming, his eyes and his voice. He was a feminist and a liberal - appealing traits to me!

Q: How do you think Jim viewed the world from his eyes as an artist?

JM: It would depend on what he was working on. If it was a children’s book, he would want to make beautiful pictures - lively, delightful. His work was fresh, spontaneous and often lyrical. I don’t think anyone can say so much, and use so few strokes.

Q: What is your favorite memory of Jim creating artwork on Block Island, if you could choose one?

JM: He had a cartoon strip called ‘Rocky Block’ – that was pretty sweet. There was another charming piece he wrote for The Times about boys crabbing off the dock at the Boat Basin, which I think won an award for The Times.

He loved working for newspapers. The excitement to get something going, researching, writing and illustrating a piece - I loved the energy and appetite he had for his work.

Q: What defining moments would you say stood out in his career as an artist and as a writer?

JM: He interviewed all kinds of people when he was reporting for The New Yorker over his career – Evil Kneivel, Robert Kennedy, Jr, Daniel Berrigan, Tom Waits. He was discreet about his subjects. As a reporter he gained the trust of a wide variety of subjects.

Q: How did the idea of documenting Jim’s life and career come together? Who initiated the idea for this project?

JM: It was initiated by me, largely with the idea that his grandchildren would benefit, and realize how much work he had done - not just his huge oeuvre of children’s books, but also with The New York Times, The New Yorker, his writing, his paintings – he was very humble about his work and success. So that was the impetus for me: to tell the story of his life and appreciate what he had done over his lifetime. He greatly enjoyed working with the New Zealand director, Sally Williams.

Q: Can you tell me something most people don’t know about Stevenson that was not in the documentary?

JM: His deep devotion to dogs – truly, I think he was half dog. He just adored all furry four legged creatures. He always talked to every dog that he came close to, and there are many in his poetry books. He had a visceral connection. He also wrote a number of musicals, that too was something he adored as an art form.

Q: Will the documentary become available to the public in the near future?

JM: We certainly hope so, it’s a weird transitional time during Covid-19. The documentary was first admitted to great film festivals, the first being the NewYork DocFest in October 2019, then Palm Springs, California, and soon things were shutting down. It’s been in a few streaming festivals, including Tel Aviv, the Salem Film Festival. The idea is to select the best platform, and our distributor is working on that outlet.

Our webpage will update the news of new festivals and showings, and we hope for new platforms.

Q: Would you like to share any final messages or thoughts on his life and legacy, and the impact he left on the young and old at heart?

JM: The best is that art is eternal and that the biggest message to me is to keep on going. Not just through life’s travails, but every day if you are determined to be an artist or writer. You keep the work going, and it will become more and more fluid. He was a model of that, right up to the end. It was his life blood to create. What a great resource to have in these times – the gifts to write and paint. It keeps all our spirits going.