Nelson Stevens was born in 1938 in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn, New York. One of his earliest childhood memories was of drawing in chalk on the sidewalk in front of his home. “After completing our drawings, we would go up to the roof to look down at it—those were my first murals,” noted Stevens. In the fourth grade, Nelson won a spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s Saturday art classes for children. He was inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which was on display at the time.
In 1956, after entering the jazz nightclub scene in Utica, Stevens began painting murals on the walls of nightclubs stating, “Those were the nightclubs in Utica where I could eat free.” With the support of the artistic community, Stevens’ college studies and chance of a timely graduation became manageable while coexisting with his artistic expression.
After moving to Cleveland, Ohio years later, Stevens became a middle school teacher and in 1963 Stevens returned to his Utica roots by painting the coming attractions for the Jazz Temple Club on a refurbished UPS truck. During his time in Cleveland, Nelson taught classes at the Karamu House, the oldest African-American theatre in the United States, where many of Langston Hughes’ plays were performed in their infancy. “For three years,” stated Stevens, “I was a sponge. Eight artists I met from a cooperative art studio run by Joe Moody taught me all that I had missed in my undergraduate studies. They taught me all that they knew.”
Soon, the Board of Education in Cleveland placed Stevens at the Cleveland Museum of Art so that he could expand his knowledge of art history and art documentation. Guided by Director Sherman Lee, Nelson cites the wisdom of Sherman Lee and Hal Workman as what gave him the critical taste of theory coupled with the technique of the modern era. Nelson later enrolled in graduate school at Kent State University in order to earn his Masters of Fine Arts in painting, printmaking and art history.
At the start of 1969, Professor Stevens drove from Kent State in Ohio to Boston Massachusetts to find a job at the College Art Association Conference. After meeting Jeff Donaldson, Nelson was informed that he needed to move to Chicago: “the ground zero for the art movement.” The same day, Stevens was offered and accepted a position at Northern Illinois University an hour outside of Chicago, Professor Stevens then joined AfriCOBRA (the African Community of Bad Relevant Artists), an artistic collective based in Chicago. Said Stevens, “Immediately after joining AfriCOBRA, I realized that it was helping my academic experience because the idea of critiquing became about improving our pieces with no reference to ourselves or our personalities.” His membership in AfriCOBRA gave Stevens the idea to create a course of study in his teaching that was aligned with the work of each individual student.
In the summer of 1972, Stevens signed his employment contract with the college of Amherst in Massachusetts, making the African-American Studies Department a powerhouse and a leader in African-American studies in universities around the country.
Since 1969 and up until his retirement in 2003, Stevens taught two core theories of thought: one of history, which was rooted in African-American Art of the Western Hemisphere and one of technique, which focused on figure drawing.
In 1973, Professor Stevens made a deal with a student to teach a class that would help students make a magazine vibrant with political energy. Stevens agreed on the condition that he would do a series of interviews with the revamped DRUM magazine. That same year, Stevens formed a program of mural creation in Springfield, Massachusetts with art students from the college of Amherst. Over the course of four years, the students under Nelson’s program created and completed thirty-six indoor and outdoor murals in the area. Said the Professor, “The objective of the program was to make the black community an outdoor gallery, so that each mural would be treated with the care of a stained glass window.” Stevens had just been introduced to doing professionally physical murals by Dana Chandler the summer before, which subsequently birthed his mural Work to Unify the African People. During this process, Stevens was recognized in the competition for Centennial Visions publication to celebrate the Tuskegee Institute’s one-hundred year anniversary.
In 1993, Stevens initiated the Art in the Service of the Lord project—a successful series of calendars that were commissioned to African-American artists in order to create works for a Black Christian Fine Arts Calendar. For four consecutive years, the project distributed around 15,000 copies of each completed calendar. “It is still one of my proudest efforts and productions,” claimed Stevens.
After retiring from the Amherst College in 2003, Professor Stevens relocated to Owings Mills, Maryland. His early and more recent works have been collected by the Smithsonian, Kent State University, Fisk University, Karamu House in Cleveland, the Chicago Institute of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. In addition to his AfriCOBRA membership, he belonged to the College Art Association and the National Conference of Artists.
Stevens has modeled his works around his family and the individuals and communities who have contributed to both his personal achievements and the success of his students.