Articles

YOU SPLASH PLENTY OF COLOR AROUND

LISA RAMSAY July 1 1950
Articles

YOU SPLASH PLENTY OF COLOR AROUND

LISA RAMSAY July 1 1950

YOU SPLASH PLENTY OF COLOR AROUND

Articles

That’s how Dorothy Stevens, R.C.A., made some of our best and brightest pictures. She’s also made a vivid splash with her carefree tilting at convention, her barbed and gusty witticisms

LISA RAMSAY

ALTHOUGH there is a suspicion among Dorothy Stevens’ friends that she has spent most of her life enjoying life, partying, and having fun, her contribution to Canadian painting has earned her a reputation among the pros as a bear for work, solid, distinctive work in many cases.

Martin Baldwin, curator at the Toronto Art Gallery, sums up a widely held view like this: “I’ve always considered that in every country there must be stand-bys, hitching posts rather, in the development of the nation’s art. If these did not exist the whole scene would take a different shape. Dorothy Stevens is one of these in Canada, with George Reid, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, and a few others. She has inspired others to take risks and to experiment. I would definitely say she has been a central figure in the development of art in this country all her life.”

Her contribution was officially recognized last year when she was elected a full academician of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

She was astounded by this honor. “Well,” she said, “there’s only one thing left to do. Drop dead.”

Dorothy Stevens is a stocky woman of middle height with pitch-black hair cut in a sharp bang across her forehead and always-alive bright-blue eyes. She usually wears a splash of vivid lipstick and is addicted to brilliant colors in her clothes. She talks as much with her eyebrows as with her hands, while the words come out in a loud, amused, raucous voice, punctuated by a gigantic chuckle. An art critic has called her painting “outrageously courageous.” This could apply to her as a person.

She has painted some of the best Canadian portraits (among them Mrs. A. H. C. Proctor, Mrs. Douglas Ridout, and “Laura,” a fashion model); realistic nudes (these are mostly handsome Negro girls in faked tropical settings) ; landscapes (she prefers the blinding colors of Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Spain) ; and has done a number of excellent oils and pastels of children. Her Negro children have gained particular acclaim.

During her student days in Paris she was fascinated by etching and later used it to good advantage in illustrating two books, “Canada’s Cities of Romance” and “Canadian Houses of Romance.” Some Canadian artists consider her still the best Canadian etcher.

Stevens paintings are hung in the National Gallery in Ottawa, and in several galleries across the Dominion, including Toronto and Edmonton.

Dorothy Stevens will be 60 years old in a couple of months, but her vigor, verve, and tireless enthusiasm have been never known to fail. Except perhaps for a moment during a recent 10-day New York trip when she took in a dozen art exhibits and nine plays and was found late in the week, one afternoon, soaking her feet in hot water.

She attributes her stamina to good health. Friends say it’s her egotism. “She’s an extrovert,” they say. “She loves life. She can’t bear to miss anything. She loves to hear herself talk. But

everybody else loves to hear her talk too. She hasn’t time to get tired.”

When Toronto women ran a canteen on Adelaide Street for servicemen Dorothy was a tireless worker. The Heliconian Club, where she is president today, also held dances for soldiers and their girls. One day her duties at both places coincided and after a long day of making sandwiches at the Adelaide Street canteen she turned up to wash 500 coffee cups at the Heliconian Club.

In the small kitchen her foot slipped and she cracked her head against the sharp steel comer of an old-fashioned range. She went out like a light for a couple of minutes. Then she got up, pushed aside her worried cohorts, trumpeted “Let’s get on with the wash.” She finished the job but was home with a mild concussion for a couple of weeks after.

Her tireless interest in new developments and possible new developments in art comes out in a number of ways. In New York she visits the Guggenheim Gallery regularly, saying, “Though I dislike nonobjective painting I still go and sit solemnly looking at it, trying to figure out what the hell it’s all about. Everything’s a part of everything else. You can’t tell me anybody could think out things completely on their own.”

In Toronto her Saturday morning children’s art classes held at the Women’s Art Association building on Prince Arthur Street are crammed. “I like to see what the kids are up to, and besides you have to earn a living,” she roars. “They help to keep my mind open.”

The kids are mesmerized by her instruction. She acts with them as she acts with everybody—completely Dorothy Stevens. Loud, raucous, profane, amusing, well informed and straight from the shoulder. No soft soaping, unjustified praise, or talking down. The children sometimes take her phrases home and shock their mothers to the teeth. But they continue at the classes.

Dorothy’s theory, “let them splash plenty of color around,” pays dividends in fresh uninhibited sketches. Once she played records to the children and told them to paint whatever came into their heads. She got a riot of abstract patterns. The only tangible result of the experiment was that Tchaikovsky inspired reds and browns, Sibelius greys and blues. She was delighted.

She prowls the large studio, bouncing over the young artists’ shoulders to smack a dab of paint with accurate aim for correction or instruction, chain smoking, jerking Continued on page 48

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You Splash Plenty of Color Around

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off terse and seldom flattering comments in her corn-crake voice, and favoring bold contrasting tones to “namby-pamby work.”

“Why,” she shouted at one little girl struggling over a ballet scene, “you’ve got the dancer’s legs about 15 feet from her tummy!”

“Excuse me,” said the child equally crisply, “those are not her legs. They belong to another dancer who is not fully in the picture yet.”

“Glorious art!” ejaculated Dorothy. “Such mystery.”

In a recent exhibition in Simpson’s department store in Toronto she consented to do lightning pastel sketches of children. “Put on the circus,” she described it. She worked away happily for several days because it was good for her drawing. Finally she barked at the management, “I’m sick and tired of all these dough-faced Aryan kids! Can’t you get me some colored kids? Negro or Chinese kids? Kids with character and eloquence in their eyes.”

The Stevens Go to Slade

One of the teachers at her children’s classes is a young DP girl who, Dorothy Stevens heard, needed a job. She carried friendliness farther and saw the girl married off from the studio of her friends, sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle. The studio is an abandoned church, completely overpowered by huge dusty statuary, in an exclusive Toronto residential suburb.

She’s always been ready to help newcomers with private exhibitions, her considerable contacts, and earthy advice. Early this year she got the Women’s Art Association to show the water colors of John Ensor, recently arrived from England.

Dorothy Stevens was born in Toronto on September 2, 1890. Her parents were a tall, thin, courtly Englishman, Daniel Benjamin Stevens, and tiny, talkative, birdlike Bertha Stevens. Her brothers are retiring and undemonstrative. Dorothy has the family’s reserve of fire and exuberance all to herself.

Her father had spent several years at the Slade School of Art in London, but dropped painting for importing surgical supplies to Canada, at which he prospered. He was urbane, stylish, and completely conventional.

When Dorothy was about 15 his business called him to England and he enrolled his daughter, whose talents he appreciated, in his own old school.

A family friend speaks of that time: “Dorothy was lucky to have a father who recognized her as a true artist. He knew only too well himself that art springs from internal conflict. The conflict cannot be extinguished by a parent. It can only burn itself low through time. So old Stevens wisely let Dorothy burn.”

In the English boarding school and at Slade Dorothy’s fresh brash Canadian personality made her a leader of her student set. For a time she “got religion.” FI very Sunday Bhe visited a different church in London. Her travels ranged from the Anglican St. Paul’s and the Homan Catholic Westminster Cathedral to Baptist churches, Jewish synagogues, Mohammedan mosques, Hindu temples and a swimming pool where revival services were held in the “holy water.”

From the Slade she went with her mother to Paris and lived near the student-infested Boulevard Montpar-

nasse. She knew the Dome and La Coupole and the Café Flora and the “Boul Mich,” where arty types of all countries hung about in sandals, beards, long hair and longer arguments.

She and her mother were on a budget and they became famous at the outdoor market where they shopped mornings. Eagerly Dorothy would seize an artichoke, a fat chicken, or a bottle of wine and say, “How much?” Invariably her more cautious mother w’ould start a haggle by saying “Too dear!” The F’rench tradesmen cheerily christened the two Canadians “Combien” and “Trop Cher.”

Dorothy suddenly found herself interested in etching and she worked in this medium after renting a studio during World War I in New York’s Greenwich Village. “Those were the years when wild oats grew green,” she recalls happily. “I once went to so many parties that I never saw daylight for three weeks.”

In spite of her tendency to such statements and knockabout slang her best friends claim, “Dorothy never was satisfied just to be an artist. The arty weren’t enough for her either. She likes society, and the comforts thereof, and she loves entertaining. She needs people because she isn’t happy unless she’s the centre of considerable attention. And when she’s at a party who else has a chance?”

Dorothy Stevens came back to her home town, rented a small studio on top of a store on King Street, shocked all the chaperons at a deb ball by dancing with a married man five times.

She married Reginald de Bruno Austin, an engineer. This brief marriage was punctuated by the first of a later famous series of Stevens-originated costume parties at which she appeared as a ravishing Egyptian slave girl shackled to her husband by a heavy gold chain. She got a divorce soon after and now reports, “I am married to the Heliconian Club.”

The Heliconian is one of the oldest Canadian clubs for women distinguished in arts and letters. Membership requirement demands that you have supported yourself by your craft for at least three years with above-average distinction. Dorothy Stevens has presided over this group for the past year and her candid comments have served to enliven the luncheons and dinners both for members and visiting celebrities.

She explains her presidential success with, “You can’t ask a singer to give a few bright remarks at lunch. They

get a sore throat and stay at home. It’s better to break down the audience resistance, and then throw them a question. Before you know where you are the thing’s out of your hands and everybody is having a lovely fight.” Her wit is partly that intangible kind you can’t often put into words. It comes in the raucous inflection of her voice, the lifted black eyebrow, the gesture of fake helplessness, the perfect timing. At one meeting, trying to explain the Heliconian Club to a visitor, she expounded, “There are a great many people that dire necessity drives into a career.” Once she defended herself, “I’m rude only when it saves time.”

A Scholarship to Spain

At a full-dress concert some time ago she spotted a critic who was a notorious hypochondriac and bawled across the foyer, “Hi, Gussie! How are all your diseases?”

At a play in the Royal Alexandra Theatre a love scene that was supposed to be erotic was in fact so tedious that friends started an anxious watch on Dorothy Stevens who was sitting in the orchestra. As they saw her face contort with mounting wrath they sat wincing for the inevitable eruption.

Choosing a moment of pin-drop quiet Dorothy held up her hands in agony of boredom and roared, “Aw, why don’t he bite her neck!”

Toronto has never been able to hold her for long. She knows Paris, Florence, Bruges, Madrid, London and New York as well. She has painted in Mexico, Bermuda, Jamaica, and Puerto

“I could live on my paintings if I had to,” she says, “but I’m lazy. I sit around blowing off my mouth over pots of coffee until somebody shakes a fistful of money under my nose. Then I hurl myself into feverish activity.”

Her first Spanish trip was on a scholarship from the Royal Canadian Academy. Later she got a commission to paint a brochure for a New York shipping company, which meant a free trip to Puerto Rico and the West Indies. The fiery southern colors inspired her. “A coal-black band, all dressed up in golden helmets and scarlet tunics, played by night in the square and in the background thousands of gorgeous mulattoes in Spanish costumes swirled and flirted around them.” Sometimes the results of her trips are unexpected. During a Mexican painting trip last year she met the curator

of the art gallery in Mexico City and blithely invited him to drop in some time. Came a blowy, snowy. New Year’s and Dorothy, back in Toronto, was busy fixing up some food and drinks for friends she expected to drop in at cocktail time. She glanced up to see seven short Mexicans picking their way up the snowed-in walk. It was barely noon.

“My God,” she greeted them, “you can’t come in now. I’m too busy. Come back at 5.”

Bowing and smiling they pushed past her into the house and, finally, from the involved Spanish explanations and gesticulations, she gathered they had just dropped in from Niagara Falls and had to get back there on the 3 o’clock bus. She got on the phone and collected everybody she could think of who spoke Spanish, wanted to speak Spanish, or was even faintly interested in it. She got the Ontario Museum to allow the visitors a special tour. And only after the organizing was over did she realize she was wearing nothing but a plastic apron over her slip. The Mexicans stayed for cocktails.

Her home wears the trophies of her travels. There is an ivory and tortoiseshell inlaid chest from Venice, gatelegged tables and ancient glass from Spain, china cabinet and carved table from Holland, gilt-edged mirrors, ornate candelabra, oriental screens, and, in her bedroom, in gesso work, a Longhi period bedroom set, also from Venice.

The Unemployed in Evening Dress

It’s a welcoming sort of a house, with Dorothy Stevens shouting, “Come in, shut the door,” in the cherry-colored damask-patterned hall, and all the guests, unintroduced, milling happily about. Even her small parties have a tendency to balloon into mass affairs.

Dorothy Stevens has made a name for herself as a hostess, partly on the strength of the costume balls she has organized for years, particularly at the Christmas season. In other days she and Ronnie McRea, an interior decorator, used to hire old halls, churches, or clubroom8, set the theme for tin* carnival, invite literally hundreds of their friends. Whether it was Gay Nineties, a circus party, or a Zulu party the affair was as eagerly anticipated in Toronto as the Chelsea Arts Ball in London. ,

Perhaps the most famous was during the depression. It was a 1900 to 1914 party. Dorothy hired an old Victorian hotel. The mirrors were decorated with nudes drawn in soap. She went as Mae West.

She had a time trying to keep out the gate crashers. “They were easy to spot because they were all the local unemployed. And they were in evening

Men shinnied up drain pipes to peer in through the windows. “I got so sick of one man’s face,” Dorothy says, “that I raised the sash and pushed it away. There was a long-drawn-out cry. Then I realized we were on the second floor. However, we never found the body. Maybe it drove itself into the snow and got carted away by a street gang.”

It was at this same party that she brought her own maid along to help with the refreshments, but, elaborately uniformed, the maid was mistaken fora guest and spent the entire evening dancing. “Life of the party,” Dorothy remarked as she did the maid’s work.

Dorothy Stevens, R.C.A., is simply following her own philosophy: "You

either like humanity or you don’t. That old saw about ‘it's Inter than you think' starts the very moment you are out of the bassinet.” if