Art In The Dark
By Bill Briggs
Denver Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 08, 2002
Jim Stevens sees it all now. He sees that life is just like the tiny marks he gouges into slabs of 10,000-year-old ivory in his garage studio In time, all those lines come together to form something beautiful.
You just have to keep digging, Stevens says, especially if you suddenly find yourself blind.
His darkness fell in just 30 minutes - "like somebody was pulling down a shade." One moment, Stevens was a college professor and budding artist who had survived a bullet to the head in Vietnam. A half-hour later, he was a disabled American veteran, his vision squeezed into a pair of pinpoints by a massive migraine. It came 24 years after he was wounded.
"When I lost my eyesight, I was pretty depressed, pretty angry. I didn't know what to do," he says, "except walk into walls.
"It took a long time to finally get tired of having things happen to me. I just decided I would try to come back to the thing I loved the most, my art. I never thought I'd be able to do it again."
His unsteady journey out of the darkness began the same way Stevens now looks at the world one dot at a time. If he stands 5 feet away from you, he looks you squarely in the eye because that's all he can see. No nose, no eyebrow, just one eye.
And, in a way, this tunnel vision reveals Stevens' true talent. Scrimshaw is his art. Chunks of wooly mammoth ivory are his canvas, each playing host to images of dolphins, pandas, wizards or ninja warriors.
He often works long into the night, spending 15 to 18 hours a day in his Wheat Ridge garage. The warm, remodeled space is often filled with cigarette smoke and the almost imperceptible sounds of his craft. His cutting tools are arranged in tidy rows.
Like a dentist probing for cavities, Stevens hunches over a desk and repeatedly pushes a darning needle or steel scribe into the ancient tusks of long-extinct beasts. (The ivory is typically yanked from the Alaskan tundra by gold miners and sold for about $40 an inch.)
Jab by jab, he peppers the white surface with a pattern of pits - some purposely deep, some left a touch shallow. Finally, a splash of black ink is pooled in the larger holes, shading the image darker in those spots.
Other scrimshanders can inspect their work as they go, turning it over in their hands, gauging the piece in whole. Before his vision shrank to a blip like someone turning off an old TV set, Stevens enjoyed that same luxury.
Now, he peers at the ivory through a thick magnifying glass affixed to his flip-down visor. Then he sneaks a broader view through a hand-held minimizing lense - like stepping away without getting out of his chair. Back and forth, he works.
"I have to focus more now than I ever did before because one slip and the piece is ruined," he says. "So I do a couple of dots, switch lenses. A couple of dots, switch lenses.
"When people see my work, they usually stare at the piece, stare at me, then ask "Who did this?' "
Stevens gets a lot of that.
From his artwork to the karate victories he has notched over sighted opponents, the 50-year-old grandfather of five does more than merely compensate for the 2 degrees of vision he has left in each eye.
He hides it so well, people in the same room often are fooled.
This includes a family friend who spent two months hanging around the artist's house before realizing the Vietnam vet was able to zoom from room to room only because he had the floor plan memorized. "Sometimes I still don't believe he's blind," says Andy Latimore, a friend of one of Stevens' five children.
It includes Stevens' girlfriend, Mary Pierce, who thought the wooden stick he carried into her bar one night was a pool cue. She didn't find out it was a cane until Stevens accidently walked into a wall and caused a horse harness to fall on his head. (It's how they met.)
It includes Stevens himself. He helped launch a website, www.blackflix.com , rewired his home office and re-roofed his garage - all after losing his sight. Then again, he also tumbled off the garage. "I gave myself a hernia and wound up at the VA hospital. The doctor looked at me and said, "Jim, you're blind. We don't want you on the roof.' "
And it includes the 18-year-old man whom Stevens bested at a recent karate meet in Salt Lake City.
"The kid was very sharp, very fast and he could see," says Andy Chryssolor, who teaches Stevens at the United Studios of Self Defense in Wheat Ridge. "The kid didn't know Jim was blind until after the tournament."
To fully grasp this feat, know this Stevens had to react instantly to the teenager's blows - throwing up defensive blocks and then firing back jabs of his own - by hearing his challenger's hands cut through the air. He never saw the punches coming.
This talent was honed during seven months of innovative ear exercises. Chryssolor asked his pupil to sit on the floor of the suburban dojo. The teacher then walked silent circles around him and occasionally asked Stevens to point to his position.
||As his student sharpened his hearing, Chryssolor began throwing punches toward his head, knees or torso. Soon, Stevens could detect the rustling of cloth over skin and his opponent's breathing. He earned the rank of third-degree brown belt.
"He got so good," Chryssolor says, "he can actually hear the direction a punch comes from. He doesn't use his sight. If he did, by the time he used his sight, it would be too late.
"Jim has a quiet intensity about himself. He never does anything half-heartedly. He's never once wallowed in self-pity. He doesn't let other people compensate for his blindness, and it doesn't slow him down in the least.
"The only thing he doesn't do is drive. If he could get away with it, he would try. But he doesn't want to hurt anybody."
Especially after he was so badly hurt 32 years ago.
Not much chance
The ambush came at "almost straight up midnight," he says, during a "long-range reconnaissance" mission in Vietnam. Stevens, a sergeant, was part of a six-man team gathering intelligence on the enemy troops. They worked far in front of combat units.
"We just had a bunch of them run right over us. We didn't have much of a chance," he says.
A bullet from an AK-47 slammed into his face and shattered when it struck bone, leaving fragments imbedded near his jaw, cheek and temple. (They're still there.) After a few days in a military hospital - mainly to stabilize his broken teeth - Stevens was back in the jungle with his team.
The massive headaches came crashing down a month later, caused by the head wound, doctors said. The migraines sometimes returned once a week and tormented Stevens long after he got home. Until 1994, it was the only cruel parting gift he brought back from Vietnam. That same year, he was a special studies professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, and had recently earned degrees in English and publishing from Metro State College.
He also was dabbling in scrimshaw, the culmination of a childhood passion for art he developed after "borrowing" his grandmother's charcoal pencils and sketch pad. At 42, his sculptures in ancient ivory were selling and getting noticed by other artists.
Then darkness fell.
Stevens was typing at a computer, preparing a lesson plan for his class, when suddenly "half of the words on the screen were gone," he says. Stevens thought the computer was crashing. But when he looked at a paper on the desk, "words were disappearing down there, too."
"I had the most crushing headache, and I lost my eyesight over the period of about 30 minutes. It was just like somebody had pulled a curtain.
"They said it's rare, but it can happen with a migraine. The doctor told me, "You know you got shot in the head and that gave you migraines? Well, migraines just took your eyesight.'
"I told him, "I gave at the office.' "
Stevens laughs softly when telling the story, chuckles at spouting such a smart-aleck line in the face of awful news. But a tantrum was building. He was angry for a long time, he says.
"So angry, in fact, that I even destroyed many unfinished (scrimshaw) pieces and most of my notes, drafts and records."
He didn't touch his art for almost seven years. During that bleak span, he says he did two things got divorced and walked into walls.
What drew him back to scrimshaw?
"I guess," he says, "I don't like to quit. I missed it. But when I started, when I tried it again, I was terrible."
He could only see the pieces in small bits and had to devise a fresh technique. He had to think his way through each new stroke, plot each glance to check his progress. He began using the lenses and even asked his children to sometimes gaze over his shoulder.
Slowly, Stevens regained the touch.
"The first time somebody actually ordered a piece from me after I started again, you can't imagine how good that felt. I felt good and scared at the same time."
The pieces may take a little longer, some up to 900 hours. But with extra time comes extra detail. He points with pride to the meticulous texture he etched inside the open mouth of a snake. He actually may be better now.
It's such careful work. Yet that's what lured him to scrimshaw when he could see, Stevens says. It's art on a tightrope, creating images without a safety net. You can't erase a slip or cover an error with extra paint. One missed stroke and the piece is ruined. You start over.
But starting over, the veteran says, doesn't scare him anymore.
Jim Stevens' artwork, including necklaces and sculptures, has been sold to private collectors around the country and has been shown in galleries in Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.