In Hillsborough, portrait of the mayor as an artist

CorrespondentOctober 27, 2012 

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Artist Thomas Stevens talks about his oil on canvas paintings, one of which is in the background while hanging his show Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 at Hillsborough's Cup of Joe coffeehouse on W. King Street. Stevens, who is also Hillsborough's current Mayor, was hanging an eight painting show titled 'Backyard Play,' scenes from his own backyard in Hillsborough. The show will run the month of October, 2012.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

  • Details What: Paintings by Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens Where: Cup A Joe, 120 W. King St., Hillsborough When: Through Wednesday. The shop is open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday; 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Info: 919-732-8056 or http://nando.com/6t

“I would like to be a bird and live in that boxwood,” said Dana Dannehower of Hillsborough.

The boxwood, vibrant and lush, is a focal point in one of the eight oil paintings at Hillsborough’s Cup A Joe by another Hillsborough resident – Mayor Tom Stevens.

Dannehower had shown up for a cup of coffee and was delighted to see the exhibit. She explained that she and Stevens took a painting class together taught by another Hillsborough resident, John Beerman.

The first piece in the series, “Go Looking For,” came from a misperception.

“I woke up one morning, and we have this arbor and big pillars outside our bedroom and it framed the landscape in a particular way, and as I was half-asleep, I thought it was a painting,” Stevens said. “So I made it.”

Each piece portrays a slice of Stevens’ backyard.

“There is honeysuckle and privet that runs in the backyard and it makes this dark spot – and yet you see this light on the other side, which is the neighbor’s,” he said. “There is a play in the pieces between different kinds of lights, different perspectives, but mostly the paintings are a play on the words and associations that happen to come out when you are looking at your own backyard and what does ‘backyard’ mean in your community and in a small town,” Stevens said.

Five minutes with Stevens is all it takes to be captivated by his playful personality and exuberance. He wanted to bring that spirit to this exhibit.

“In art I aspire to create some works that at least some people will find enjoyable and spark them to look at the world in a different way,” Stevens said.

Stevens has created a way for viewers to expand their interaction with his work. There is an unannounced theme to the body of work, and text clues painted into each 30-by-30-inch painting can be strung together to solve the puzzle. Stevens has created a website for the show that explains the quest. You can check it out at http://nando.com/6s.

“So is the art the exhibit, or the way that people interact with the work the exhibit?” Stevens asked.

Even for viewers with a heart of stone, one painting will spark some romance.

“My Heart’s Desire,” depicts Stevens’ wife, Debbie Simmers, leaning against the railing of their porch looking out onto their backyard. One bare foot is casually draped over the other. Viewers will instantly realize the painter is crazy about his subject. Stevens and Simmers celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary Sept. 26.

A young Stevens learned to draw from a great-uncle who ran a tavern, painted and was a former vaudeville performer. Stevens became quite skilled and passionate about drawing – and eventually, sculpture. When he started his consulting business, Think Leadership Ideas, in 2001, he stopped his artwork, putting his creative energy into developing his new career. “Then in 2005 I ran for mayor, and that takes a lot of time,” Stevens said.

Three years ago, he knew it was time to get back into art, so he took up oils and began taking classes from Beerman.

“I am working with color and lots of layering to get some depth and luminosity. I am not sure I am there yet, but compared to two years ago, light years ahead,” Stevens said.

Beerman has high praise for Stevens’ new work.

“The subtlety of hue changes in the close-up of the pine trees’ mass of needles, as just one example, is quiet and absorbing,” he said. “One forgets the subject for the moment and enters a mysterious, whispered and dynamic place. One that stays with you when called to mind.”

The exhibit ends on Wednesday. To miss it would be to miss some fun, a little romance and a chance to see how an effort to add color to a life has succeeded.

Meyer: deborah.meyer@duke.edu

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