WHEAT RIDGE | For more than 20 years, Jim Stevens’ life has been defined by his ability to adapt, innovate and adapt again.
Subtle evidence of a gradual metamorphosis is scattered around the 64-year-old artist’s diminutive, green-carpeted studio tucked behind his Wheat Ridge home. An adjustable monocular lens from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation Program in Aurora over here, a talking desk calculator and accompanying desktop computer over there.
“My computer let’s me know when I’m running late,” Stevens says in his gruff, blunt voice. “Which is good, because otherwise I’d be out here for two days straight.”
If it weren’t for these muted nuances, casual observers of Stevens and his vast collection of artwork would have no way of knowing that the sculptor, painter and master scrimshander has spent about half of his adult life with a scope of vision no larger than a pinhole. Over the course of 30 minutes in 1993, Stevens went nearly completely blind after a stroke crippled his visual cortex. The episode was triggered by a shifting bullet fragment that had been benignly lodged in his head since 1970. That’s when he was shot during a combat reconnaissance mission in Vietnam while serving in a Special Forces unit of the U.S. Army.
“The neurosurgeon at the VA in Denver explained what happened, and I told him, ‘Excuse me, doc, but I gave at the office over 20 years ago,’” Stevens recalls. “He said, ‘Well, you just gave again, Sarge.’”
The 22 years separating Stevens from that cataclysmic half-hour have undulated a path marked by unprecedented triumphs, and bouts of shadowy troughs. Throughout the 1990s, he gave up art altogether and helplessly managed to raise his daughters by himself.
“I’d been doing scrimshaw for over 30 years, but I quit in 1993,” he says. “I quit everything in 1993.”
That changed in the early 2000s, when he enrolled in martial arts classes — after some cajoling from his daughters — and became the first legally blind man to win the Martial Arts Tournament of Champions, an effort that resulted in a broken nose, three cracked ribs, dislocated left knee and a torn left rotator cuff. He won the title without revealing his impairment until after hoisting the trophy.
“When I went up to get the trophy I had my cane in my hand and when the guy that took second place saw, his jaw just dropped,” Stevens says with a cackle.
But over the past 18 months, Stevens’ creative trajectory has hit a new signpost, the inspiration for which came from an unlikely source: a 6-year-old boy with a tangled up Fisher Price fishing pole.
“I heard this, ‘Papa, I need help,’” Stevens says. “So I came running out to find my grandson with his fishing line all tangled up. As I was helping him, I had the monofilament on my fingers and the clouds caused it to ripple, which I noticed and just couldn’t get out of my head.”
Following that epiphany, Stevens spent the next five months figuring out a way to recreate that fleeting phenomenon in a permanent display. The result has yielded eight pieces crafted using eight layers of 1,032 strands of monofilament, suspended in a Komatex glass case.
“I call them polymorphs,” Stevens says.
The works are the upshot of Stevens painting hundreds of yards of fishing line with black acrylic paint, then stringing them into a cohesive, three-dimensional image using sterling silver anchors. The final product is an almost-holographic image that shimmers differently with even the slightest change in viewing angle.
So far, the subjects of Stevens’ eight existing monofilament portraits range from his daughter to Star Trek characters, to Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” He says each piece takes him about two months to create, which he considers a major improvement from his first five months of experimental tampering.
On June 27, that infuriation paid off with a letter in the mail notifying Stevens that he had beaten out more than 3,300 other artists to earn two first-place ribbons in the annual National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
“I only started this about a year and a half ago,” he says. “It’s been really crazy.”
After years spent making his own tools to create scrimshaw pieces — works made by etching nearly microscopic dots into bone and ivory — Stevens says that virtually birthing his own medium felt like a natural part of his lifelong infatuation with art.
“I could never get away from art because I grew up with it and fell in love with it thanks to my grandmother, who was a master watercolorist,” he says. “My problem with it is that I’m always trying to explore something new, so when that monofilament rippled on my hand that day, I thought, ‘That’s something new, why not try to use it?’ I think that’s why I love art.”
A pair of Stevens’ monofilament works are currently displayed at a Seattle gallery, but can be viewed locally at the Veterans of Foreign Wars gallery at 841 Santa Fe Drive in Denver.