The Right Touch

The Right Touch

David Stephens Peeled Turf

Peeled Turf, 2013-14, painted wood, botanicals, 6.3 x 8.3 x 5.5 ft. Photo: John Carlano

In David Stephens’ large wood assemblages, angular shapes and rich colors are offset by uniform circular bumps. At first glance, the pieces appear almost like irregular Legos. But the bumps contain messages, written in Braille. Stephens, who lives in Philadelphia, has been a visual artist for nearly 50 years. He lost his eyesight to glaucoma 15 years ago.

Stephens, whose career in art started with painting, drawing, and printmaking, gradually lost his vision over the course of the 1990s. In 1999, he enrolled at the school for the blind in Baltimore. “I learned Braille and saw Braille being a kind of code,” he says. “Braille became a major issue in the work, because I had thought, ‘How do I express the fact that I’m blind without just focusing on that?’ ” Many of his Braille messages spring from the Bible, such as “Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof” and “I tell you, little children, avoid idols and the worship of graven images.”

Stephens is glad to be a full-time artist again. At the height of his painting career in the mid-1970s, Stephens showed in New York City and exhibited nationally and internationally. He then worked for a series of arts nonprofits and as an advisor for Pennsylvania’s Council on the Arts. Around the same time his sight began to deteriorate, Stephens was also growing more and more frustrated with his career in arts administration. So in the early ’90s, he retired and restarted his career as an artist.

“I just did it. When I was at the Council on the Arts, I was not able to really have a studio and exhibit, because the job was so demanding, and there were restrictions on my showing in the Northeast area, because it would have been a conflict of interest,” he says. “Instead of keeping a studio, I kept a journal in which I had planned out what I was going to do once I left that job.”

Today, at 73, he continues to draw inspiration from those big ideas. His process involves power tools. “There’s a big 12-inch cut-off saw,” Stephens says – but to his way of thinking, hand tools are more dangerous. “If I hurt myself, it’s with a hand file or something like that. I basically use power tools just like other artists.” Studio assistants help finish and paint the pieces. He often works with lighter colors, mimicking the original colors of the wood he uses and playing off the tension between painted wood and a clear finish that lets the grain show through.

His work begs to be touched. “I usually say the work is three and a half dimensions – there’s that tension between the tactility in the work and the desire of people to touch it, but gallery protocol is keeping them away.”

This spring, the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia presented Stephens’ “Auguries of Idolatry” exhibition, coinciding with a show of drawings from earlier in his career at Scribe Video Center, also in the city. Art continues to be the force that drives him, and it keeps him busy.

“Help, for me, is, to a great extent, getting me to the grocery store,” he says. “So far as making the art, I can do most of that.”

Andrew Zoellner is American Craft’s assistant editor.