Elisabeth Stevens has a secret stash of paintings in her studio. To illustrate how secret they are, she marked the drawer in which she keeps them.
If you were tempted to snoop through Stevens’ filing cabinet in search of this collection, you wouldn’t have to look for long. The drawer that contains the work is clearly and obviously labeled, “Secret Paintings.”
Stevens may be talented, but she’s not stealth.
“They’re kind of kooky,” she says, pulling out an image of a cat with women’s breasts. “Well, maybe all my work is a little bit kooky.”
Stevens painted the images years ago, when she was still working as an art critic for The Baltimore Sun and before that, The Trenton Times, and before that, The Wall Street Journal, and before that, The Washington Post.
She spent more than 25 years in journalism.
In the beginning of her career, she went wherever her husband, a finance whiz, was hired.
“I knew I was a writer,” Stevens says. “It just never occurred to me that I was an artist. Money was always such an object that I rarely had the time to create it. I had to work.”
She was a widow at a young age. Her husband suddenly died when their daughter was just 7 years old. Creating art was a luxury then. Stevens had bigger concerns.
“I was never able to really sit down and focus (on making art) until my daughter went off to college.” Stevens says. “That’s not to say I didn’t loved being a journalist, because I did.”
Sometimes she would find the time to paint.
At night, after her daughter had gone to bed, she would create wild, figurative paintings in acrylic — the 29 “secret paintings,” as they’ve come to be called.
Her favorite is of a two-headed woman, one facing the morning and one facing the night, a baby and a book cradled between the women, the word “joyful” spelled out at the bottom of the picture.
“My daughter seems to think they’re great,” Stevens says. “I can’t imagine anyone would care about them.”
A native of Rome, N.Y., Stevens studied English at Wellesley College and Columbia University.
At first, she thought she wanted to be an English teacher, until she started pumping out short art reviews during grad school for the New York-based art magazine, ARTnews, which still exists today.
She was a bohemian, as interested in the beat generation as any young writer living in the early 1960s in New York City. As proof of this, she has an assortment of ink drawings created on the spot in cafés and street corners.
The collection includes sketches of Lenny Bruce, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, as well as a series of images depicting the 1963 coal mining disaster in Dola, W.V.
“They actually let me down there,” Stevens says. “Can you imagine? I made drawings in the mine.”
It’s hard to imagine Stevens — a tiny, blond lady living in a well kept country-club neighborhood — lugging an art portfolio through New York City subway stations and West Virginia coal mines, until you start studying everything she’s created: six books of short fiction, five books of poems, art monographs, etchings, linocuts and silverpoints.
All of them contain imagery and themes that are a little off-kilter, a little surprising and often come from such strange recesses in her mind that even she can’t tell you from where they came.
Take, for example, the story of a woman who inexplicably grows a halo above her head in Stevens’ latest work, “Impossible Interlude: Three Short Plays.”
“I was a very serious journalist,” Stevens says. “I traveled all over the country writing about art. Just don’t ask me to explain my own. If I could explain it, I wouldn’t create it.”
To see Elisabeth Stevens’ work in person, visit the Stakenorg Fine Art Gallery in downtown Sarasota. To see her work online, visit gosspress.com.