May Stevens

May Stevens (June 9, 1924 – December 9, 2019)[1] was an American feminist artist, political activist, educator, and writer.[2]

May Stevens
Born(1924-06-09)June 9, 1924
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedDecember 9, 2019(2019-12-09) (aged 95)
EducationMassachusetts College of Art
Art Students League
Académie Julian
Known forPainting
Notable work
Big Daddy series (1968–1976)
History Paintings series (1974–1981)
Ordinary/Extraordinary series (1976–1991)
Sea of Words series (1990)
MovementFeminist art

Early life and educationEdit

May Stevens was born in Boston to working-class parents, Alice Dick Stevens and Ralph Stanley Stevens, and grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts.[2] She had one brother, Stacey Dick Stevens, who died of pneumonia at the age of fifteen.[2] By Stevens's account, her father expressed his racism at home but "never said these things publicly, nor did he act on them—to my knowledge. But he said them over and over."[3]

Stevens earned a B.F.A. at the Massachusetts College of Art (1946), and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris (1948) and Art Students League in New York City (1948).[2] She was granted an MFA equivalency by the New York City Board of Education in 1960 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College in 1988–89.[2] After attending art school she married Rudolf Baranik, who was also an activist artist in 1948.


Over the course of her career, Stevens tended to work in series. Her body of work divides into several periods, each characterized by a particular theme or concern. She said that she "start[s] with an idea and I always have more to say about it."[2] While her political commitment drove her earlier work, her later works tend to be lyrical.

Freedom RidersEdit

The first series influenced by her political awareness is a group of paintings called Freedom Riders exhibited in 1963 at the Roko Gallery in New York  At her husband's request Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed to sign his name to the catalog's forward,[4] in which the Freedom Riders' actions were praised as deserving mention in song and painting.[5] These are the first works by Stevens in which her political awareness influenced the subject of her paintings. Based on the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who challenged segregation in the South through riding segregated buses and registering voters, Freedom Riders, a haunting black and white lithograph of individual portraits, was also the title of a work in this exhibition. Although Stevens did not participate in their activities she strongly supported the  Civil rights movement, and had taken part in protests in Washington, DC.[2] In another work in the exhibition, Honor Roll (1963),the names of James Meredith, Harvey Gantt, and five other African American men, women, and children who were active in attempts to integrate schools in the South are scratched on the surface as if they were listed on a school's honor roll for academic distinction,[5] Most of Stevens's Freedom Riders paintings were based images in newspapers and on television.[3]

Big DaddyEdit

Stevens created her Big Daddy series between 1967 and 1976, coinciding with the U.S. escalation of involvement in Vietnam. The image of "Big Daddy" is based on a painting she made of her father watching television in his undershirt in 1967[6] Although the Big Daddy figure was initially inspired by Stevens' anger towards her father, whom she has characterized as an ordinary working-class man, with pro-war, pro-establishment, anti-Semitic, and profoundly racist attitudes, ultimately the figure became transmuted into a more universal symbol of patriarchal imperialism.[6] In expansive, predominantly red, white and blue images that show the influence of Pop Art, she created a homogenized, phallic, ignorant, male persona that acted as a visual metaphor for all that she felt was hypocritical and unjust in the patriarchal power dynamics of family life.[7] Stevens showed her metaphoric 'Big Daddy' in many guises. In Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970), he is centrally seated holding a pug dog on his lap, surrounded by an array of cut-out costumes: an executioner, soldier, policeman, and butcher.[8] Although the bullet shaped head and bulldog on his lap exaggerate his potential violence and power, through the metaphor of the cut-out, Stevens contains his potency.[9] In Pax Americana 1973, he sits helmet on head, pug dog on lap, as if clothed in the stars and stripes of the flag. Her work held a questioning mirror up to many Americans and what she considered to be their unconsidered positions on racial and sexually equality and foreign policy.[8]

Feminist Historical RevisionsEdit

During the early through mid 1970s, Stevens became increasingly involved in feminist political activities, making the connection between women's struggle against oppression and the civil rights and anti-war movements. As in her previous work, her political awareness was reflected in her art. After reading Linda Nochlin's essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," Stevens became interested in Artemisia Gentileschi, and in 1976 she painted a nine-foot portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi for a feminist collaborative installation called The Sister Chapel.[10] Between 1974 and 1981, Stevens created three large pictures that she called History Paintings. The series' title refers to the academic tradition of history painting but Stevens reconfigured art historical tropes from the perspective of her own life and other women artists to whom she was connected, drawing upon both her personal and political history[4] In Artist's Studio (After Courbet), 1974 she placed herself in front of one of her Big Daddy paintings, in the pivotal position held by Courbet in his work, The Painter's Studio. Soho Women Artists (1977–78) is a group portrait of women in Stevens's political and artistic circle, including Lucy R. Lippard, Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, and Harmony Hammond, who along with Stevens were among the founders of the Heresies Collective,[11] which also, from 1977 to 1983, published the journal "Heresies: A feminist publication on arts and politics." Mysteries and Politics (1978), is reminiscent of a sacred conversation, in this case between thirteen women who influenced Stevens in their efforts to integrate their feminist politics, creativity, and family life.[12]


In her next series, Ordinary/Extraordinary, painted between 1976 and 1978, Stevens juxtaposed two women - Alice Stevens, her working-class, Irish Catholic mother and Rosa Luxembourg, the Polish Marxist philosopher and social activist, in order to compare, contrast, and ultimately find resonances between these two seemingly different women and their differing life paths - one private, in which her own interests were ignored, and the other public, yet whose powerful ideas and presence ultimately led to her destruction.[4] Specifically, she wanted to "erode the polarized notion that one woman's life was special and the other forgettable."[13] The figures had appeared together in two previous works, a collage originally published in Heresies, and in the painting Mysteries and Politics, discussed above. The works in this series are large and powerful. In Go Gentle (1983) constructed through a cascade of photographs, Stevens in her presentation of her mother who seems to press against the plane of the canvas, echoes but contradicts Dylan Thomas' wish for his father to "not go gentle into that goodnight."[2] Alice alone is the subject of the monumental five-paneled Alice in the Garden, where she holds a bunch of dandelions, which Stevens' describes having thrown at her when she visited her mother at the nursing home where she spent her last years.[2]

Later works: Sea of Words, Bodies of WaterEdit

Water was an important element of Stevens last two series, Sea of Words (begun in 1990), and Rivers and Other Bodies of Water (begun in 2001). By the 1990s, Stevens began to use words in her works; as she said, "words are everywhere."[14] In the painting Sea of Words (1990–91), four luminous, wraithlike boats float on a glimmering "sea" constructed through semi-readable lines of flowing words, taken from the writings of both Virginia Woolf and Julia Kristeva.[2] In her later works water itself became a major theme, as in Three Boats On a Green Sea (1999).  Throughout her life water was special and evocative to her - she has written of the experience of swimming as a child and also the poem "Standing in A River" as an adult, in which she describes minnows swimming around her legs.[2] The water is also a way of expressing grief for her lost loved ones, whose ashes she scattered in rivers, her son, her mother, and her husband.[2]

Exhibitions and recognitionEdit

Stevens’ has exhibited widely throughout her life. She moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1998 and in 1999, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had a major retrospective of her work, entitled Images of Women Near and Far 1983-1997, the museum's first exhibition for a living female artist. Her solo exhibition in 2006 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art traveled to Springfield Museum of Art, MO and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. Stevens’ work is in numerous museum collections, including the British Museum; Brooklyn Museum; Cleveland Museum; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Academy of Design, NY; National Museum of Women in the Arts; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Whitney Museum of American Art.


Stevens is the recipient of numerous awards including the College Art Association Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement as an artist, poet, social activist, and teacher (2001), 10 MacDowell Colony residencies, Women's Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award, Bunting Fellowship (1990), Guggenheim Fellowship in painting (1986), National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting (1983), Andy Warhol Foundation Award (2001).[15][16][17][18] Other awards include the 1958 New England Annual Landscape Priz, 1968–69 National Institute of Arts and Letters Child Hassam Purchase Award, 1983 National Endowment for the Arts Grant in Painting, 1988–89 Bunting Fellowship, Radcliffe College, 1990 WCA Honor Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the 2004 Edwin Palmer Memorial Prize for Painting, National Academy of Design.

Selected exhibitionsEdit

  • 1951 Salon D’Autumne, Paris, France
  • 1951 Salon De Jeunes Peintres, Paris, France
  • 1957 May Stevens, ACA Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1963 Freedom Riders: Paintings by May Stevens, Roko Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1971 The Permanent Collection: Women Artists, The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1973 Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  • 1977 Consciousness and Content, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
  • 1980 Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists, Institute of Contemporary Art, London
  • 1982 Art Couples 1: May Stevens and Rudolf Baranik, P.S. 1, New York, NY
  • 1983 Portraits on a Human Scale, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
  • 1984 Tradition and Conflict, 1963-1973, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
  • 1985 Ordinary/Extraordinary, A Summation 1977-84 Boston University Art Gallery, MA (traveling exhibition)
  • 1988 Committed to Print, 1960 to Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • 1988 One Plus or Minus One, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY
  • 1989 Mothers of Invention, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York, NY (traveling exhibition)
  • 1995–98 Sniper’s Nest: Art That Has Lived with Lucy R. Lippard, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM
  • 1999 May Stevens: Images of Women Near and Far, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
  • 2001 Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA Rivers and Other Bodies of Water, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York, NY (begun in 2000)
  • 2002 Personal and Political: Women Artists of the Eighties, Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY
  • 2002 In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI
  • 2003 Deep River, new paintings and works on paper, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York, NY
  • 2005 New Works, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York, NY
  • 2005-6 The Water Remembers: Paintings and Works on Paper from 1990-2004 Started at the Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, MO and traveled to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (June – September 2005) and the National Museum of Women in the Arts (October 2005 – January 2006).
  • 2006 How American Women Artists Invented Postmodernism: 1970-1975, Mabel Smith Douglas Library, Rutgers (traveling exhibition)
  • 2006 Women, Words, and Water: Works on Paper by May Stevens, Rutgers University
  • 2007 ashes rock snow water: New Paintings and Works on Paper, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York, NY
  • 2008 May Stevens: Big Daddy, Paintings and works on paper, 1968-1976 Mary Ryan Gallery, NY
  • 2010 May Stevens: Crossing Time, I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO
  • 2011 One Plus or Minus One, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York, NY
  • 2012 May Stevens: The Big Daddy Series, National Academy of Design, New York, NY
  • 2013 May Stevens: Political Pop at ADAA: The Art Show, Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY

Selected public collectionsEdit

Selected bibliographyEdit

  • Alloway, Lawrence. May Stevens. Catalog for Big Daddy Series. New York: Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1973.
  • Braff, Phyllis. “The Feminine Image in Its Many Facets in the 20th Century.” New York Times, April 6, 1997.
  • Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
  • Glueck, Grace. “May Stevens ‘Rivers and Other Bodies of Water’”. New York Times. June 1, 2001.
  • Gouma-Peterson, Thalia and Patricia Mathews. “The Feminist Critique of Art History.” Art Bulletin, September 1987.
  • Hills, Patricia, ed. May Stevens. Ordinary/Extraordinary: A Summation, 1977-1984. Essays by Donald Kuspit, Lucy Lippard, Moira Roth, Lisa Tickner. Boston: Boston University Art Gallery, 1984.
  • Johnson, Ken. “May Stevens.” New York Times, November 21, 1997
  • Lippard, Lucy R. From the Center. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.
  • Lippard. “Caring: Five Political Artists.” Studio International [London, England], March 1977.
  • Lippard. “In Sight, Out of Mind.” Z Magazine, May 1988.
  • Lippard. “The Politics of Art Criticism.” Maine Times, August 4, 1989.
  • Mathews, Patricia. “A Dialogue of Silence: May Stevens’ Ordinary/Extraordinary, 1977–1986.” Art Criticism 3, no. 2, Summer 1987.
  • Mathews. “Feminist Art Criticism. ”Art Criticism, vol. 5, no. 2, 1989.
  • “May Stevens” The New Yorker. February 17 & 24, 2003.
  • Murdoch, Robert. “May Steven.” ARTnews. October 1999.
  • Olander, William. One Plus or Minus One. Essays by William Olander and Lucy Lippard. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988.
  • Parker, Rosika and Griselda Pollock, eds. Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985. London: Pandora, 1987.
  • Plagens, Peter. “A Painful War’s Haunted Art.” Newsweek, September 1989.
  • Pollock, Griselda. “The Politics of Art or an Aesthetic for Women.” FAN 5, [London, England], 1982.
  • Shapiro, Barbara Stern. May Stevens: Images of Women Near and Far. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1999.
  • Wallach, Alan. “May Stevens: On the Stage of History.” Arts, November 1978.
  • Wei, Lilly. “May Stevens at Mary Ryan” Art in America. November 1996.
  • Withers, Josephine. "Revisioning Our Foremothers: Reflections on the 'Ordinary. Extraordinary' Art of May Stevens." Feminist Studies vol. 13, no. 3 (Autumn 1987), pp. 485–512.
  • Zimmer, William. “Ten Major Women Artists.” New York Times, March 22, 1987.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hills, Patricia (2005). May Stevens. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, Inc. p. 65.
  3. ^ a b Stevens, May (1982). "Looking Backward in Order to Look Forward: Memories of a Racist Girlhood" (PDF). Heresies 15. 4 (3): 22–23.
  4. ^ a b c Dictionary of women artists. Gaze, Delia. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. 1997. pp. 1326. ISBN 978-1884964213. OCLC 37693713.CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ a b "May Stevens, "Honor Roll"". Blanton Museum of Art Collections. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  6. ^ a b Lippard, Lucy R. (1975). "May Stevens' Big Daddies". Women's Studies. 3: 89–91. doi:10.1080/00497878.1975.9978376.
  7. ^ "Female American Artists and the Vietnam War" (PDF). Retrieved February 5, 2018.
  8. ^ a b Frank, Priscilla (August 14, 2014). "Meet May Stevens, A Feminist Civil Rights Activist Artist You Should Know". Huffington Post. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  9. ^ "Big Daddy Paper Doll".
  10. ^ Hottle, Andrew D. (2014). The Art of the Sister Chapel: Exemplary Women, Visionary Creators, and Feminist Collaboration. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 160.
  11. ^ Broude, Norma; Garrard, Mary D. (April 22, 2007). "A Feminist Tour of Washington". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  12. ^ "May Stevens: Painting history as lived, feminist, experience". Redefining American history painting. Burnham, Patricia Mullan, 1935-, Giese, Lucretia H. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995. ISBN 978-0521460590. OCLC 32014672.CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Withers, Josephine (Fall 1987). "Revisioning Our Foremothers: Reflections on the Ordinary, Extraordinary Art of May Stevens". Feminist Studies. 15 (3): 485–512. doi:10.2307/3177878. JSTOR 3177878.
  14. ^ Roth, Moira (Fall 2009). "Tag Archives/May Stevens". ArtsMart. Retrieved September 22, 2018.
  15. ^ Hills, Patricia, ed. (1984). May Stevens, Ordinary/Extraordinary: A Summation, 1977-1984. Boston University Art Gallery.
  16. ^ Lippard, Lucy R. (1976). From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art. New York.
  17. ^ Shapiro, Barbara Stern; Stevens, May (1999). Images of Women Near and Far. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
  18. ^ Alloway, Lawrence (1973). Big Daddy Series. New York: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University.

External linksEdit