In Praise of Eion Stevens 1952 – 2021 - Eion Stevens
Eion Arthur (“Eion”) Stevens – visual artist
Compiled by Max Reid
Eion Stevens will be remembered as not only a widely-known and highly respected visual artist, but also a brilliant conversationalist. Indeed, Stevens’ art, his extensive reading and his always witty and knowledgeable conversations will not only be seen by those who knew him as characteristic of his life, but as much a central facet of his art. Stevens’ paintings, though sometimes quite sparse in their design and cryptic in their meaning, invited you into a conversation nonetheless. His paintings have attracted interest not only from fellow painters but also from many of the country’s poets, and his works, at times, seem to be engaged in a further dialogue between the worlds of visual arts and poetry.
Eion Stevens died at home in Christchurch in early September, aged 68. Born in Dunedin in 1952, and attending Mornington School and Otago Boys High School, Stevens was interested in art from an early age. Despite, in his own words, “coming from a family of accountants”, Stevens chose art as his pathway, graduating with an honours Diploma in Fine Art from the Otago Polytechnic School of Art in 1973. That year Stevens travelled to Europe – an opportunity not only to explore the myriad galleries and museums, but also to extend his formal training attending Exeter College of Art between 1974-75. That said, Stevens has noted that his formal art school background he found “constantly at odds with [his] desire to paint intuitively.”
Returning to New Zealand in the late 1970s – living initially in Auckland and then, in 1981, returning to Dunedin Stevens continued to paint part-time – nevertheless amassing a significant body of work and exhibiting regularly throughout New Zealand from the late 1970s. His part-time employment at Millers Studio (signwriting and design) in Dunedin at that time influenced his work. In 1998 he moved to Christchurch and subsequently to Lyttleton. During these years Stevens painted full-time, producing at his peak often a painting per day. Following the 2011 earthquake – which saw the collapse of the Lichfield Street building that housed his studio – Stevens moved back into central Christchurch, where he lived until his death.
Stevens’ work has been shown with most of the major New Zealand dealer galleries – as a result of which his work is included in numerous important public and corporate collections. In 1999 a survey of his work was mounted at the James Wallace Trust Gallery, Auckland. In 1985 poet Lauris Edmond wrote a poem based on one of Stevens’ works. Other New Zealand poets have done the same, and Stevens has, in turn, created paintings in response to others’ writing. These partnerships culminated in a 2007 exhibition at Dunedin’s Public Art Gallery with some 20 of Stevens’ paintings displayed alongside their poetic counterparts. Accompanying the exhibition was the publication of ‘Painted Poems – one artist: 20 poets’ – in Stevens’ words, an entirely personal selection “reflecting my own enthusiasms and literary prejudices.” Stevens’ works have graced the covers of other poets’ publications, including “Mister Hamilton”, a book of poems by former Otago University Robert Burns Fellow John Dickson and on the covers of two books of poetry by Dunedin writer and recently retired Otago Daily Times journalist John Gibb.
Stevens’ work was also included in such significant publications as Elva Bett’s ‘New Zealand Art: A Modern Perspective’ (1986) and Warwick Brown’s ‘100 New Zealand Paintings’ (1995).
In light of the abstract nature of so much of Stevens’ work, it is perhaps not surprising that stories abound of people who have inadvertently misinterpreted the subject matter of his paintings – let alone the stories or literary allusions that inevitably lay behind them. His gallery floor talks were always as enlightening as they were entertaining.
Instantly recognisable by their bold colours and shapes, and frequently recurring motifs, Stevens extended this thematic emphasis from the early 2000s by shaping the paintings themselves – effectively allowing the wall upon which a painting was hung to frame it; even to the extent of the shaped paintings casting their own shadows.