“Flawed and Still Worthy” read the t-shirt in my just opened Christmas present. I was a bit surprised and wondered if I should be offended? While the statement is true, of course, it is not usually something someone else tells you without prompting. Yet “Flawed and Still Worthy” is a powerful concept, particularly when heard in the context of relationship. It is a saying that applies to our individual lives and families, our churches and clubs, and our community.
It also applies to “365 Days,” the world premier exhibit of a collection of paintings by the renown artist and muralist Renick Stevenson opening Saturday, February 2nd at the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts in Globe, AZ.
Joe Renick Stevenson, Jr. came of age during the “Beat Era” of the 1960s and 1970s, hanging out with famous authors and artists who wanted to challenge the status quo, defy all rules, and use drugs and alcohol to enhance their cosmic awareness. Seeming to be “at the right place at the right time”, he reportedly crossed paths with Jack Kerouac, was given painting tips by Clyfford Still and encouraged to move toward sobriety by Georgia O’Keeffe, all while hanging out with friends Alan Watts and Charles Bukowski.
Growing up in Oklahoma and then while living in New York City, San Francisco and Denver, Renick drank and drugged a lot. This impacted his work, relationships, military service, and art. Still, he earned money as a rodeo cowboy, taught at universities (never having gone himself), wrote plays and acted, created street fairs, and – through it all – continued to pursue his painting. After watching most of his beatnik contemporaries die and then surviving his own near death experience, he decided to get sober and clean.
He recognized he was flawed and still worthy.
In his new season of sobriety, he served as an Outward Bound instructor, substance abuse counselor, sheriff’s deputy, and was appointed the Kellogg Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence in Michigan tasked with organizing community murals and art programs. He wanted to use art to bring healing to people like himself who struggled with substance use, anger, and a trail of failed relationships and broken hearts. Renick viewed art as a way to create healthy relationships and build vibrant communities. He also used his talent to support nonprofits by donating original paintings they could then reproduce and sell, like his work “Battered Cod” which supported a local domestic violence shelter.
It was in Michigan that he met L.J. Murphy, a professional dancer involved in community productions for individuals with mental illness. They got married and, as a gift to his new wife, Renick committed to an art project different from anything he had ever done: attempting to do a drawing for her each day for a year. These were a visual journal that included daily meditations, love notes, sketch ideas, reflections, and other gifts. L.J. and Renick married on New Year’s Eve, 2000 and the paintings began. They planned to move to Utah where L.J. was accepted as a master’s student in the University of Utah ballet program and Renick was to be a muralist; however, life threw them a curve that changed the trajectory of their path.
Only seven months into their new marriage, L.J.’s 18-year-old son, Gabriel, survived a diving accident that gave him a new challenge: relearning all the basics of self-care while living with quadriplegia. While Renick was initially supportive of L.J. and Gabe, the reality of her responsibility of 24-hour care for her son was more than he could handle. It did not fit the image he had of what their relationship was to be and it changed their plans – a future about which he had been excited. When he began to take out his frustrations on Gabe, L.J. asked him to leave. He did so, but he still loved L.J. and wanted his gift of 365 paintings from their visual journal to remain with her.
Renick, like all of us, could wear the “Flawed and Still Worthy” t-shirt with authenticity.
L.J. served as the primary caregiver for her son for 13 years which ended her career as a dancer, but allowed her to pursue a doctorate in psychology and serve at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota for her internship. Unfortunately, her beloved son Gabriel passed away four years ago of an opioid overdose secondary to the over-prescription of pain medication by his physicians. After several years of healing, Dr. L.J. Murphy moved to our region to serve the San Carlos Apache people as a child psychologist. She remains an artist and dancer. L.J. states art has healing power and allows a person to discover who they really are; consequently, she uses this in her psychological work with others and to address her own grief over the death of her son.
L.J. stays in contact with Renick and still cares deeply for him. However, he is fading. Because of Renick’s many head injuries during his rodeo and fighting days compounded by his drug use, he now struggles with dementia. He lives in a memory care facility in Colorado and is aware of his challenges, recently stating, “Well, honey, I’m in a hard spot right now as I’ve had some trouble remembering and with my memory.” The “365 Days” art exhibit is a way for L.J. to pay tribute to him in his last days, as well as continue his work toward building healthy communities and relationships. It is also an opportunity for L.J. to honor and bring distinction to her new town by sharing her gift from Renick of his paintings.
“I sat on this for over 16 years,” says L.J., “and now I feel accepted in this community. I am going back to painting and to whom I am. I feel at home here.” As a dancer and psychologist, she is setting up the show in a way for participants to physically interact with the paintings and create connection with the artwork and each other. The work is strung on clothes lines, allowing viewers to touch paintings as they like, and to discuss the way different paintings impact them. She wants the show to be meaningful and to provide an environment where emotional connections can happen both with the work and between people.
L.J. is renting space from the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts (CVCA) to paint and states that “studio space allows me the opportunity to work on self-care and be self-reflective.” She adds, “Part of showing Renick’s work is wishing this for him. He is a beautiful spirit, but this was not always seen because of his inner turmoil and anger.” Her wish appears to be coming true as Renick was very joyful when told of the upcoming show. He stated, “Wow! I can’t tell you how much this means. I am overwhelmed…I would love to have this happen. I would love to see what it will be and where it will be… Holy cow, I am happy! Thank you very much… This is a wonderful thing for my head.” The call ended with Renick blessing the show with, “Love, light and laughter!”
Renick’s work has been shown at numerous art shows, collectors hold many of his paintings, and some of his murals can be seen still in Denver and throughout Michigan; however, his “365 Days” project has never been shared publicly. Globe’s CVCA premier will open on February 2nd from 3-5 pm and then show all 365 of these never-before-shared works for the month of February, a fitting tribute to love in the month honoring Valentine’s Day. L.J. hopes that as people interact with the show and connect with the flow of the paintings, they will share what the work means to them in a roundtable setting. “This process has the potential to develop relationships with others and also impact the creative process for all involved.“
A process where we all discover we are flawed and still worthy.
CVCA is located in the 100+-year-old former County Courthouse at 101 N. Broad Street in the historic downtown region of Globe. It is open Monday through Thursday from 11 am-4 pm, Friday and Saturday from 11 am-5 pm, and Sunday from 12-4 pm. This article was supported by information provided by Renick Stevenson and L.J. Murphy, as well as an article by Alan Prendergast in Westword (11/8/16) entitled “How Renick Stevenson Survived the Wild Beat Scene and Helped Transform Denver.”
Thea Wilshire works as an author, psychologist, speaker, healthcare consultant, and AirBnB host. Her passions include community development, the creation of public spaces, trying new adventures, and sharing her therapy dog with schools and medical facilities. Find her blog at https://www.acornconsulting.org/blog.