• August 11, 2020

UTPB lecturer digs into pop artist’s past - Odessa American: UTPB

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UTPB lecturer digs into pop artist’s past

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Posted: Sunday, July 5, 2020 4:00 am

What started out as a possible dissertation idea for UTPB lecturer Dian Jordan has grown into a quest to write the best biography of her friend, the late artist Harold Stevenson.

Stevenson is from her home area of Idabel, Okla., and rubbed shoulders with people like pop artist Andy Warhol and abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

Jordan started digging into Stevenson when she went back to school to work on her PhD while working for UTPB.

“My research area is qualitative research methods and one of our assignments was to go do an oral history project, a one-hour oral history project with someone interesting in your community. I thought, you know what, I think I’m going to do that artist Harold Stevenson. So I did, and after talking to him for an hour, I realized this was a lifelong project and I actually wanted to do my dissertation on him, but my advisor said do the dissertation on something easier that you can get done because this project is too big for a dissertation,” Jordan recalled.

“Even though I didn’t like the answer, she was right. So I spent the next four years just talking to Harold and finishing my dissertation and that’s when I got back on the project,” Jordan added.

While interviewing Stevenson at his little cabin in the woods in Idabel, she noticed a breakfast bar with photos on it.

“He was 83 when I met him and I would ask him who the people were in the pictures, because obviously these were important people to him, and one of them was him and a young girl, they were like teenagers 13, 14 years old maybe, and he said, ‘Oh, this is Alta Fly. She was my best friend and I met her at art camp at Beavers Bend,’ and so I wrote that down and Googled Alta Fly,” Jordan said.

She got Fly’s phone number and called her on a lark.

Jordan told Fly she understood that she was a friend of Harold Stevenson.

“And she starts to cry. I thought, oh no I’ve said something wrong. I’ve embarrassed her. I shouldn’t have called, so I immediately apologized. ‘I’m so sorry I’ve called you. I won’t bother you again.’ And she goes, ‘Oh no honey, you don’t understand. You are an angel. I have been diagnosed with breast cancer and given six months to live and I am cleaning out my apartment and I have a box of letters …,” Jordan said.

The letters started in the 1940s and went on into the 2000s. Fly and Stevenson had been corresponding since art camp.

“… That FedEx box arrived on my porch and that’s how I really got to know Harold was reading all of her letters and through that she (Fly) became a professional photographer,” Jordan said.

Fly would attend as many of Stevenson’s exhibits as she could and take photos, Jordan said.

“They would write back and forth and he would basically send her a diary of his life,” Jordan said.

Stevenson would include exhibition catalogs, announcements and flyers from the 50s and 60s before it was even called pop art.

Jordan said Stevenson would tell Fly that Andy Warhol had a show or painter Robert Rauschenberg.

“So that’s how I got to know him. Then I started contacting his other friends. I went to the nursing home and talked to his high school classmates … and they would say wait right here and come back with their high school yearbook from when they were sophomores and Harold did all the artwork for it,” Jordan said.

She interviewed people all over the country.

But to learn more about Stevenson, she went to his hometown where most people who knew him still lived.

“They would invite me to their homes and show me a painting that had been hanging on their wall since 1947,” Jordan said.

The paintings might not have been valuable financially, but “emotionally everyone had a wonderful story,” she said.

Once when he was home from his world travels, Jordan said one of Stevenson’s neighbors was robbed. Stevenson gave the woman a painting and said, “This will make you feel better.”

Jordan said she found 52 paintings for a collection and was hoping to find 30.

“There were probably at least 100 because some people owned more than one that he’d given them through the different years. He painted for 80 years. He was a child artist. Several of the paintings, half a dozen of them, are before he even got out of high school. The earliest was from when he was 7 years old …,” Jordan said.

Part of Stevenson’s story, she said, is about art and community.

“There are probably artists in your community that people don’t even know of. People don’t appreciate their local artists sometimes,” she added.

Stevenson painted princes, princesses, movie stars, United Nations ambassadors and dated some of the most prominent men in the world.

Stevenson was antiestablishment, which is what Jordan said a lot of musicians and artists are.

“They have this story to tell that may not jibe with the politically correct story and they have an alternative voice. Harold was pretty much banned from the establishment. That’s the reason he’s not known as much as the other pop artists is because his (work) is nearly all in private collections,” Jordan said.

Some are in museums, but most of his work was owned by private collectors like the late architect Philip Johnson, who served on the board of the Museum of Modern Art and the late film director and screenwriter Billy Wilder.

Jordan said some of Stevenson’s work is in museums, as well.

But Jordan said Stevenson wanted more people to have access to art.

“He did do a lot of large pieces. Most of his pieces were large. But he also did some very small things,” Jordan said.

“He hung … the bullfighter on the Eiffel Tower. He had permission to do it. It made front page of the Paris newspapers. It stopped traffic,” she said. “This was when you could still drive by before they blocked it off. It was causing such a traffic commotion that after four days they had to take it down. Some of the discussion was why did an American artist get the privilege of being the first, as far I know, the only artist, to use the Eiffel Tower as their display canvas. But they had it all worked out with the officials and the police so he was able to do that.”

Because Jordan had been interviewing Stevenson so long and working on his biography, people called her when he died because she was the only person they could find who was connected to him.

“That’s when I realized it’s every researcher’s dream is to do something that nobody else is doing. Nobody was researching Harold Stevenson. And as it turns out, honestly, I think I’m the best person for that because I’m from here. I’m a member of this community. I grew up in the little town 12 miles up the road from him so I knew him. I know the people here,” Jordan said.

Because she’s local, people trust her. Jordan said others from around the world and large cities have tried to write about Stevenson, but people in his hometown don’t trust them.

With all the information she has gathered, Jordan plans to write a biography of Stevenson. She still teaches full time online classes in sociology and music in society for UTPB.

“His family wanted to protect Stevenson’s life and legacy. My goal is to tell Harold’s best story. He was ignored in his career; that’s a whole other topic as to why nobody’s heard of him. … He’s got paintings in very famous places and nobody knows who he is,” Jordan said.

Asked about a timeline for the book, Jordan said the problem is she keeps finding more information.

“So I haven’t given myself a timeline, but it’s because you only get one shot at the best biography so I want to make that I’m done before I quit,” she said.

Jordan has been with UTPB for 15 years. She started out in Odessa in 2005. Her husband was working in the oil and gas industry, so she was teaching on campus back then.

“I was going to quit because I was going to move back to my hometown of Broken Bow … and they said we’re doing this new thing called online learning. This is 15 years ago and here I still am still teaching,” Jordan said.

UTPB Associate Professor of Art Chris Stanley said in a text message that he was excited about Jordan’s research.

“I love how art helps us understand both the secular and the sublime. It comes to a greater audience when other areas of study examine what artists do in their professional practice,” Stanley stated in a text message.

“Dr. Jordan’s passion for unlocking the story of Harold Stevenson will help complete a regional part of the more profound story of 20th century art. I am personally hoping for greater collaborations with the faculty and students in sociology as a result of this research,” Stanley added.

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