This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in July 2022.
When I first met Dimitri Stevens, a Memphian by way of Fayette County who graduated from Memphis College of Art (MCA) in 2015, he was working security for the Brooks Museum. Our paths crossed again when the StoryBoard Memphis offices moved into Arrow Creative. StoryBoard had a rusty newspaper box that we wanted to repurpose for selling the Quarterly, but it needed a fresh coat of paint. I commissioned Dimitri and then asked him to be my first artist profile.
I began the interview by launching into a list of generic questions. What kind of artist are you? What do you want people to know about your art? What inspires your work? But those questions weren’t really about Dimitri. I decided to quit questioning and let the recorder do the work as I had a conversation with the human, the artist, the former colleague sitting across from me.
In the Studio
Dimitri doesn’t let many people into his home studio, where stacks of art are leaning against the walls. The room has two adjacent windows, which are opened on this balmy early March afternoon. This space changes into whatever Dimitri needs it to be – a woodshop, a guest room, a chaotic studio, or a frame shop. His cat swirls around my heels, ignoring the water cups full of paint brushes precariously close to her tail.
There is a layered effect as I glance around at stacks of paper and canvas, which echoes Dimitri’s demeanor and the general impression that there is more to discover.
A self-proclaimed “elusive,” Dimitri prefers to keep to himself. His artwork is vulnerable, and he is careful about exposing it to critics and consumers. He is unguarded and unafraid of having deep conversations about what makes us human, but without succumbing to existential doom. In these conversations is when you can start to visualize what inspires him to create.
“I was a little more reclusive. But when the pandemic happened, being reclusive wasn’t cool anymore because everyone was doing it. So you become more degenerative rather than reclusive, and it just wasn’t fun anymore…I am as social as possible now,” Dimitri says.
When we view art, we immediately begin assigning meaning. Our imagination projects our hopes, dreams, and even our insecurities while we try to discern what the artist was thinking or feeling. Dimitri’s work is alive with saturated colors that resolutely express his intent.
“As an artist, I am more of a problem solver and that helps me get more creative. I haven’t been through a lot in my life so I don’t have a lot of personal things to make artwork about,” Dmitri remarked. “I look at the canvas and what is going on in the canvas as a problem, and we’re trying to solve it. A lot of my stuff is math based and starts out as a simple formula. That is usually the hardest part, getting started.”
When I asked about his inspiration, Dimitri replied, “My abstract paintings are about coming to be before being, and during, or after. It’s almost like pregnancy.” Pointing out one painting, he explained, “This one doesn’t have a specific title but what really captures is the word chrysalis. Chrysalis for a moment where you can or cannot be. And we were also that in the womb. I come from a big family, so I think about pregnancy and stuff like that a lot. I have eight siblings and thirteen nieces and nephews, and I was around when they were being raised. Birth is a huge theme in my work, and especially in my abstraction.”
The way that he cradles one painting catches my attention. He named this one Wallace after his maternal grandmother – he says that even though he is a Stevens, in a way he is also a Wallace. Holding it with both hands supporting the back as if he was showing off a newborn, he spoke about his inspiration. Conception, birth, and the continuation of life after death. There is no dark quality or vulgar display of womanhood, but instead an outpouring of warm colors that seemingly ooze off the paper. There is viscosity to the red paint as if it is still wet.
Wallace became the blueprint for everything Dimitri created from that moment. “After someone asked me what’s the worst thing I’ve got, I would have sold him this if I needed the money. My worst painting became my best painting, and just like her name, it yielded a lot of passion and a lot of work. Now I call this series the Wallaces.”
Dimitri doesn’t turn away from or neglect his evolution by projecting an air of arriving. Instead, he accepts and celebrates all the forms his inspiration takes – understanding that his work is always transforming.
“It’s part of life for things to decline. I see it as a chess player would. You want to just be more sure of your moves as you get older or depending on your condition.”
Never Stop Learning
Dimitri first started selling his work while he was a student at MCA, but he never quit learning from professionals, critics, and older artists that he admired. The public was taking notice of his pop art inspired pieces, but he felt there was more to being a living artist than the passing moment of public recognition.
“Compared to the art world, social media is very young and fleeting. I feel that for an art show to have merit, it needs to be a juried exhibition [organized] by a professor or curator. There is no art criticism other than the criticism that comes from literary critic, professional artists, or curators and people who have the education to analyze it. That is criticism that I take to heart and that keeps me from having too much anxiety about what I put out and how I put it out. If the artwork that I put out can’t appeal to them, then there is no real point in putting it out there.”
“Making artwork a lot, like everyday, you could lose a lot of passion. It’s the equivalent of a mathematician who only does multiplication because they are really good at it. They know that there are more complex types of math out there but multiplication is me and that’s all I’m going to work with. But you’re going to have to crave something else. There is a fear that the world won’t forgive you if you make a bad painting.”
The Hole that was the Memphis College of Art
Dimitri isn’t swayed by the number of likes on his Instagram page; he chooses to seek professional opinions on the value of his art, mentioning Frederick Koeppel’s art reviews and how much he misses that kind of analysis. He recounts how supportive the MCA community was and the struggle that artists face after their formal education. When we lost the MCA community, more than just the college was forfeited. Dimitri finds it hard to know who to turn to now that his professors are not available in the same way.
“Now you are reaching out to them off the clock, and you’re just reaching out to a person that is an adult that you aren’t giving anything to. And you can’t just ask someone for their wisdom without offering them something in the real world. I took that for granted for sure.”
Much of our conversation centered on artists’ business and the time needed to be a full-time artist. Staying on top of grants, artist calls, and opportunities to show work takes a huge chunk of artists’ time. Time that is also spent on jobs that pay, taking care of a home, relationships, and sleeping. Hours which often take away from creating and being inspired. Dimitri paints at all hours of the night and works a day job to maintain a sense of detachment from the success of selling his art.
You can find Dimitri playing chess around town, including at the Memphis Chess Club, and smiling at people a little more frequently. As he said, “I’m happy to have a face again.” He sells his work at Arrow Creative and Cheryl Pesce in Laurelwood.
Nikki Dean is a native Memphian with a passion for community development and supporting the arts and culture sectors, she has over 10 years of experience in event management and fundraising for nonprofits, with a focus on bringing communities together through shared experiences.