Nelson Stevens was born in 1938 in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn, New York. One of his earliest childhood memories was of drawing in chalk on the sidewalk in front of his home. “After completing our drawings, we would go up to the roof to look down at it—those were my first murals,” noted Stevens. In the fourth grade, Nelson won a spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s Saturday art classes for children. He was inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which was on display at the time.
In 1956, after entering the jazz nightclub scene in Utica, Stevens began painting murals on the walls of nightclubs stating, “Those were the nightclubs in Utica where I could eat free.” With the support of the artistic community, Stevens’ college studies and the chance of timely graduation became manageable while coexisting with his artistic expression.
After moving to Cleveland, Ohio years later, Stevens became a middle school teacher and in 1963 Stevens returned to his Utica roots by painting the coming attractions for the Jazz Temple Club on a refurbished UPS truck. During his time in Cleveland, Nelson taught classes at the Karamu House, the oldest African-American theatre in the United States, where many of Langston Hughes’ plays were performed in their infancy. “For three years,” stated Stevens, “I was a sponge. Eight artists I met from a cooperative art studio run by Joe Moody taught me all that I had missed in my undergraduate studies. They taught me all that they knew.”
Soon, the Board of Education in Cleveland placed Stevens at the Cleveland Museum of Art so that he could expand his knowledge of art history and art documentation. Guided by Director Sherman Lee, Nelson cites the wisdom of Sherman Lee and Hal Workman as what gave him the critical taste of theory coupled with the technique of the modern era. Nelson later enrolled in graduate school at Kent State University in order to earn his Masters of Fine Arts in painting, printmaking, and art history.
After retiring from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2003, Professor Stevens relocated to Owings Mills, Maryland. His early and more recent works have been collected by the Smithsonian, Kent State University, Fisk University, Karamu House in Cleveland, the Chicago Institute of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. In addition to his AfriCOBRA membership, he belonged to the College Art Association and the National Conference of Artists.
Stevens has modeled his works around his family and the individuals and communities who have contributed to both his personal achievements and the success of his students.