Blind Artist Jim Stevens Got a Black Belt — and Found His Vision

Each painting can take up to two months to complete.EXPAND
Each painting can take up to two months to complete.

On the bad days, Jim Stevens would curse and throw tools across his art studio, frustrated by his inability to create like he did before he lost his sight. He’d just come off a rough seven years: losing his vision, his wife, his job and his artistic ability in quick succession. Bullet fragments in his head from a 1970 skirmish in Vietnam, where he served as an Army sergeant, caused a stroke in his visual cortex in 1993, leaving him with pin-dot vision in each eye.

“My initial reaction was disbelief,” Stevens says of the doctor’s appointment where he learned he was going blind. “I stayed angry and depressed for probably almost five years.”

Then one of his daughters suggested he practice martial arts to get him back on track. He started training in Shaolin Kenpo Karate with a local sensei. “For three months he had me just sit on the floor and listen,” Stevens says. “He would move silently around the dojo. When I could pick him out wherever he stopped by pointing, he finally let me stand up. I spent the next four months standing, learning how to listen for punches, kicks.”

Jim Stevens creating one of his trademark monofilament paintings.EXPAND
Jim Stevens creating one of his trademark monofilament paintings.

The training paid off and Stevens became the first blind man to receive a black belt in Shaolin Kenpo Karate. He then became the oldest winner, at 51, of the Shaolin Kenpo Tournament of Champions in Denver in 2002, without anyone knowing he was legally blind. One referee noticed something awry because Stevens kept blinking his eyes, and he signaled for Stevens’s sensei to get a towel. His sensei laughed and yelled, “Jim, open your bloody eyes, you’re freaking everybody out!”

One day in the back yard of his Wheat Ridge home, his grandson got his fishing line in a tangled mess. Stevens tried to unknot it, and while he was working with the fishing line, a cloud passed overhead, causing shadows to ripple across the strands. “I could not get that out of my head," he says. "I kept thinking about how the monofilament reacted. I spent the next five months, trial and error, trying to figure out how to take that initial concept and how to create art with it.”

Stevens paints hundreds of thin fishing line strands to create one of his monofilament paintings.EXPAND
Stevens paints hundreds of thin fishing line strands to create one of his monofilament paintings.

At first, he stapled strands of monofilament to wood, but it didn’t look right to him; it lacked depth. After throwing away countless mistakes, he found his current method: layering up to eight layers of monofilament 129 lines across and suspending them in empty space. He paints each layer with acrylic paint and then methodically places each layer, strand by strand, into a clear acrylic case. The strands are held taut by tiny silver pins. His completed monofilament pieces have a holographic effect that morphs and moves depending on the observer’s position.

Stevens's  monofilament painting "Ember" won first prize at the 2015 juried exhibition of the Best of the Art District on Santa Fe on November 20. The painting is a portrait of his granddaughter, Ashton. He’s also painted portraits of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Special lenses enhance Stevens's vision, which was reduced to pinpoints in each eye after bullet fragments caused a stroke in his visual cortex.EXPAND
Special lenses enhance Stevens's vision, which was reduced to pinpoints in each eye after bullet fragments caused a stroke in his visual cortex.

Stevens remembers hanging back, anonymous, at the Habitat Gallery on Santa Fe while people admired his work. He overheard a gentleman say, “Now, that’s art.” Hearing that, he says, "The feeling was the same as having my hand raised at the end of the fight. It gives me a lot of pride but it’s also humbling. I’m so amazed that people love my work. That gives me satisfaction that’s only been equaled in the ring or at the end of a firefight, where I was still standing.”

Stevens's life reads like an action movie starring Steven Seagal, and there's a 103-page script entitled Blind Rage that suggests this could be possible.  Paul Cooper, a California-based screenwriter who has three Emmys, wrote the script, which follows Stevens as he loses his vision and becomes a martial arts champion.  

It hasn't attracted enough attention in Hollywood  to be produced yet, but Cooper believes the story will be told one day.  "I was blown away," Cooper says of his time talking with Stevens.  "He's just an incredible person.  I love his persistence."  Nicolas Cage is Cooper's first choice for the lead role;; Stevens says, "That'd be cool!"

Stevens at his Scrimshaw Studio in Wheat Ridge.
Stevens at his Scrimshaw Studio in Wheat Ridge.

Stevens’s work is on display at an art gallery in Seattle and also at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 at 841 Santa Fe Drive. He’s sold artwork and jewelry worldwide, and it’s all created in his Scrimshaw Studio, a converted two-car garage behind his Wheat Ridge home. Stevens is a master at the art of etching scenes onto bones and pieces of ivory; he's written two books on the technique.

The monofilament paintings can take up to two months to complete, and Stevens often works seven days a week in stretches that sometimes exceed ten hours.  “I don’t have to get into a zone, I guess I just exist in it,” he explains. He's currently working on scrimshaw pieces for private clients, but he's also taken on his biggest project ever:  a three foot by four foot linear abstract painting of  Indian chief Three Eagles.

One of Stevens's monofilament paintings before its placed in a clear acrylic case.EXPAND
One of Stevens's monofilament paintings before its placed in a clear acrylic case.

Like the monofilament paintings, his linear abstract paintings use empty space to create an image. Each piece starts with a splash of black paint on a komatex backdrop. Then Stevens suspends a transparent canvas striped with carefully placed white lines above the black backdrop. The black paint shines through the canvas, and the image comes to life. “I paint like the way I see," he says. "I see in empty spaces.”

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