To Renick Stevenson, a sign with a big NO on it might as well be an invitation. He breaks away from the pedestrians on 15th Street and slips past the barrier, striding nimbly with an aluminum cane. This alley belongs to him as much as anybody. He put his mark on it nearly half a century ago.
He pauses a third of the way up the block, outside what used to be the entrance to the Changing Scene, the city’s legendary avant-garde theater company, now home to Bovine Metropolis. The giant wooden painted panels that were mounted on the side of the building are long gone, but Stevenson’s three-story mural on the façade, a tarot-like procession of sun and moon and Doric columns and vegetation framing enormous windows, is still intact. The colors have faded, certain details obscured by dumpsters and electrical work, but it’s there.
Stevenson looks up at the eroding banner at the center of the piece, announcing DANCE DRAMA FILM MUSIC POETRY, and grunts. “I spent a lot of time here,” he says. “I acted and directed and wrote plays and built sets. In those days, I was still making up my mind if I wanted to be an actor or a painter.”
He spies several members of the kitchen crew emerging from the back of Baur’s Restaurant, taking a quick smoke break, and heads toward them. “Hi, fellas,” he says. “I did that mural over there, and I’m having a show on South Broadway. You should come check it out. It’s going to be my last show.”
Although they nod politely, the workers can’t entirely hide their befuddlement. This is not the typical vagabond that the barriers are supposed to keep from pissing in the alley, but something quite a bit stranger. Short and wizened, dressed in black leggings and denim shorts, an array of keys and trinkets hanging from straps around his neck, Stevenson seems vaguely gnomish, as if he’d just sprung from some hidden portal in a hollow tree. As he rattles on, in a shameless but beguiling burst of self-promotion, you can almost see the questions amassing behind the startled faces of his audience: What mural? Who is this crazy old fart? How did he get here? What does he mean, his last show?
Explaining Stevenson is no easy matter. His story is inextricably bound up with a much-neglected chapter of Denver history, a time in the late 1960s and 1970s when the city was home to a thriving counterculture and bohemian arts scene, fueled largely by Beat artists and writers — many of whom were convinced that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Some of the participants were drawn here by Jack Kerouac’s celebration of Denver in On the Road; others were refugees fleeing the scene in Greenwich Village, San Francisco or Venice West, which had become too expensive, touristy or overrun by hippies to bear. In Denver they found cheap rents, cheap dive bars, quick access to the mountains — and each other.
“I just fell in love with Denver,” recalls poet Lucy Muske-Weldon, who arrived from Los Angeles by way of Taos in 1967 — and later became Stevenson’s fourth wife. “It had this small-town atmosphere then. There were soda fountains and cafes and fantastic people, all these actors and writers and artists. It was just so alive.”
Stevenson came early to the party that was Denver and stayed late. Although not as widely known as some of the luminaries associated with the city’s Beat contingent — painters such as Saul White and Steve Wilson, poets like Tony Scibella and James Ryan Morris, filmmaker Stan Brakhage and others — he was a prolific contributor to the movement, completing close to 300 paintings in one six-year period in addition to taking on commissions for enormous murals on the sides of bars, hotels and garages, and even one above the altar of an Episcopal church. A veteran of the military and the rodeo circuit, he was also a drunk and a speed freak, known for brawling and wreaking havoc. Largely because of his prodigious drinking, many of his colleagues expected him to die young. Instead, thanks to a decision to get clean in his forties that profoundly altered the direction of his life and his career, he has outlived practically all of them.
Kelly Taylor, the most recent of his eight ex-wives, calls Stevenson the Forrest Gump of the Beat movement; he seems to have had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time to encounter a wide range of the gifted, the celebrated and the deluded. He claims to have received art lessons from Clyfford Still and encouragement to clean up his act from Georgia O’Keeffe. He was in San Francisco in the late 1950s, the heyday of the Beat frenzy there, and later made the rounds of skid-row bars in Los Angeles with Charles Bukowski. He traded thoughts about the collective unconscious with Alan Watts when they were both teaching at San Jose State in the mid-1960s and talked about detox methods with Hunter S. Thompson in Aspen, where Stevenson worked as a sheriff’s deputy in the 1980s.
He also played a profound if unsung role in Denver’s gradual transformation from cowtown to cultural center. Many of his murals no longer exist, but at the time they were among the most notable pieces of public art to appear in the city since the days of the WPA. In 1969, while teaching at Denver Free University, he launched an arts fair on the East High School Esplanade that provided a prototype for the Capitol Hill People’s Fair. The city’s tradition of vibrant street fairs and street art got its start in his studio.
Stevenson turns 82 next month. He struggles to recall names and details. He claims to be “almost ninety” and suffering from some unspecified terminal condition; he says the tremor in his hands is Parkinson’s. Taylor, who shares a house with him in east Denver, says the doctors have disagreed about his condition and unduly alarmed him.
“He does have memory problems, but that could be from a lot of things,” she says. “He goes through periods where he feels he’s not long for this world.”
Stevenson says he’d like the opportunity to oversee one more community mural and be done with it. “I’ve been blessed with the most incredible life anybody could ever have,” he says. “My primary goal now is to get some kids and adults involved in doing community art. That, and carrying the message to the alcoholic who’s still suffering. If I’m doing what I do just for shows, then I’m pissing it away.”
Joseph Renick Stevenson doesn’t talk much about his childhood in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. He remembers his father, Joe Senior, as a “happy drunk” who worked in the oil fields. He refers to his mother, Maxine, simply as “the woman who gave birth to me.” She was cold and abusive, he says, and his parents didn’t get married until he was two years old.
“They called me their rumble-seat accident,” he remembers.
Stevenson started drinking before he reached his teens. He also began experimenting with peyote. By the time he entered high school, he was carrying a knife and an attitude. Aside from raising hell, what interested him the most was drawing and painting, despite his mother’s dim view of his artistic talent.
Miserable at home — wherever that might be, as Joe Senior’s jobs took them from town to town in Oklahoma and then Texas — he scrapped and drank. He tried to finish high school in Abilene, even played linebacker on the football team, but it was no use. “They didn’t know what to do with someone who liked football but also did drugs and alcohol,” he says.
At nineteen, Stevenson joined the Air Force. To his astonishment, he was seen as having some technical aptitude and was sent for training to San Antonio and Spokane before being assigned to a Strategic Air Command post in Great Britain. But the Strangelovian life, glued to radar screens and studying maps of potential nuclear targets, didn’t appeal to him. It didn’t take many episodes of being AWOL and blasted on tequila and mescaline before he was stripped of his security clearance and left adrift in London, awaiting a general discharge.
“I like to say that you can’t tell the good news from the bad news,” Stevenson says. “The good news is that is how I became a beatnik.”
In London he found a colony of bohemians who, like him, were writing poetry and painting, making up and smashing the rules as they went along. They loved bebop, booze and dope. They loathed the 1950s consumer culture, the nuclear arms race and Dwight D. Eisenhower. When his discharge came, Stevenson followed the spoor of this exciting new movement back to Greenwich Village, and then on to the mecca of the Beat Generation: San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, which was bursting with jazz clubs and writers’ coffeehouses and painters’ saloons.
On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were just starting to draw ripples of attention to North Beach. Stevenson found a studio and a delivery job and began making the rounds, soaking up the scene. “Nobody was a celebrity then,” he recalls. “If they tried to be, we just laughed them out. There were a lot of people reading their poetry in coffee shops that were pretenders to the throne. They didn’t have a clue.”
Stevenson was never an intimate of the core Beat writers, some of whom he suspected of doing a fair amount of posing themselves. When he finally met Kerouac, the man struck him as dandified. “Most of them, like Kerouac, were running this ‘You don’t understand how cool I am’ game,” he says. “I have little or no respect for that. If someone tells me they’re Beat, I ask them, ‘What do you think about Bukowski?’”
Stevenson crossed paths with Bukowski in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, years before Bukowski began to attract mainstream publishers and notoriety as America’s laureate of lowlife, its scribe of skeeviness, its bard of barf. Stevenson found him approachable and encouraging, with a gentle laugh and a face that looked like it had been worked over with a meat tenderizer. The savage honesty of Bukowski’s writing, the lack of adornment or affectation, the anarchic defiance, the determination to avoid the traps of convention and find beauty in even the grimmest squalor impressed Stevenson as the essence of Beat, as in Bukowski’s poem “Roll the Dice”:
if you’re going to try, go all the
this could mean losing girlfriends,
wives, relatives, jobs, and
maybe your mind.
go all the way.
it could mean not eating for 3 or
it could mean freezing on a
it could mean jail…
Stevenson strived for a similar fearlessness in his painting. He took classes at the California School of Fine Arts, a stronghold of abstract expressionism — which led, he says, to a memorable encounter with Clyfford Still: “He walked in one day and jerked the brush out of my hand and said, ‘I’m going to have to teach you how to color outside the lines.’ And he did.”
Still left San Francisco in 1950, several years before Stevenson arrived there; a spokesman at the Clyfford Still Museum says the museum has no records that indicate he ever returned to teach at CSFA. But Stevenson insists it was Still who got him thinking about coloring outside the lines. Another mentor was the painter Raymond Howell, a pioneer in bringing images of African American culture to a white audience. Stevenson says Howell helped him find an affordable place to live and get his paintings into galleries.
Over the next decade or so, Stevenson seemed to adopt one artistic persona after another. He drifted down to Mexico, where he lived in a small town on the Pacific Coast and painted nudes of his lover. Then he became a kind of cowboy beatnik, participating in rodeos along the West Coast and into Canada. He’d done some bronc riding when he was a kid in Oklahoma, and he continued to follow the circuit into his late twenties, until a horse kicked him in the head, fracturing his skull and taking out a few teeth. At one point he had a square job, as a display director for several retail stores in Waco, Texas, along with a wife and a mortgage, but drinking soon put an end to that.
“He walked in one day and jerked the brush out of my hand and said, ‘I’m going to have to teach you how to color outside the lines.’ And he did.”
For several months, he knocked around peace rallies and civil-rights protests in Alabama and California. In 1963 he landed an artist-in-residence gig at San Jose State College that lasted five years. Toward the end of his tour there, he shared an office with scholar-in-residence Alan Watts, then the country’s foremost popularizer of Zen philosophy — and who, to some extent, shared Stevenson’s enthusiasm for alcohol and peyote.
The two became good friends, but Stevenson’s drinking and drugging were veering out of control. His drug transactions had apparently attracted attention from both the law and some unhappy suppliers, enough to persuade him that it was time to leave California. Years later, he gave an interview for Linda Schierse Leonard’s 1989 book Witness to the Fire, a study of creativity and addiction. Although he appears in the book identified only as “The Gambler,” his reflections on the reckless behavior that prompted him to pull up stakes are instantly recognizable to anyone who knows his story.
“All the creative folks I hung out with worshipped ‘The Lady,’ and the lady was Death,” he told Leonard. “Going to that space and seeing how you could come out with any marbles left, whether life marbles or sanity marbles, was the big gamble. The more the odds, the bigger the rush.”
He decided to lay low with his parents, who now lived on a ranch in Colorado, just outside Elizabeth. He stayed there as long as he could stand it, then decided to check out the emerging Beat scene in Denver.
The first wave of Beats to explore Denver’s charms had vacated the premises long before Stevenson arrived. In fact, some of them had left the planet. Neal Cassady, the Denver-raised, real-life counterpart of the jabbering hipster hero Dean Moriarty in On the Road, nodded out on Seconal in Mexico in 1968, four days shy of his 42nd birthday, and never woke up. Kerouac died of cirrhosis a few months later.
Members of the second wave, who began washing up in the late 1960s, were convinced that they were made of sterner stuff. Invincible, maybe. Some were veterans of the gritty Venice Beach scene, or San Francisco’s downward-spiraling Haight-Ashbury. A few had prison records. Marijuana was plentiful, despite relentless police efforts to turn the tiniest roach into a major bust. So was heroin.
They hung out at the Lido, a bar for serious drinkers on Sherman Street, and at half a dozen other places in Denver’s sketchy uptown and unregenerate downtown: the Truckers Bar, the Green Spider, Cafe Les Tarots and, much later, a place called Muddy’s. Some got involved in running art galleries or used bookshops or combinations of both. Occasionally a patron might spring for the publication of a book of poems, or someone might host an art show that turned into a bacchanal.
“I don’t know how they managed to hang on,” says Michelle White, the ex-wife of painter Saul White and longtime companion of painter, collage-maker and mixed-media artist Steve Wilson. Starting with the Ogden Bookstore, Wilson and poet-painter Tony Scibella operated a series of bookstores on Colfax and in Capitol Hill, and always seemed to be a mere half-step ahead of the bill collectors. “Sometimes they paid the rent with food stamps. They kept the place open to stay stoned and make art — and occasionally sell a book,” White adds.
With his California pedigree, Stevenson fit right in. He found a studio, linked up with the founders of Denver Free University, and became the school’s official “arts and crafts coordinator.” Drawing on San Francisco street events with which he’d been involved, he soon announced plans for a free fair, where artists could display their work in booths and amateurs could perform; his groundbreaking experiment unfolded three years before the first official Capitol Hill People’s Fair was organized on the grounds of Morey Junior High.
He befriended Al Brooks and Maxine Munt, the couple behind the Changing Scene, and began to act and write his own plays, including the memorably titled For You Maybe, or Get Off the Sidewalk Mabel — You Take Too Much for Granite. He stirred controversy with a mural at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church that seemed more self-help than biblical, depicting a small figure breaking out of a box while a higher being of some sort looks on, shrugging its shoulders and saying, “You can do it — find your own way.” The uproar led to more commissions.
Few people called him Renick anymore; he was Rusty, because of his red hair, and then simply Russ. He was part hustler, part chameleon. He could walk into a bank and convince a man to loan him five hundred bucks on an absolutely worthless car, then persuade another man that the side of his building needed a cosmic mural on it.
“Russ had the most incredible survival skills of anyone,” says Muske-Weldon. “He knew what to say to people. And he could move into a storefront, and within a week, with just his staple gun and a little paint, the place would look fantastic.”
Muske-Weldon had first met Stevenson through her children from a previous marriage, who told her about this painter in the neighborhood who gave free art lessons to kids. She met him again when she was working at the Lido. The two became involved in a relationship that lasted, despite frequent separations and Stevenson’s occasional girlfriends, close to nine years.
Like many artists, Stevenson was deeply absorbed in his own work; it’s doubtful he could have been as prolific as he became in Denver without such single-mindedness. “To me, he exemplified artistic freedom,” says Dave Lachman, whose uptown store, Fern Hill Books, regularly hosted poker games and raconteur sessions among the arts crowd. “He was more married to his art than anyone else. He just burned.”
But Muske-Weldon saw a certain Jekyll-Hyde quality in Stevenson, as well as some of his cronies, that couldn’t be explained as artistic temperament. “It was a really magical time at first,” she says. “But there were some dark times, too. People died. People went crazy. When I think back on it, the beatniks were mean. They really wanted to destroy society. It was an angry, very masculine thing. It wasn’t very friendly to women. They were welcome sexually, of course, but there wasn’t much sharing of ideas or space there. Everyone was willing to die for whatever, but nobody knew how to live for anything.”
In Stevenson’s case, she adds, the rage was intensified by his addictions: “He was doing a lot of drugs, and he was really angry. Plus, he drank. Everyone did, but he would flip out and go completely insane. One time he kicked out five plate-glass windows next door to the Lido.”
If he seemed on edge constantly, it may have been because he was taking Desoxyn, a pharmaceutical form of methamphetamine. He was adept at talking his way out of jail when hauled in for property damage or other crimes, telling judges that he was a veteran and a “chronic schizophrenic” who needed his medication. He would be set free, only to wind up in trouble again. He had a running feud with poet and Bowery Gallery operator Larry Lake, whom he considered a bully; both became more violent the more they drank, and sometimes the feud erupted into a brawl, right in the middle of a poetry reading or a poker game. (When Lake died of a heart attack, Stevenson wrote a poem memorializing the occasion — the gist of it being that if he had been Lake’s heart, he would have attacked him, too.)
But the skirmishes with Lake were mere roughhousing compared to his domestic conflicts. Stevenson readily concedes that he was abusive to several of his wives. “I was really an asshole with the first four,” he says. Muske-Weldon recalls an incident in which he charged a bathroom door just as her mother was opening it — and, in true cartoon fashion, Stevenson hurled headlong through the bathroom to an open balcony and plunged from the second floor to the ground, breaking an arm.
In 1974 he got into a “knockdown, drag-out thing” with one of his lovers, who stabbed him with a kitchen knife, puncturing his liver and a lung and sending him into intensive care at Denver General for weeks. “I died on the way to the hospital,” he says. “They brought me back. I don’t blame her at all. If I had been her, I would have used a hatchet instead of a knife.”
Grateful for the care he received, Stevenson offered to create a mural for the hospital depicting its array of services, from the emergency and surgical teams to the labs, pharmacy and even the laundry operation. The Denver Arts Commission agreed to pay for materials. The final product, 132 feet long and painted in acrylic on nineteen canvases stretched over wooden panels, ringed the stairwell in the hospital’s lobby.
Stevenson told people his near-death experience had changed him, that he was more focused on spiritual matters now. But he continued drinking heavily, even as his paintings were increasing in popularity, allowing him to make a decent living. His work took on a more lurid, violent cast; Leonard’s book describes one particularly disturbing painting “of a woman’s bright red lips parted by a double-edged razor blade.” For a long time, he’d been convinced that altering his consciousness was essential to the creative process. (“In those days, a lot of people thought if they gave up the drugs, they wouldn’t be able to find that magic anymore,” Muske-Weldon observes.) But now it was as if the art was getting in the way of getting high.
One day, loaded, he stumbled into a gallery where his work was displayed and ripped it all from the walls. He went back to his studio, smashed and defaced other works in progress, and embarked on a binge to end all binges, the kind of urgent demolition that seemed likely to land him in jail, the gutter or the ground.
Friends tried to intervene. An art critic for the Denver Post took him to a place on a lake near Abiqui, New Mexico, where he could paint and dry out without distractions. While he was there, he says, a mutual friend introduced him to one of the locals, the incomparable Georgia O’Keeffe. “She said she hoped I didn’t drink my talent away,” he recalls.
Amid relapses, breakdowns and hospital stays, Stevenson grew weary of his own vacillation. He looked back on the wreckage of his personal life — four failed marriages and six children, most of whom were estranged from him — with regret and shame. He was a coward, he decided, who couldn’t handle any more pain. “I started dating this gal, and she worked for St. Luke’s [Hospital],” he says. “She took me to a baseball game, and Dr. Larry Gibson was there. She told me she wanted me to meet him. It was her plan for me to get clean.”
Gibson was the charismatic director of an intensive twelve-step substance-abuse treatment program at St. Luke’s. Stevenson grabbed at the offer of a place in the program like it was a life preserver. He had been in detox only a week or so when he had what he describes as a “visit” from Joey, the son of his first wife, who’d taken his life a year earlier, just a few days before his 21st birthday.
“He came to me in detox,” Stevenson insists. “Just because someone dies doesn’t mean they’re not around. I said, ‘Joey, I can’t make amends to you. I can’t bring you back to life.’ He said, ‘Well, duh.’ We both laughed.
“Then he said, ‘I want you to work to bring peace and joy to people. Not just people you hurt, but people you’ve never seen before. You do that until the day you die.’”
Stevenson falters, his voice wavering. “And that’s been the last 38 years.”
After the stabbing, he started signing his paintings as Renick Stevenson, not Russ. When he finished the program, he started introducing himself to people as Renick, too. Years later, Michelle White asked him why he’d changed his name.
“He told me, ‘I don’t like Russ Stevenson,’” she says. “As we got to know each other better, he told me how he felt about all the years he’d spent drinking and how it had poisoned all his relationships, especially with his son. I thought he was an incredible example of someone who not only chose to turn his karma around, but to do it in such an amazing way. It was like he took a rag and wiped the slate clean.”
He went from bending his elbow to climbing rocks. Dr. Gibson introduced him to an Outward Bound program designed for recovering addicts, and Stevenson actually went for it. After all those years of sitting on barstools instead of bucking broncos, it was a shock to be so physically active again. But his muscles remembered how good it felt to be working outdoors, to test the limits and go past them. Stevenson was a standout and soon became an instructor in the program.
He did not go back to painting right away. He wanted to work the twelve steps, come at it from something other than insanity and rage. It was hard to go back to California, to find the people he had injured and strive to make amends, but he did it. Several of the people he contacted wanted nothing to do with him.
In 1980 he became the clinical supervisor for a detox center in Glenwood Springs. He worked there for four years, and then, at the urging of a local judge, applied for a job as a deputy in the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. He knew there was no chance of getting hired, a guy with his record, but he went to the interview anyway. He made the case that he was well versed, from prior life experiences, in matters of domestic violence, hostage negotiation and suicide prevention. They asked him when he could start.
He wore a badge for five years. He was good at handling Aspen’s drunks, whether rich or not so rich. He worked as a crisis-team leader for substance-abuse treatment centers in Denver, then helped to open another treatment center in Florida. (His own approach to the twelve steps was more spiritual than religious; he shocked some more conventional AA members by referring to his “higher power” as “Holy Shit.”) Relationships with women came and went, but he held on to certain alliances from his days in Beatdom that helped sustain him — including his friendship with artist Steve Wilson, who’d almost died in his own battle with drugs and alcohol before getting clean. He and Wilson supported each other in their sobriety, told tales from the old days, encouraged each other to keep on finding ways to pursue their art.
In 1995, Stevenson received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to initiate community art projects in Michigan. He became a roving artist-in-residence, working on murals with dozens of youthful collaborators. Rural kids, inner-city kids. Kids considered at risk or already incarcerated. The works were large, bright and folksy, brimming with affirmative messages and positive vibrations. Only once in a great while did they hint at the pain and regret of the artistic director, as in a jailhouse mural that depicts a prisoner peeping out from behind large, garish signs hawking HOPE, DREAM and PROMISE.
Stevenson spent ten years in the state, leaving his mark in Battle Creek, Saginaw, Bay City, Midland and smaller, more isolated communities. The work sometimes came under attack, from vandals or critics, but most of it is still there, a monument to his recovery and the aspirations of the young people he worked with. The experience, he says, left him humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to do meaningful work again. “I think it helped him to do something with kids that he wasn’t able to do with his own,” says astrologer Jyoti Wind, who’s known Stevenson for almost 25 years.
Temple of Man, performing the ceremony. But then the work began to dry up. Stevenson figures his tremors and his age have hindered his efforts to seek shows, commissions or artist-in-residence appointments in recent years.
“I had good fortune with gallery owners in the old days,” he says. “They made good money off me, and they shared it with me. I’m sucking hind tit now. I go to an interview, and I stutter and I’m walking with a stick. They say, ‘Thank you for coming,’ and there’s nothing after that.”
Wilson’s bookstore partner, Scibella, died in 2003, six months after filmmaker Brakhage. Saul White died in 2007. Jimmy Morris and several other Beat writers from the Denver scene had passed away years earlier. Wilson’s death in 2013, at the age of 67, hit Stevenson hard. He offered a discursive, intensely emotional eulogy at his best friend’s memorial service, conducted by poet and storyteller Ed Ward at the Mercury Cafe.
“I thought it was very moving,” says Michelle White. “He was shaking like a leaf, but it was very heartfelt. When Steve died, it was the closest thing to his own mortality. They had always been the two hanging in there together.”
He could feel the clock ticking, memories fading into a muddle. He decided that his show at the Mutiny Information Cafe this month would be his last hurrah. In true Beat fashion, he put no prices on his work, inviting patrons to pay whatever they feel a particular piece of art is worth — and thus discover something about their own value system.
Last weekend he opened the show with an extemporaneous talk about his life and his work. How chasing the dark Lady had almost killed him. How he had found redemption in his sobriety.
He talked about Bukowski and about Joey, about the five living offspring who didn’t talk to him and the dead one who did. He talked about past suicide attempts that had failed, until he decided the Great Spirit would take him when the time was right.
“I know I’m sort of rambling,” he said. “I’m planting seeds. If you live life on life’s terms, you discover that the pain and joy of life won’t kill you.”
He talked like a man who had rolled the dice and kept rolling until he lost everything he had, including his fascination with the game. He talked like the only survivor of a shipwreck, spared to tell the tale.
See our online slideshow for more of Renick Stevenson's art.