King School Museum of Contemporary Art

Behind the name: An interview with Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.

A conversation about how the artist and educator is claiming space, engaging students, and creating "social forms"

Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. (they/them) and I met by happenstance one February evening at a socially distanced art event hosted by Art Design Xchange (ADX) Portland. We were introduced by a mutual friend with whom Stevenson had collaborated to create, A King and His Crown, the work that was on view that evening. So there we were, myself, my friend and Stevenson navigating an art event, my first one in nearly a year, during a global pandemic.

Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., A King and His Crown, 2021, mixed media. ADX Portland. Image courtesy of the artist.

At the heart of their practice, Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. is desirous of being in collectivity. They weave the many iterations and facets of their identity and their work into coherent demonstrations of activism and social engagement. It is as personal as it is revolutionary. As a practicing educator and multi-disciplinary artist committed to social practice, Stevenson orbits a wide range of creative-minded spaces. That evening we only just began to touch on art, its institutions, and our collective sentiments towards the notion of artistic output as a meter for social change. We exchanged emails and established a virtual correspondence, touching on topics that center at the core of Stevenson’s practice – race and identity, community engagement, and art as an antithesis to marginalization. 

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One year after: Waking up to the slow thaw

ArtsWatch Weekly: A year into shutdown, signs of revival: Stimulus aid for the arts, museums reopening, a theater with an audience of 1 to 5

A YEAR AGO TODAY I PARKED MY CAR IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE, tossed the key in a drawer, and began to shelter in. Suddenly I was home (if not, thank goodness, home alone), away from the concerts, theater and dance performances, museum visits, coffee-shop conversations with artists and writers, and other rounds that had made up my peregrinations around Portland and the Pacific Northwest going back deep into the previous century. The day before, I’d been at the Portland Art Museum, walking with curator Dawson Carr through Volcano!, the big exhibition of artworks relating to the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens. Scant days later, the museum shut down. As “ordinary” life began to crumble I was also putting the finishing touches on an essay about revivals of two retro plays I’d recently seen – Blood Brothers at Triangle Productions and The Odd Couple at Lakewood Theatre. That piece never went beyond my computer files: Both shows were quickly canceled as Covid-19 restrictions hit Oregon, and the nation, and the world, full force. 

The world had tipped upside down, and the arts & cultural world, which in the intervening twelve months has been devastated economically by shutdowns, tipped with it. Now, after more than half a million deaths in the United States (including more than 2,300 in Oregon) and more than 2.6 million globally, the world is cautiously trying to tip itself back up again. It has a long way to go. Many millions of people in the U.S., and billions globally, are awaiting inoculation, and a new wave of infections is only a few indiscretions, mask-burnings, or rogue viral variants away. But vaccines are being manufactured much more quickly and on a much bigger scale, and delivery systems are improving. Cautious hope, perhaps crossed with reckless impatience, is beginning to rise.                     

Unknown Russian artist, Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign (Platytera) with beaded riza, c. 1800–1850, tempera on wood panel and glass beads, 9” x 8”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; among the featured works as the museum reopens March 15.

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Converge 45: Popping up with the times

Responding to a year of crisis, Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center hosts a show of Oregon contemporary posters for public spaces

One of the strengths of gallery programming at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg is that the deep, long-term planning that arts director Carissa Burkett packs into the calendar for as much as a year in advance is coupled with an ability to pivot when circumstances change, when new opportunities and challenges present themselves.

Like, for example, 2020 — the year, one might add, of the center’s 10th anniversary. 

The #Act for Art posters in their natural public-spaces habitat. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, Converge 45 said via Twitter, Portland has the fifth-largest concentration of artists in the nation, after Manhattan, San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles. Photo: Converge 45.

The center has already had a couple of COVID-inspired pop-ups this year, and for a few more days, visitors will find the latest of these unscheduled surprises: #ACTforART is originated as a PDX-centric project organized by Converge 45: a series of commissioned posters for public spaces that share the artists’ vision during this new, weird normal. Yes, theaters are shut down and concert halls are closed, but windows and fences and walls provide space for art, so the group has been spreading the love in lieu of its traditional programs, which typically involve exhibitions and gatherings where the six-foot rule wouldn’t work. The work is also being shared on social media platforms.

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Finn builds a galaxy… with help from a pro

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and 6-year-old Finn Connaughton collaborate on an extraterrestrial installation at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg features an exhibit, Finn Builds a Galaxy, that was created by two artists whose life experiences could scarcely be more different.

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. is 32 years old, has studied art at Alfred University School of Art and Design, and is doing graduate work at Portland State University. Stevenson has worked as a figure model, a cook, a grocery store clerk, and a community organizer. Born in Gaithersburg, Md., the artist has traveled to Mexico, Canada, Scotland, Italy, and Germany. For the past 10 years, Stevenson has worked on a variety of projects while also studying.

The exhibit is named after the other artist, Finn Connaughton. He’s 6 and attends first grade at Yamhill-Carlton Elementary School. The son of a pharmacist father, Erin, and Jacki, a stay-at-home mother, he’s fond of Minecraft, building with LEGOS, and Pokémon. And, of course, art. 

Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates
Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates

At a reception last week, Finn stood on the center’s spacious lobby mezzanine gazing at his galaxy — planets, stars, LEGO spaceships, and a few flying creatures — looking a bit awed by the attention but clearly proud of his galactic creation. Below, his parents and extended family, other visitors, and staff looked up, some taking pictures.

Next to him, Stevenson grinned and offered Finn one of many compliments: “You are even more famous in Newberg than I am!”

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