- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

Painter-poet May Stevens’ passion for water — as shouted by the title of her show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “The Water Remembers: Paintings and Works by May Stevens 1990-2005” — began in her seaside hometown of Quincy, Mass., then solidified when she lived near New York’s Hudson River as an adult.

Yet, she says, water only “seized” her emotionally after she viewed an ancient, hollowed-out-log boat at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin that reminded her of the vikings’ later longboats. She realized the timeless, global significance of the waters it and other craft had traveled. She realized then — as she writes in the catalog — that water’s “circularity” and “continuity” represent a universal spiritual consciousness.

Thus began her love affair with water, reflected in what she calls her “Water Paintings,” and we’re fortunate to see 13 large-scale, unstretched canvases and 14 works on paper here.

Initially, the paintings and prints seem enigmatic, but first go, as I did, to enjoy their brilliantly hued and textured sensuality. Then try deciphering the stories and poetry in them.

Consider, for example, Miss Stevens’ tenacious clinging to certain symbols and their continuous reinterpretation. You’ll see that the starkly simplified, almost abstracted boats act as metaphors for women who seemingly float through endless “seas.” Miss Stevens’ watery expanses — created by incredibly tiny gold and silver “writings” — represent the continuous, endless cycle of what is, for her, life and death.

One feels the silence and solitude.

Miss Stevens, 81, typically searches for a mysterious cosmos in “Connemara (Rock Pool, Ireland)” (1999-2001), a later acrylic on unstretched canvas. Transparent water streams across craggy rocks to form a vibrating chartreuse pool. Golden writings wander aimlessly across rounded stones.

“Water’s Edge, Charles River, Cambridge” (2002) is a tribute to her happy Quincy, Mass. sunning-and-swimming childhood.

Themes of love and loss are introduced gently in smallish acrylics and glowing mixed-media prints such as the elegant “Pearl” (1999) and “River Run” (1994), a view of eight figures in a boat cutting through purplish-gold waters. Burnished yellows fuse here with lavenders to create glimmering tension.

But wait a minute. As you move closer to the print, you’ll see hundreds of tiny illegible “letters” and “words” impressed with a pen. These grew from Miss Stevens’ childhood love of poetry. Early on, she meshed her “writings” with images. Like traditional Chinese scholars, she follows “The Three Perfections” of Chinese art: a combination of calligraphy, poetry and painting.

In the hallway leading to the back room, “Boat Series No. 6” (1995) could better be called “Solitude,” for it depicts a craft with a single isolated figure riding the gold-inscribed, pitch-black “waves.”

Enormous, brilliantly colored unstretched canvases in the back room show Miss Stevens at her mysterious best. Among them are the earthy “Lagoon, Fort Cronkite, Marin Headlands” (2000-2003), floating “Her Boats” (1996-1997) and aqueous “Connemara (Rock Pool, Ireland).”

Although she calls her sometimes-in-motion canvases abstractions — they move slightly with the gallery’s air currents — figurative elements sometimes appear as well. On close inspection, the face of an African-appearing man emerges at lower right in “Her Boats.”

Miss Stevens mentioned the abstracted realism of “Hudson I (Night Swim)” (2000) and “Hudson River II (Eddy)” (1998-2000) while speaking from her Santa Fe, N.M., home. Both paintings are memorials to her son, Steven Baranik, who took his own life in the river in 1981.

“Hudson I” shows a ghostly George Washington Bridge with Steven’s little dog struggling in the water. “Hudson River II” indicates the dog’s drowning with heartbreaking eddies of red and purple.

Miss Stevens moved to Santa Fe after the death of her son and that of her husband, Rudolph Baranik. She says she’s happy there with expanses of sky — not shown in this exhibit — seemingly replacing those of water.

Honored with many awards, as well as recognition by the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others, Miss Stevens still paints and prints the mystical kind of works that enhanced her earlier images of family and friends.

Don’t miss this compelling show, which runs here only through Jan. 15.

WHAT: “The Water Remembers: Paintings and Works on Paper by May Stevens 1990-2005”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 15

TICKETS: $8 for adults, $6 for students and visitors 60 and older; free for members and those 18 and younger. Free community days for the exhibit are the first Wednesdays and Sundays of every month.

PHONE: 202/783-5000

WEB SITE: www.nmwa.org

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