Treasures from the Vault: May Stevens

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

In our current era of political unrest protest art is having a moment, causing many to look back at work created during previous periods of discontent. Last year, Children’s Education Associate Katy Thompson and I were lucky enough to visit the Whitney’s An Incomplete History of Protest and right now, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, which both include work from the same series as today’s Treasure from the Vault, May Stevens’ Big Daddy Paper Doll. Her Big Daddy Series, from which FWMoA owns three silkscreens, was created between 1967 and 1976, coinciding with and responding to the escalation of the war in Vietnam.

Against a blue background are five figures, from left: A hooded, black robe, a man in military uniform and hat, a naked man and his bulldog, a man in police officer uniform, and a man in a white shirt and apron with blood-splatter. The idea is that the man can be covered by each of these personas, like a paper doll. Each outfit includes a matching outfit for his dog as well.
May Stevens, American, b. 1924. Big Daddy Paper Doll. Screenprint, 1976. Gift of Abraham Tannenbaum, 1977.31. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

All of these works feature a central male figure, usually a silhouette in solid white with a red contour line, totally nude (or is he naked?) with a long bulbous head and a bulldog in his lap. His face is smug and bespectacled, somewhat resembling both Teddy Roosevelt and his jowly lapdog. The background is a solid, vibrant blue, jarring against army green, bright white, and blood red, but lending itself to an overall patriotic color scheme. In Big Daddy Paper Doll, the central figure is shown alongside four uniforms so he can be dressed as an executioner, army officer, riot policeman, or butcher (with matching outfits for the dog, of course). Are these identities interchangeable? If the man donned any one of these personas, he’d be powerful, even menacing, but instead, he’s stripped down and reduced to a child’s toy—a paper doll.

May Stevens has always believed that art should be used for political commentary and not just personal expression, but, as the slogan for the feminist art movement of the 1970s (in which she played a role) states, “the personal is political.” Though the work at face value is overtly political, it also contains deeply personal influences.

Stevens was born in 1924 and grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, where her father, Ralph, was a pipe fitter at Bethlehem Steel. She did well in school, loved reading (especially poetry, which she memorized), and was the “class artist,” always being asked to draw things for her classmates. Her success in school meant approval from the adults around her, including her father, who encouraged and supported her. While May excelled and was independent, her younger brother, Stacey, was often ill and did poorly in school. Her mother, Alice, spent all of Stacey’s life taking care of him until he died of pneumonia at age 15. Therefore, after his death, Alice became increasingly withdrawn and reclusive, with little to no emotional support from her husband. Ralph Stevens, although supportive of May, also exposed her to racism from an early age, which she always recognized as wrong. He expressed views against black people, Jews, and Italians. May spent her college years trying to help him change his views, arguing with him and giving him books to read, to little avail.

Stevens’ “great fear” was that she “might just earn a living and not lead an intellectually stimulating life.” Thus, after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and then working as an illustrator for a time, all while taking care of her mother, she couldn’t resist an invitation from a college friend to move to New York. She attended the Art Students League where she met her husband, and they moved to Paris where they lived for three years and had a son. While they were away, her mother was committed to Medfield State Mental Hospital.

Alice Stevens would leave the hospital on extended visits with May’s family to New York. During one of these visits, when Ralph came to pick her up, their photos were taken. Alice, sitting at the dining table, looked, according to May, “totally defeated, a picture of despair,” while Ralph, wearing an undershirt with his arms folded, looked defiant, “like he’s saying, ‘It’s not my fault.’” Both were later used as source images for paintings; her father’s likeness became the titular Big Daddy.

While Big Daddy Paper Dolls is political, it also responds to Stevens’ complicated relationship with, and anger towards, her father. The decision to base Big Daddy on her own father rather than a nameless figure imbues the series with a deeply personal meaning and adds weight to the message. Stevens is able to separate her love for her father from her disdain for his actions and opinions. That love may not be apparent here, but in a way, Big Daddy does evoke some sympathy. He’s shown as a child’s toy and there is a childlike nature to him—many young kids admire or aspire to be a soldier or police officer, playing dress-up in their uniforms. Maybe Big Daddy, like those children, doesn’t understand the violence that often accompanies these positions. It is precisely that which Stevens is drawing our attention to, criticizing many Americans’ blind acceptance and support of the war in Vietnam. In today’s deeply divided political climate, I think many of us can identify with May’s conflicted feelings towards someone she loves, and in that way, Big Daddy Paper Dolls will always be relevant.

All quotes from the artist are from the book May Stevens by Patricia Hills, 2005.

Want to see more of our collection in person? Come visit FWMoA through June 9th to see some of the artworks we’ve acquired in the last year!

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