Hot Springs native Richard Stephens started his art career painting signs for extra money when he was a student at Hot Springs High School. Today, he is an internationally recognized watercolorist who still lives and works in his hometown.
Stephens, 71, has received many awards since he graduated from high school in 1964, the most recent being the Individual Artist Award from the Arkansas Arts Council’s 2018 Governor’s Arts Award program.
“I am tremendously honored … humbled … flattered,” Stephens said. “There are so many artists who are better than I will ever be. I am honored to receive this award, not just for myself, but also for all the artists in Hot Springs. We are a community of artists.
“I am just one of many local artists who has worked hard and stayed with my craft every day, trying to turn out a good product. Hot Springs is my home, and that is important.”
Stephens said he was nominated for the award behind his back.
“That’s what made it so special,” he said, smiling. “I did not have a clue I had been nominated. It was a total surprise.”
He was nominated by JoAnn Mangione, editor of The Springs magazine, which is a guide to the arts, entertainment and wellness in Hot Springs National Park, and Gary Simmons, a Hot Springs artist and Stephens’ longtime friend.
“Richard Stephens has been part of the arts community for almost 40 years as an award-winning artist and as an art teacher,” Mangione said. “He’s given freely of his time and talent, and we’re very excited that he has been selected for this year’s Individual Artist Award.”
Stephens has helped design the cover of The Springs magazine for the 25 years the publication has been in existence.
“As part of our life-drawing group since the ’70s, Richard has generously shared his wisdom and talent with artists and students over the years,” Simmons said. “He’s become well-known as a watercolorist locally and internationally, winning many awards in the process. He is so very deserving of this honor.”
In addition to drawing with Simmons, as well as several other local artists, each week, Stephens shared another experience with Simmons in 2015 — they were the grand marshals of the Oaklawn Rotary Christmas Parade.
Stephens will be honored along with seven other recipients of the Governors Arts Awards at a luncheon in the spring sponsored by the Arkansas Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
For 27 years, the Governor’s Arts Awards program has recognized individuals, organizations and corporations for their outstanding contributions to the arts in Arkansas.
“For nearly three decades, the Arkansas Arts Council has been recognizing those who have made large contributions to the value of the arts in our state,” said Stacy Hurst, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. “We are thrilled to honor them for their accomplishments, artistic talents and dedication to positively impacting the cultural heritage of Arkansas.”
Following high school graduation, Stephens attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and earned a bachelor’s degree in art in 1969.
“When I started college, it was called Arkansas State Teachers College,” Stephens said. “Then it became State College of Arkansas, and finally, by the time I graduated, it was the University of Central Arkansas. I had a great time there.
“After college, I joined the Army Reserve in Little Rock and served as an illustrator and medical-education graphic designer for teaching [purposes],” he said. “I served six years. It was a good deal.”
Stephens began his professional career in 1971 with a design firm in Little Rock. Three years later, he opened his own graphic-design studio in Hot Springs. After 40 years in the business, he continues to provide design and production services for a wide range of commercial accounts. He works from a studio in his home.
“I began painting in the early 1990s. I had been introduced to watercolor in college and found it again after all those years. I have been teaching it now, in workshops across the country, for 17 years,” Stephens said.
“It is the quest for the excitement, that rush, understood only by other artists that have been blessed [or cursed] with the experience, that gives me reason to continue in the elusive process of making art,” he said.
“Making art certainly means producing my own work, but it also means sharing with my students my knowledge, experience and passion for watercolor,” Stephens said. “I love to teach. I have discovered that through teaching, more than any other endeavor, I continue to learn.”
Stephens’ works have won national awards and earned him signature-member status in several major watercolor societies, including Diamond Signature status in the Mid-Southern Watercolorists, meaning he has had at least five paintings accepted into juried exhibits. He has won many awards from that organization and has another painting that was recently accepted for the 2018 annual juried show, which will be on display this spring at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock.
In 2017, Stephens won the MSW Silver Award and $1,000 for his painting Hot Springs Bungalow. He also received the MSW Silver Award in 2015 and 2014; he has received the MSW Gold Award three times as well.
Stephens continues to work on commission and had four pieces to complete during this Christmas season.
“One is the largest watercolor I have ever done,” he said, laughing. “It is 85 by 32 inches. Up until now, the largest painting I had done was 30 by 22 inches. It was a large landscape of my patron’s large backyard.”
Stephens recently returned from his first overseas trip. He and Simmons went to Paris, France.
“I took over 400 photographs that I have been in the process of going through to choose scenes to paint,” Stephens said. “So far, I have picked about 20 photos that I will use as reference for paintings. I plan to do a whole series.
“After the first of the year, I will be on the road conducting workshops for about six months. I already have workshops set in Key West, Florida; Dallas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Asheville, North Carolina. The last six months of the year, I will be in Arkansas conducting workshops.”
Stephens currently has an exhibit of 18 watercolors at The Waters Hotel in Hot Springs.
Stephens said the hotel hosts a wine and art event at 6 p.m. on the last Sunday of the month and calls it Last Sunday’s Art and Wine Dinner. The hotel’s restaurant, The Avenue, serves a five-course dinner with five different wines. A new artist presents his or her work during this time.
“The Avenue can accommodate up to 80 people,” Stephens said. “It fills up fast. People have a great time. The chef talks about the food, the wine steward talks about the wine, and the artist talks about the art.
“I am real honored to be a part of that.”
Stephens expresses his social and political opinions through editorial cartoons. Rather than drawing the cartoons in a traditional way, he uses his knowledge of typography and graphic design to create his comments. He calls this type of art “typetoons.”
Stephens said drawing is “the skeleton of all painting.”
“I draw before I paint,” he said. “The better you draw, the better you paint. Drawing is line, shape and value. Watercolor is line, shape and value … and oh, yeah, color. You have to let your work flow.”
Stephens said his goal as an artist is “to interpret, not to render.”
“I want to engage the viewer, entertain him and share my vision,” Stephens said. “When people view my work, that is the last step in the painting process. Of course, I want people to like my work, but like it or hate it, I don’t want them to be indifferent.”