Gary Simmons and Richard Stephens, both of them recipients of national recognition and who are so closely associated artistically and personally that they both will answer to the name “Richard Simmons,” will display their artworks in the Hot Springs Convention Center.
The exhibit is “Pen and Paint: The Art of Gary Simmons and Richard Stephens.”
“Gary and Richard wonderfully represent the highly regarded Hot Springs arts community as artists who are known nationwide for the quality and imagination of their work,” said Mary Zunick, cultural affairs manager for Visit Hot Springs.“Their work will remain on display until January 3, and the exhibit is free and open to the public during business hours at the Convention Center.”
“Our Convention Center already has a widely known reputation for its permanent display of dozens of artworks that are enjoyed by our residents as well as those who attend meetings and events in the Center and Bank OZK Arena,” Zunick said.
A Hippie and a Straight Arrow Find Common Playing Field in Art
Simmons and Stephens met in 1974. Forty-five years of creativity and friendship have linked the names of Stephens and Simmons into one entity for much of Hot Springs. In 1974 they began joint venturing art jobs as illustrator and designer, until 1983 when they incorporated as Stephens and Simmons Design Studio. In 1989 they returned to their individual careers but maintained a deep respect for their friendship.
Richard continued his design business, and Gary began teaching pen workshops nationally for the pen manufacturer Rapidograph Koh-I-Noor until 1991, when he joined the Henderson State University art faculty, retiring as professor emeritus in 2013. Since the early 1990s Richard has become increasingly involved in watercolor, to the point that he now teaches workshops full-time all over the country.
Their professional journeys reflect their association, but their friendship speaks to their characters. From the beginning they found some ember in common that sparked a blazing passion for the art that has come to define their relationship. That passion was a confluence of very different backgrounds. Richard’s education in art and his professional experience in commercial art were essential ingredients to Gary’s growth into the art world. Gary’s university research and writing experience, coupled with his drawing skills helped broaden Richard’s world and his commercial work. They worked together in graphic design for 15 years, doing everything from logo design to major promotional campaigns such as the current Garland County Library’s new building, to local and regional business promotions, and local government and National Park issues.
The art in this show represents who Richard and Gary have become as individual artists outside of their commercial and academic pasts. It’s important to recognize how mutually influential they have been in their personal developments. As early as 1976 they and Thad Flenniken were instrumental in starting a life-drawing cooperative that exists to this day, still meeting weekly, and still providing a shared experience in creating art. The sharing between Richard and Gary extends to mutual critiques and instruction, team-teaching, judging shows, working on community projects, consulting, public speaking, and working with young artists. Recently they ambled the streets of Paris together, soaking up the art and adding a new dimension to their friendship.
Each artist brings a dimension to his art that, on the surface, wouldn’t suggest compatibility for these two artists. Richard’s watercolors are noted for their loose and passionate brushwork. Gary’s pen work is noted for something close to the opposite, with its delicate and deliberate line work. Richard’s work suggests spontaneous observation and dramatic response from the audience. Gary’s approach is inevitably narrative, suggesting some story line or personal statement, relying on the audience’s curiosity and interest in the mystery. Richard’s work is largely confined to watercolor, even though his drawing skills are considerable. Gary’s forte is the pen, but he roams through various media like a goat looking for better grass. With Richard’s influence, Gary has become a competent watercolorist. With Gary’s influence, Richard’s drawing skills have expanded.
Perhaps nothing speaks so honestly about these two than their love of napkin art. They are known as far away as Paris for their quick sketches in restaurants, music venues, and social gatherings. Often these sketches come down to satirizing one another or competing for a waitress’s likeness. It’s always fun, which is perhaps the central ingredient to their longevity as artists and as friends.
A native of Hot Springs, Richard Stephens earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Central Arkansas in 1969. After serving in the army as an illustrator, 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 his hometown, providing design and production services for a wide range of commercial accounts.
Having been introduced to the medium in college, Stephens rediscovered transparent watercolor in the early ’90s. He quickly garnered a reputation nationwide for his confident, loose, impressionistic paintings. His works have won awards in numerous national competitions, and he has earned signature member status in several major watercolor societies.
For the past 20 years Stephens has shared his passion for the medium by conducting painting workshops around the country. The son of schoolteachers, Stephens’s comfortable personality and easy style are well adapted to the classroom.
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. ‘Making Art’ certainly means producing my own work. But it also means sharing with my students my knowledge, experience, and passion for watercolor. I love to teach. I have discovered that through teaching, more than any other endeavor, I continue to learn.”
Simmons is a nationally recognized pen-and-ink artist. He and his family live in Hot Springs, where he has Gary Simmons Studio. His work is known for its technical refinement and for its eclectic subject matter. While a student worker in the zoology department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, he began pen-and-ink drawing as a science illustrator. After acquiring a B.A. and M.A. in English and American literature at SIU, he eventually acquired a doctorate in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
He worked for Indiana University’s Institute for Research in Public Safety from 1971 to 1973 at which time he was hired by the University of Arkansas. His freelance artist career went from 1976 until 1991, when he began teaching in the art department of Henderson State University, where he retired as professor emeritus in 2013.
Simmons gained a reputation as a portrait artist, having drawn portraits of notables such as Racing’s Hall-of-Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, President Bill Clinton, Clinton’s mother, Virginia Clinton Kelly, Frank Broyles, philanthropist Jane Ross, and producers/writers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth. At varying times in his career his art has focused on a variety of subject matter, including an extensive body of equine art, western art, the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, and a suite of materials featuring gorillas as the centerpieces. He has a particular affinity for crows and birds of prey, often combining them with mythical subjects such as Leda and the Swan and Native American subjects.
In the Leda series, Simmons combines the anatomical reality of feathers and beautiful women, producing an elegant sensuality as well as a statement about the complexities of combining love and a pursuit of power. The crow in his work often suggests some second sense, a conscience, or an omen of things to come. These themes are executed in a variety of media, most notably in pen and ink, but also watercolor, oil, pastel, and charcoal.
In 1992 he wrote The Technical Pen: Techniques for Artists, published by New York’s Watson-Guptill Publishers. This effort grew out of a two-year stint of teaching national pen-and-ink seminars for Rapidograph, the manufacturer of the pens Simmons uses. Recently the book was reissued by Echo Point Books out of Vermont. It has been critically acclaimed as the bible of pen and ink.
He helped found a figure-drawing co-op in 1976 that is still active; the figure continues to be one of his primary subject matters. In the last few years he has turned to painting, but drawing and the pen are still at the heart of his artistic activity.