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Encounters | An occasional feature

This painting made two people fall in love and helped a man connect with the dead

TAMPA

One night last spring, Gordon Stevenson plugged his name into Google. Up popped a link to an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

"Gordon Stevenson," read the link. "Portrait of a Man Painting, ca. 1940."

His grandfather, his namesake, had been a painter. Gordon had only one of his works, a portrait of his departed dad. It hangs above Gordon's bed in his Tampa home, and was watching over him that night.

Gordon, 53, had never seen the painting featured on the show: The chiseled face of a G.I. Joe, confident in his metal helmet. When he zoomed in, he saw other figures in the face: Fishermen and salmon, hunters, ducks, a crackling campfire.

"This particular painting is fascinating to me because of the technique, which is unique," said the show's appraiser. "It was the cover for Outdoor Life magazine."

Gordon didn't know about the painting's past, or the propaganda. He had no idea who had saved it. Or the romance it had sparked.

He just decided he had to have that piece of his grandfather.

He emailed Antiques Roadshow, said he was the artist's grandson, asked to get in touch with the painting's owner.

The producers refused.

• • •

Gordon adored his father, who traded stocks and trained racehorses and took him fishing near their home in New Jersey. But their time together didn't last long; his dad died of Hodgkin's disease when he was 8.

As Gordon grew up, graduated from Florida State University, became the father of triplets, he often thought of his dad, wondered what it would have been like to have him around.

His father, whose name was John, left him with a name that belonged to his grandfather, Gordon Stevenson.

As a boy, Gordon was fascinated by watching his grandfather work. The way faces first formed as faint outlines, then grew human, with eyes that looked right at you. From blank canvases, his grandfather created life.

He was quiet and kind, dignified, like his dad.

When Gordon was 12, his mom remarried — and changed his last name to match his stepdad. Gordon didn't want to change his name. It was like losing his dad all over again.

For almost four decades, Gordon was Gordon Yates. He gave that name to his wife, then to his triplets.

A couple of years ago, "It just hit me," Gordon said. His father and grandfather were long gone, but he had to go back to being who he was meant to be. His family agreed, and all legally became Stevensons.

His reclaimed name brought him a renewed interest in learning more about the man who inspired it. So he took to Google.

Gordon learned that his grandfather had been born in Chicago in 1892 to Scottish immigrants. He had attended the School of the Arts Institute, traveled to Spain, studied under Joaquin Sorolla. He had been commissioned to paint murals on schools, design camouflage for World War I submarines, sketch covers for the New York Times Book Review. His portraits hung in the Museum of the City of New York and the Toledo Museum of Art.

When Gordon opened his first restaurant, Trip's Diner in St. Petersburg, he ordered copies of Time magazine covers from 1923 and 1925. His grandfather's sketches of Jack Dempsey and Herbert Hoover are framed in the men's room.

"I wasn't out beating the bushes trying to find his original work," Gordon said. "But when I saw it on that show, I had to try to bring it home."

The TV appraiser had mentioned that the painting's owner was having it restored. The show had been filmed in Charleston. So Gordon started contacting every restoration artist in South Carolina.

All summer, he searched.

He had given up when he got an email. A Charleston artist said he hadn't worked on that painting, but he knew the woman who was restoring it.

And what that portrait had done for her.

• • •

One afternoon in February 1987, Steven Nicoll was walking from the beach to a cottage he had rented on Siesta Key when he passed a yard sale. He wasn't going to stop.

Then he saw the portrait propped against a tree.

Steven, now 59, studied art, and was a painter and woodworker. But he had never seen anything like that picture: The angular face of a soldier, made up of smaller scenes. It reminded him of Salvador Dalí.

"Gordon Stevenson," read the signature.

Steven didn't know the name. But he couldn't leave that treasure under a tree.

The owner had no idea where it came from. Steven paid $5 for the painting, oil on Masonite, and another $5 for the mahogany frame.

When his vacation was over, he took it home and hung it in his loft in Charleston, S.C.

"When my chums came around, after a couple of beers, we'd always take it down to take another look," said Steven, who grew up in Great Britain. Each time, they found something new in the face. "It blew us all away."

For 27 years, Steven cherished that surreal soldier. But he never thought of researching the artist, or having the painting cleaned.

Until he met Catherine.

• • •

His studio is on the third floor. Hers is on the first. They had worked in the same small building for almost a year when, in 2014, a nonprofit hosted an artists' open house.

Catherine Rogers, 59, greeted more than 150 people who poured into the studio where she restores paintings. She didn't remember meeting the British woodworker from upstairs.

The next day, he came back and said he had brought the portrait. In her slow Southern drawl, Catherine said, "Well, let's go take a look."

The cobalt background was peeling; mold muted the colors. But Catherine was impressed by the intricacy of the interwoven images, the stories inside the soldier's face. She Googled the artist and read his biography to Steven, even found the magazine cover from August 1940.

"That was more than a year before the U.S. came into World War II," Steven said. The illustration had been a propaganda pitch to get American sportsmen to support the Allies. "My grandfather fought for the British in that war," he told Catherine.

She promised to preserve the painting — if Steven would come to her 200-year-old farmhouse and rebuild the heart pine door.

He started stopping by her studio for tea, which led to drinks, which turned into dinners. He had been married once, long ago. She always had been single.

On a misty beach in Scotland, he slipped a small box into her jacket pocket and asked her to be his bride. "All because of that painting," she said. "It's got some sort of voodoo."

When Catherine heard Antiques Roadshow was coming to Charleston, she urged Steven to take the portrait. More than 10,000 people showed up. Steven waited nine hours.

"Gordon Stevenson is a very, very interesting American painter," the appraiser finally said. "I think this would easily sell at auction between the $3,000 and $5,000 range."

Steven swore he would never part with the painting.

Then, Catherine got the call from Florida.

• • •

One morning last month, Gordon Stevenson was in his St. Petersburg diner when a couple walked in with the portrait. They had driven from Charleston to deliver it. And see the Dalí museum.

"We had it photographed so you can make prints," Steven said.

He and Catherine kept a copy. They plan to put the portrait on invitations to their engagement party — the long-lost soldier who brought them together.

Gordon stared at the painting, overwhelmed.

His triplets were about to leave to start school at Florida State University; soon, his nest would be empty. But now he had this piece of his granddad to hold on to.

He told the couple he was going to hang it in his bedroom, beside the painting of his dad.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at ldegregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825 or @lanedegregory.

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an Encounters, email editor Alexandra Zayas at azayas@tampabay.com.

This painting made two people fall in love and helped a man connect with the dead 09/28/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2016 9:52pm]
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