Mark Stevenson has dedicated his life to meticulously repairing and preserving aged paper. For him, it’s more than a craft.
Words by Hampton Stevens | Photography by Caleb Condit and Rebecca Norden
Sometimes a job is just a job. You dig ditches. You sell stocks. Sometimes, though, a job is more than just a living. Some jobs go beyond a career or even a calling. There are jobs that speak to everything you care about. They embody the essence of who you are. Jobs like that are the physical, emotional and spiritual manifestation of your deepest, most authentic self. Mark Stevenson is lucky enough to have that kind of job.
He’s a paper conservator in private practice, serving fancy museums, corporations and private collectors. That means Stevenson specializes in the preservation and restoration of drawings, historical documents, maps and posters. That, though, is merely a mechanical description of his work. What Stevenson really does, at heart, is care for things that are beautiful, delicate, valuable—things that should have been treated more kindly. He does this because he is beautiful, delicate, valuable and someone who should have been treated more kindly.
Stevenson is slight and lithe. He has large, kind eyes framed by a gray beard and ponytail. We talked on a brisk afternoon in his Valentine home, in a warm, inviting living room. Stacks of vinyl sat by the stereo on the hardwood floor. Walls brimmed with eclectic, indigenous art in mostly muted tones. Trina, a bright green finch, fluttered freely outside of her cage.
Our conversation started with trauma. Growing up on a farm in central Indiana, Stevenson—who identifies as biracial, including Native American branches—always felt himself an outsider. “I describe it as marginalized people mixing on the margins: A whole lot of mixed people who find other mixed people and then deny their heritage,” he says, laughing ruefully.
His childhood and adolescence were, in many ways, brutal.
His family wasn’t poor, he says. Dad owned the local drug store and soda fountain, but Mom’s side had loads of dysfunction. He spoke of substance abuse and questions about the legitimacy of his birth—and even the unsolved murder of a great uncle.
“We don’t know what happened, but it still echoes in the family,” he says.
He also mentioned an abusive football coach and pedophilic scout leader. “I had so much trauma by the time I hit my teen years. It was just, like, off the rails.”
Art was a sanctuary. He began to draw before he could speak. As a teenager, he would huddle in his bedroom, teaching himself to copy the style of underground cartoonists like Skip Williamson and R. Crumb. Working with clay was another infatuation, and he went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale intending to study monumental ceramics. Soon, though, Stevenson discovered the medium that would define his life.
One night, he says, he stepped into an etching studio, “and it was just like, ‘Oh, my God, this is it. I love paper.”
He spoke kindly, reverentially, like a man describing his oldest friend. “I mean, the colors of paper, the softness of the tones, the rustle of the sheets, it just touched me,” he says. “It was like a tuning fork.” He thought, “This is what resonates with me. This is what I love.”
Even after graduation, though, his path wasn’t quite clear. Everything changed, he says, during a camping trip to South Dakota. “I had a near-death experience, and it really directed my life.”
On the prairie, southeast of the sacred Black Hills, he was struck down by the sun. “I’m an outdoorsman,” he says. “I’ve never had problems before nor since. But that day, I got a really bad case of sunstroke. I didn’t realize how close to death I was.”
When he awoke, he knew his life had changed. “I wanted to be a better person,” he says. “I realized that we all have this compass inside of us. You set the needle on goodness and walk in that direction. I wanted to put myself on that path.”
Stevenson got busy being born. He dedicated himself to becoming a conservator. “And so it’s like, I have to start going to night school. I have to start getting volunteer work. At one point, I was going to night school, studying chemistry, volunteering one day a week at the Indiana Historical Society and working the other five days a week in the back room of an art supply store.”
He thrived in academia, earning a master’s degree from Buffalo State’s well-regarded Cooperstown program. That included an internship at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, followed by a postgraduate Mellon Fellowship at the National Gallery of Art. Ultimately, he would publish extensively, establishing himself as an international authority in the field.
Stevenson found Kansas City through the Nelson-Atkins. They hired him out of the National Gallery as a conservator of graphic art. His first stint in KC only lasted a few years, though. He met a woman, a doctoral candidate, and followed her back east to Princeton. When the relationship ended, he chose the Midwest again.
“Because I loved Kansas City and I continue to love Kansas City,” he says. “I was born a Kansas Citian but didn’t know it until I moved here. I found my people when I came here.” He likes how the city functions as a magnet for creative kids from across the Midwest who need an escape from small, conservative prairie towns.
Stevenson returned in 1995. He had an opportunity at the Spencer Museum of Art but ultimately decided to stay in private practice. He’s been on his own ever since.
We went upstairs to tour his happily cluttered studios. He told me about the healing, meditative, transformative power of his job. He talked about the exacting nature of work with paper—the demand for solitude and the necessity of embracing minutia.
He discussed how different substances respond to heat and moisture. With paper conservation, Stevenson says, “you don’t get a lot of second chances. So you really have to be able to stay five steps ahead.”
A recent project, for instance, involved a print by Henry Ferrer on 140-year-old Japanese paper. Stevenson recounted a complicated and incredibly painstaking process that I only partially understood.
“When things are glued down or attached or fixed to a board, my first thing is to begin to probe the board and look at its structure,” he says.
He described the nature of certain backing boards and the dangers of a break along the laminates. He told of using a scalpel and running an angled line around the perimeter of the piece, then a spatula, and moving incrementally—a sixteenth of an inch at a time—slowly prying and lifting the print away from the remainder of the board. He’ll also use Gore-Tex fabric, the kind used in camping gear, because it allows moisture to pass through as vapor but not liquid. He spoke of how adhesives made from animal skin, hoods or horns will react to certain sorts of enzymes. There’s more. Much more. But you get the idea.
As the sun fell, afternoon winter light flowed softly through the living room window. We spoke of his biggest claim to fame, at least in certain circles: a cinematic tale about the time billionaire Crosby Kemper bought twenty-eight watercolors attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. Stevenson was called on to help authenticate them. After a series of Succession-worthy twists, he came to realize the paintings were fake, printed on a kind of paper O’Keeffe would never have used.
“Basically,” he laughed, “I gave Kemper the information that allowed him to get his $5.4 million back.”
We finished our day discussing the project that brought him to my attention. A friend who works at the Kansas City Star told me they discovered a first edition replica of the paper in a storage bin and wanted it restored. Just curious, I asked who one would call to handle something like that, which led me to Stevenson.
“It’s framed, I think, double-sided,” he said of the first edition. “They want me to help them get it out and to make sure it’s preserved.”
It’s his job, you see. Stevenson has devoted his life to the restoration
and protection of delicate, beautiful things. In doing so, he restored and protected himself.
“I realized that we all have this compass inside of us. You set the needle on goodness and walk in that direction.”
“I was born a Kansas Citian but didn’t know it until I moved here. I found my people when I came here.”