An iconoclastic sculptor.
A warehouse full of artwork potentially worth millions.
The widow and devoted archivist fighting over it.
Welcome to the tangled Arizona legacy of Lawrence Tenney Stevens.
It’s high noon in Apache Junction on a blazing August afternoon, and John Faubion is unseasonably dressed in a black cowboy hat and matching duds. Take away his perennially worried demeanor and his hawk-like nose, and he looks a little like Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone.
Standing near a storage unit he rents at this drab facility in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains, Faubion, 64, works the lock and roughly slides open the green metal door. He rents three such units here, each tasked with the same purpose.
“What [I hope] is that you get the photos you need before we both die of heat stroke,” Faubion cracks, as a PHOENIX photographer readies her camera. “If you don’t, I know I will.”
Laid out before Faubion are some of the estimated 70,000 pieces of memorabilia and art amassed by cantankerous American sculptor Lawrence Tenney Stevens (1896-1972) and preserved in the three storage units. Known for his renderings of Western themes in an Art Deco style, Stevens had a storied career as a sculptor of colossal pieces of public art, from New York to Dallas to Palm Springs, before landing in Arizona in the mid-1950s, relying on wealthy patrons and bankers to keep his career afloat.
A thin, precise man with gray hair pulled back into a bun beneath his hat, Faubion is the director of the Lawrence Tenney Stevens Trust and has overseen the collection since he first encountered it upon meeting Stevens’ widow Bea in Tempe in the early 1990s. Since that time, Faubion has devoted his life to reviving Stevens’ memory in the art world, attempting to rescue it from the obscurity into which it fell following Stevens’ death from a heart attack in 1972 at age 76.
“I’ve tried to stay true to [Stevens] and to try to honor him,” Faubion says. “I don’t know how I could have done anything differently.”
The author of an unpublished biography of the artist, Faubion is a walking, talking encyclopedia of all things LTS, and he can recount the history of every item in this jam-packed locker, which at the moment feels like the inside of a tandoor oven.
In one corner is a cast for Stevens’ family crest, featuring a phoenix rising from the ashes and the motto Je vive en espoir, or “I live in hope.”
It’s a poignant sentiment considering Stevens’ down-at-heel circumstances when the penniless artist moved to the Phoenix area from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1950s with a wife and four children to feed.
To the right sits a model, about 7 feet high, of Stevens’ 60-foot sculpture for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Hewn from a live elm, Stevens’ “Tree of Life” featured two upraised branches as arms and between them the wizened face of some imagined pagan deity, dubbed a “man-god” by The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column.
Intended as a permanent exhibit, the sculpture later mysteriously disappeared, rumored to be victim of unnamed prigs who found the piece blasphemous, according to Faubion. “People thought he had made an idol to replace God, and people would come and pray at its feet. It was very controversial… that’s what doomed it.”
Busts of long-dead models share space on steel racks with an assortment of plaster hands and arms. Carefully wrapped linoleum silhouettes – linocuts – depict rustic camping scenes. Atop one stack of shelves are the mounted heads of animals, including a five-point buck. “These pieces are animals that Stevens was hunting in Wyoming, where he had a ranch,” Faubion explains. “It’s a little bit like Ernest Hemingway with his macho bullfighting. That machismo. Stevens was into that.”
Treasures large and small abound: a painter’s brush that belonged to artist Grant Wood, of American Gothic fame, a longtime friend of Stevens; the model for an unfinished monument to Olympic Gold Medalist Jim Thorpe, and an autographed photo of Thorpe to boot; and a black fireback panel featuring a frieze of a cowboy busting a bronco, which Stevens created on spec to score a job working on plaster ceiling designs at Rockefeller Center.
Under wraps in one locker: a larger-than-life bronze nude of a male body, dubbed “Aspiration,” which once stood in all its muscular glory outside the Stevens family home in Tempe. As Faubion tells it, the nudity drew the ire of less worldly neighbors until Stevens hid the striking statue by building a wall in front of the property.
The whole kit and caboodle – including Stevens’ correspondence with contemporaries such as American sculptor Paul Manship, California muralist Millard Sheets and famed Wyoming furniture designer Thomas Molesworth – is valued at an estimated $6 million, according to Faubion. It’s surely one of the more valuable manifests in this soulless East Valley storage lot.
Which is one reason the collection has caused Faubion so many sleepless nights in recent years. Those three storage containers of artwork, archival materials and personal items are currently the subject of intense litigation in Pinal County Superior Court, between Faubion on one side and Bea Stevens and her daughter Sara on the other.
In suit and countersuit, each side accuses the other of not living up to a contract between Faubion and Bea dating back to 1998, in which Faubion is broadly given stewardship of the collection and Bea and Faubion are to split the proceeds after its sale.
A bench trial three years in the making is scheduled to begin September 13, 2022, before Pinal County Judge Steven J. Fuller, with Faubion planning to represent himself pro se due to lack of funds. Meanwhile, he’s eking out a living soliciting signatures for a petition company, with his free time and resources dedicated to the legal battle before him.
“The challenges are numerous,” he admits. “One of them is that I have no money. I’ve spent most of it on maintaining the Stevens collection. Right now, there’s not much separating me from living in a cardboard box on a bridge somewhere.”
Originally from Kansas, Faubion has a background in fine art and marketing, honed during a youthful stint in Los Angeles for a distributor of popular prints. Still in his 20s, he moved to Tempe, opening the Art Source Gallery in 1984 at University Drive and Roosevelt Street, where Oregano’s Pizza Bistro is now located.
Next door was a farmhouse-style building that had been Stevens’ last home, and where his widow still lived. Faubion remembers her as a quiet, kindly neighbor who kept to herself. He doesn’t recall saying hello to her until sometime in 1994. “One day, I saw that her fence was collapsing,” he says. “I saw her picking oranges [from trees on her property], and I started to talk to her. I felt so sorry for her.”
Bea began telling him “extraordinary stories about her husband the artist,” stories that he found “way too fantastic to be believable.” He wondered if this little old lady might be delusional.
As he was soon to learn, she was not. Though her late husband’s fame had dissipated by the time Bea met Faubion, LTS was practically a rock star in his heyday.
A Boston-born prodigy, Stevens shot to fame at the age of 26 as a winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1922, awarding him a full scholarship to study for three years at the American Academy in the Italian capital. His winning submission was judged by Daniel Chester French, dean of American sculpture, renowned for his massive marble statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.
In Europe, Stevens’ fame grew as he encountered other talented artists such as Manship and Wood. He also traveled extensively, including a fateful trip to Egypt around the time of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Inspired by the pyramids, sculptures of all sizes and ancient stone bas-reliefs, Stevens sought to create a new style, according to Faubion, to “convey a sense of power and strength,” like that of the ancient Egyptians, but dedicated to American greatness.
For one of his many articles about Stevens in the art publication Journal of the Print World, Faubion quotes the sculptor as writing at the time, “America is about as different from any other country as chalk is from cheese – and that in itself demands an art significant of it.”
With this mission in mind, Stevens returned home to Boston to great acclaim, setting off in 1929 to visit a friend’s ranch in Cody, Wyoming, where he would be bitten by the Western bug, seeing the West as the “very mother’s breast of our country” in one missive quoted by Faubion for the same magazine. In the spirit of the American art movement known as Regionalism, in which artists responded to the Great Depression by seeking idyllic subject matter in rural environs, Stevens turned his attention to ranching, rodeos, hunting and other aspects of the West.
He pioneered a style known as Cowboy Deco or Cowboy High Style, popularized by the rustic furniture of his friend Molesworth. Instead of what Faubion calls the “rusty and crusty” Western art of Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, Stevens’ cowboys, horses, bulls and bears boasted streamlined curves and idealized Art Deco flourishes. Perhaps the most august of these is the 2-foot-high bronze of “Spirit of the Stampede” from 1931, in which Stevens captures a cowboy fluidly riding a bucking bronco as if the rider were a merman rising languidly in mid-ocean atop a dolphin.
Stevens meandered about the West, winning commissions to produce monumental sculptures at the 1936 Texas Centennial held at Fair Park in Dallas, and in Pomona, California, honoring America’s young farmers. He carved massive, ambitious sculptures for banks in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Palm Springs. After serving his country in World War II as part of a secret Army mission in Eritrea to rebuild damaged aircraft, the now-50-something artist built a studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his second wife, Bea, which they lost in 1954 to eminent domain.
The Stevens family started over in Cave Creek, Arizona, where Stevens met Walter Bimson, president of the Valley National Bank and a noted collector of Western art. Bimson became a patron, buying several pieces from Stevens, including “Spirit of the Stampede.” Stevens used the money from the sale – Faubion pegs it at around $1,500 – to purchase his home in Tempe.
Stevens remained prolific, finding a market in Arizona for his Western-themed creations, going to the Phoenix Stockyards to study the animals and attending rodeos to “sketch” his subjects in clay, inviting them back to the studio to pose, sometimes suspending them from the ceiling in their cowboy regalia to capture just the right angle.
An eight-page color spread on Stevens in the January 1962 edition of Arizona Highways shows him in his studio, working on a sculpture of a horse, and looking like a crazed, aging Beatnik with a landing strip for a goatee.
According to various accounts, Stevens’ eccentricities, his reportedly reactionary politics and the similarity, in some critics’ eyes, between his work and the propaganda of fascist and communist regimes, alienated him from the art world at large, which he in turn condemned as anti-American.
Following his death in 1972, Stevens earned an occasional plaudit from art historians, such as author Patricia Janis Broder, who in her 1975 survey, Bronzes of the American West, credits Stevens with being the “first American sculptor to transform the eclecticism taught by the American Academy in Rome… into a formal celebration of the American West.”
But by the time Faubion struck up a friendship with his mysterious neighbor on University, who soon opened her home and the Stevens collection to him, Lawrence Tenney Stevens had largely been forgotten.
The Stevenses’ attorney, Kent Berk of the Berk Law Group in Scottsdale, declined to speak in detail about the ongoing litigation with Faubion, instead paraphrasing his clients’ position. “In brief summary, we want the collection back,” Berk says. “We disagree with his allegations, that he has done anything to comply with his duties, or has complied with his duties. And as a result, he’s not entitled to compensation.”
Berk also says that Faubion “owes us damages.”
When pressed for details of the alleged damages, the attorney is vague: “For breach of contract, among other things – you have to look at the lawsuit.”
Berk says he had “not looked back at the correspondence or the court file,” but that he was “pretty sure” his firm initially sent Faubion a letter threatening him with a lawsuit “if he didn’t do certain things.” Faubion then filed suit against his clients, Berk says, and his clients filed a counterclaim.
The counterclaim states that Bea, now 95 and living in Colorado, terminated the 1998 agreement between herself and Faubion, in part because he “failed to adequately promote the collection,” and did not begin selling the artwork, which, the counterclaim alleges, has “suffered significant harm while in
Faubion denies this. He maintains Bea wanted his help with the collection, which was stored in a large, barn-like structure directly behind her home. At some point, early on in their friendship, Faubion says he drew up a proposal that Bea agreed to verbally. “It proposed that I would spend my money, because she had none, to do the promotion of the [collection],” Faubion explains.
Faubion formalized their agreement in a 1998 contract that has been amended several times since then, with Faubion essentially agreeing to work for a percentage of future sales.
In the court record, the Stevenses’ counterclaim offers photos allegedly depicting how the collection was being stored, showing unidentified rooms strewn with artwork and unknown detritus, as well as the backyard of a home in serious disarray.
Faubion answered the counterclaim in a court filing, accusing the Stevenses of attempting to “mislead the court” with photos of a bank building in Superior that was being “emptied and cleaned” at the time. Faubion tells PHOENIX that he moved the collection to Superior in 2001 and years later moved it to its current location in Apache Junction. The Stevenses’ representatives have been allowed to inspect the collection, according to the court file.
Faubion rejects the Stevenses’ accusations in his filings, stating that he has “contributed substantial work in promoting the collection” and has thereby “increased the value of the collection.”
Responding to the charge that he failed to liquidate the collection, Faubion avers that Bea rejected multiple offers to purchase it “when such opportunities arose.” Since he was to receive up to 50 percent of sales after expenses, according to their amended agreement, Faubion now demands compensation for his time, labor, expenses and damages.
Sara Stevens, Bea’s 70-year-old daughter and co-litigant, is guarded about what she wants to say about Faubion on the record, but she confides that the litigation has been a great strain on both her and her mother.
“The financial burden is just unfathomable,” says Sara, who also lives in Colorado and visits her mother Bea daily at a nursing home facility.
She also dreads the possibility that she and her mother may regain possession of the collection, but that Faubion may win some compensation in the judgment. “And where is that money going to come from?” she asks.
Regarding offers to purchase the collection, Sara says, “There was never a concrete offer on the table.”
If there was, she demands “proof.”
The relationship between Bea Stevens and Faubion was not always so contentious.
Alberto Gutier III, a Phoenix songwriter and film producer, remembers meeting Faubion for the first time when Faubion still owned the art gallery on University. He and Faubion clicked, and Faubion began telling him about Bea and the Lawrence Tenney Stevens collection next door.
Gutier remembers visiting the backyard structure on the Stevenses’ property where the collection was stored and meeting Bea. The barn was “big enough to fit 10 cars” and completely full of artwork. “My jaw dropped, it was so impressive,” Gutier recalls. Bea was “this little old lady,” who treated Faubion as a “trusted friend.” Faubion, in turn, “took care of her.”
Gutier also recalls attending a retrospective of Stevens’ work at the Tempe History Museum in the mid-’90s, with row upon row of gleaming bronzes.
Faubion organized the event and later received an award from the City of Tempe for his volunteer work as a “visiting curator,” saving Tempe $47,000 in expenses, according to a city press release at the time.
The exhibit won favorable reviews locally, the first press Stevens garnered in decades. Coming as it did, some 100 years after her husband’s birth, Bea was moved by the attention the exhibit received. In a video posted to YouTube of the show’s opening, she speaks to those assembled, thanking the museum and singling out Faubion for praise.
Faubion “really came with a vision,” she said, and had “the ability and knowledge to start the preservation process,” helping “the museum staff with what they’re presenting you today.”
About a year after the exhibit, Bea – presumably satisfied with Faubion’s performance as her husband’s de facto historian – engaged into the 1998 contract with Faubion. Asked about his friend’s efforts, Gutier cracks that “without John,” the Stevens collection would still be “in the barn.”
Certainly, fewer people would know about Stevens if not for Faubion, who has written countless articles and given numerous presentations concerning Stevens, in addition to maintaining a website devoted to the artist, lawrencetenneystevens.com.
Faubion’s 2001 presentation on Stevens at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West) in Cody, Wyoming, shook up the insular world of Cowboy High Style and was given a lengthy write-up in the January 2002 Cowboys & Indians magazine.
In that article, writer Elizabeth Clair Flood recounted how skeptical attendees were taken aback by Faubion’s contention that Stevens came to Cody before the local furniture legend Molesworth, and that it was Stevens who primarily influenced him, not the other way around. She also quotes former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson as telling her that the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, of which Simpson was then board chairman, was “actively in the pursuit of acquiring Stevens’ archive.”
Backing this up is a 2001 letter from Simpson sent to Faubion after Simpson visited Superior to inspect the collection. Simpson wrote: “We want the stuff! And I’m going to bust my butt to see that we get it done.”
Along for that trip was the Center’s then-director, Western art historian Byron Price, who later moved on to become director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma. Now retired, Price confirmed to PHOENIX that the Buffalo Bill Historical Center wanted to buy the Stevens collection, but he could not recall why it didn’t happen.
According to Faubion, Bea nixed the deal, refusing to give Faubion a desired price for the sale.
In a brief FaceTime interview with Bea, with her daughter present, Bea shared memories from the house on University, remembering the naked “Aspiration” statue and how her husband first covered up the figure’s genitals with a “fig leaf” he cast in bronze before building a wall to shield it from prying eyes.
As for the suggestion that the Buffalo Bill Historical Center was interested at one time in the collection left behind by her husband, she said only that “there was nothing in writing” regarding the offer Faubion has described.
Faubion seems puzzled by what he paints as Bea’s reluctance to sell the collection, saying, almost to himself when asked, “It doesn’t make any sense to me… perhaps an issue for her was just letting go.”
He says his relationship with Bea deteriorated in 2018, when she sent him an email saying she could not move forward with any decisions on the collection until he signed a new agreement with her, one that he describes as “destroying 25 years of my work.” It was the beginning of a parade of emails and letters between the Stevenses and Faubion, between Faubion and their counsel and between Faubion’s counsel (when he could afford it) and Stevenses’ attorneys – all leading to the present lawsuit
For a layperson, peeling back the competing claims is like trying to get to the center of the proverbial onion. Faubion says he’s not aware of the artist having a will, but Sara Stevens says her mother “has legal papers that say she inherited everything that my father left.”
But certain facts do support Faubion’s claim to having promoted the collection and Stevens’ reputation, notwithstanding the family’s skepticism. Take Byron Price’s rather astounding admission that he wasn’t aware of Stevens’ work before Faubion came to Cody in 2001. “In many ways, [Stevens] was a forgotten character before John brought him back into view, though he shouldn’t have been,” Price says.
In 2018, Price invited Faubion to give a presentation on Stevens as part of the symposium Art Deco and the American West at the Russell Center, where Price was then ensconced. “Faubion knows more about Stevens than anybody,” Price says.
Faubion’s efforts also led to the restoration of some of Stevens’ larger sculptures, most notably of statues Stevens created for the 1936 Texas Centennial at Dallas Fair Park.
One, a fantastical beast dubbed “The Woofus,” featured the assembled body parts of various Texas livestock. The original mysteriously went missing in 1941. Per The Dallas Morning News, the 9-foot Dallas icon was re-created in the 1990s “with the assistance of the original maquettes – scale models,” on loan from Faubion.
Similarly, Faubion helped restore three sculptures at the park representing different phases of Texas history. Faubion’s contribution? He forwarded to the restoration team the cement formula for the originals, which Stevens had scribbled on an envelope.
Perhaps Faubion’s greatest coup came this year, after he orchestrated the donation of nine of Stevens’ works to five museums throughout the Western United States. Originally purchased by Walter Bimson and displayed at branches of his Valley National Bank, this cache of Stevens’ sculptures included “Spirit of the Stampede.” Possession of the artwork had changed over the years, as Valley National merged with Chase One in 1993 and then JPMorgan Chase in 2004.
Faubion knew the sculptures were under wraps at the Chase Tower in Downtown Phoenix. Periodically, he would contact the person in charge of overseeing the JPMorgan Chase art collection to remind them of the Stevens pieces hidden away in the Phoenix structure.
When it was announced in 2018 that Chase Tower had been sold to Wentworth Property Company, Faubion knew the sculptures had to leave the premises. So, he contacted JPMorgan Chase and asked if they were interested in donating them. The bank agreed, allowing Faubion to help select the institutions where they would go.
A spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase confirmed these donations and Faubion’s involvement, saying the bank was pleased that the art had “found homes in museums” where they “can be enjoyed by
Among the institutions receiving Stevens’ pieces were Phoenix Art Museum, Tempe History Museum, ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.
But the pièce de résistance, “Spirit of the Stampede,” went to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Aside from its beauty, the piece is significant for a host of reasons. It had been part of a one-man show by Stevens at the Buffalo Bill Museum in 1932 and was the sculpture sold to Bimson to pay for Stevens’ Tempe home. But its actual creation date had been hidden for years after Bimson acquired it, robbing it of its historical significance as one of the first Art Deco pieces of its kind.
According to Faubion, the horse depicted in the sculpture – its mane a series of stylized waves – is “the most famous bucking bronco of all time,” a real-life beast named Midnight. According to ranch-hand legend, Midnight tossed every cowboy who mounted him. The horse died in 1936 and is buried on the grounds of National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Michael Grauer, the museum’s curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art, says he was “delighted with the acquisition,” which he sees as a bridge between the pre-1930 Western art of Russell and Remington and more modern works by the likes of Santa Fe sculptor Luis Tapia and El Paso artist Luis Jiménez.
Grauer credits Faubion with helping “make sure this donation happened.”
The art historian further praises Faubion for his passion for Stevens’ work and his ability to see past the “snobbery” one often finds among academics in the art world. “John wanted to see the right thing done,” Grauer says. “To make sure Stevens’ works are preserved in places they would be appreciated.”
Seated in a glass-walled room in the air-conditioned environs of the Apache Junction Public Library, following the triple-digit-degree trip to the storage locker, Faubion fights back tears as he remembers reading Grauer’s email to him, saying the museum had received “Spirit of the Stampede” and labeling it a “tour de force.”
Faubion regards both the placing of that sculpture and the assistance he rendered in the re-creation of “The Woofus” two of the great achievements of his life.
“This hasn’t made me anybody important or significant,” Faubion says. “But I honestly don’t know anybody, no matter how much they’ve been paid, who could say that through their efforts, ‘The Woofus’ was resurrected. How could that be possible?”
Similarly, “Spirit of the Stampede,” which had been mislabeled and overlooked for so many years, is “where it belongs,” he says.
Though he feels outgunned by the Stevens family and their lawyers where the lawsuit is concerned, Faubion believes he has the truth on his side, come what may. And if he can’t continue his work as the collection’s director, at least he should be properly compensated, he thinks.
“If I lose this case, it will only be because of a technicality,” he predicts, staring into space with a look of resignation.
“Or because I do not have the resources to hire an attorney.”