Show us the ‘Monet’: Part of proceeds benefit Silverton Warming Shelter

December 2018 Posted in Community, People
Silverton Sheltering Services’ Sarah White and photographer Michael Stevens.   Nancy Jennings

Silverton Sheltering Services’ Sarah White and photographer Michael Stevens. Nancy Jennings

By Nancy Jennings

Helping the homeless can be as easy as buying a magnet. An assortment of refrigerator magnets and greeting cards capturing photographic images of France’s famous Monet’s Garden will be available at the Christmas Craft Bazaar at Silverton Senior Center on Saturday, Dec. 1. Ten percent of all sales proceeds will be donated to the Silverton Warming Shelter.

Silverton resident Michael Stevens, who along with his late step-brother, Gene Falk, photographed at the famous gardens of celebrated Impressionist artist Claude Monet in Giverny, France, is passionate about giving back to support the homeless.

Michael, 81, was once homeless himself and understands the dire need to help in any way possible. He credits Sarah White, executive director of Silverton Sheltering Services, with spearheading a vital service to the local homeless.

Sarah appreciates Michael’s compassionate offer of assistance.

“I’m so touched by Michael’s sweetness. I met him several years ago when I worked at SACA and just knew he was a special person with all of these life experiences – and how he’s willing to share his talent with people in the community who don’t have a place to sleep at night,” she said, adding that the warming shelter recently opened at Oak Street Church on Nov. 23, and will stay open until Feb. 28.

Michael moved to Silverton in 2008 to accept a caregiving position. He has quite the story to tell.

In 1998, Gene was offered a commission to photograph Monet’s Garden by the Brooks Institute of Photography. Michael was his assistant. They made their first trip in 1999, a second one in 2000, and a final one in 2001 – arriving the day before the 9/11 terror attack on New York City. All trips combined, they took over 1,000 pictures… of which only 50 images were printed. Michael laughed as he recalled driving around France looking for a “one-hour photo” booth.

They began their joint careers in the photography trade in 1963, armed with their Swedish-made Hasselblad cameras and “4×5” cameras set on tripods.

Michael was born in Granite City, Illinois, and studied Liberal Arts at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois. He finished his studies in Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gene was born in Turlock, California, and was educated at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. Gene introduced Michael to the world of photography… and taught him all he knew. The step-brothers never married, but “were married to our businesses.”

The duo had the distinction of gifting the Pope (John Paul II) in 1982 with a framed photograph of the San Juan Bautista Mission in California. In 1974, former U.S. President Gerald Ford was gifted with a framed picture of two cypress trees photographed in Monterey, California. It hung in the Oval Office for four years.

They were living in Sedona, Arizona, as founders of their company GEM Graphics 1, Inc. when the official notification arrived in their mailbox in 1998, addressed to them both.

“I opened it and I almost fainted,” Michael said, adding that Gene wasn’t home at the time.

“Gene took it in stride and saw it as an opportunity he needed. I sent an overnight letter to the foundation saying that we accepted their offer. Ernie Brooks (founder of the Brooks Institute of Photography) and Governor Nelson Rockefeller recommended Gene.”

After the shock and excitement lifted, Michael recalled laughing that their biggest concern was how they were going to afford the plane tickets – the only step not covered by the foundation.

Once they arrived in France, they initially received a rather lukewarm reception. “Some of the French just looked at us and said, ‘you’re American.’” But, Mrs. Wallys, who was the executive director of Monet’s Garden, said: “‘We are honored to have you here. If you were chosen to do this by the foundation than that is extraordinary for an American to do that.’”

In short order, the locals warmed up and they were able to make connections.

“We were privileged to meet people in Paris who were acquainted with Claude Monet and his descendants.”

Their first trip, they photographed at the garden for three weeks. They were warned not to hurt the flowers and plants. “I sat for four hours waiting for Gene to set up his shot of the lily pond.”

“He was a serendipitous artist,” Michael said of his step-brother. He would see something and concentrate on it from every angle. “You didn’t want to bother him, he was a perfectionist.”

In essence, Michael is still watching out for others who need protection. He hopes more can be done to help the homeless in our country, starting locally – and possibly gaining momentum worldwide.

“Something needs to be done other than just talking about it. There has to be more contributions from people. The spirit of my brother would be thrilled that I would be able to give back a percentage of our art sales in this world to the war on homelessness.”

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