The words “Don’t Panic” are printed on a small paper sign taped to the wall on the way up the stairs to Tom Stevens’ new Suite 42. In case you’re not familiar with Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” ‘don’t panic’ is a reference to the series of sci-fi comedy books. It may also be the mantra Stevens has lived by as the former Hillsborough mayor let go of his part-time leadership consulting business to fully submerge himself into being an artist.
He had already established the Thomas Stevens Gallery on King Street, where he could work on, display and sell his artwork. But he believed he was ready to expand his workspace, and decided the space above his gallery on King Street would be the right move. Now that the renovation is complete, Stevens has nearly finished hanging artwork and arranging furniture. As terrible as the pandemic has been, he’s glad things slowed down and he was better able to pace himself and prepare for opening the upstairs space.
“I originally took the gallery downstairs, (when I) saw the windows and thought this would be a wonderful place for a little gallery,” Stevens said. “It’s something I aspired to. I didn’t think I was quite ready for it, but I went and I had the opportunity. Sometimes you just have to move on it, ready or not. This upstairs was very, very much the same. It gave me some breathing space. I’m not sure I’ve made the best use of it but, but it did it got me used to the idea, and excited about the idea. Commercially, it will certainly be challenging. And I had to do a lot of thinking about whether I really wanted to accept the challenge or not, but I think I’m ready to jump in, just full time and focus on art. The space in particular just inspires me to do larger pieces of art, and bolder pieces of art.”
Stevens has enjoyed success as an artist. He is a local favorite, with buyers throughout the region and beyond. He has paintings hanging in areas of prominence, including at the Colonial Inn and Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew. Suite 42 will operate as a part of the Thomas Stevens Gallery, which will also continue to operate in the area downstairs that is now being renovated.
And what about the name, “Suite 42?” Another reference to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books. "What is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?" the book asks. "42," it answers.
“I’ve always been a fan of Lewis Carroll, “The Wizard of Oz,” all those fantastical, magical, and little bit of the absurd. I find that inspiring and hope that gets reflected in my art,” he said.
Once you move up the stairs and past the helpful sign, Suite 42 expands to a wide-open space with shiny hardwood floors, tall windows, and exposed brick. The ceilings are high and the woodwork and beams are also visible to admire.
Stevens has two work areas with several easels and seating for models. There are also small tables with chairs for future events and an alcove with a sink and refrigerator.
“This place lends itself to interaction, a lot of room, as an artist to work with the models, for example,” Stevens said. “It would be great as a teaching space, (although) I don’t have really any plans to teach, but I know it would lend itself to that and I’m certainly open to and collaborating with other artists. I expect to have guest artists downstairs. Some of the best shows I’ve ever had included spoken-word, music.”
Stevens said he finds the new space inspiring and he feels invigorated to work in it. During much of the pandemic, Stevens kept busy creatively, but he said it was more subtle and keeping his skills sharpened.
“I found that this is an easy place to be. So I’m feeling more productive. But I tend to work in more project mode, I’ll get an idea, and I’ll be great guns for days or weeks about it and then there’ll be a break.”
Stevens said the new space will be open for Last Friday Art Walks, by appointment, and shows off the Last Friday schedule. Once work is complete, the downstairs area will reopen on a similar schedule. Because of COVID-19, he’s not planning a grand opening any time too soon, but hopes to be able to in the fall.
Last month, Stevens had a few people up to see the space as it was still getting finishing touches. This month, visitors will get the full effect of the place, and Stevens is excited.