Artist Raverro Stinnett has found unexpected shapes in his black-and-white photography, which experiments with light, lenses and shutter speed. (Provided by RedLine)
Art is subjective, creative professionals say.
Here’s something else they say in the metro area: Raverro Stinnett may be Colorado’s best unknown artist.
“While everybody’s rushing around and talking very fast, Raverro always seems to be calm and collected,” said Laura Merage, founder of RedLine Contemporary Art Center. “That’s what I get out of his delicate sculptures. On the other hand, his portraits are very expressive, not only in the colors he chooses but in the faces. I feel he’s channeling himself in these pieces.”
Stinnett’s subject matter defies thematic unity, from achingly detailed portraits of civil rights-era icons to experimental, close-up photography. So does his breadth of media, including watercolors, graphite, 3-D digital modeling and handcrafted paper sculptures. But it always comes back to simple, direct emotion.
“His work speaks to our very humanity in multiple ways,” said J.C. Futrell, education director at RedLine and poet who also goes by the name Panama Soweto. “His pointillist portrait of Malcolm X is one of my favorite things ever. It’s this incredible piece with Sharpie, and it’s as realistic as you’d see in a photograph.”
Prolific and determined, 52-year-old Stinnett has also seen his work snapped up by private collectors who care less about name recognition and more about quality.
“He’s sold a ton of those 3-D paper sculptures, these things with a really abstract look,” said Thomas “Detour” Evans, an internationally known Denver painter. “I actually collaborated on one with him and painted on top of it to give it this pop of color. … For him, the sky was the limit. He was on his way to really standing out in the art field, doing his own shows and selling more work.”
On April 20, 2018, that all changed.
Artist Raverro Stinnett iphotographed at the offices of his attorney on July 1, 2020 in Denver. An emerging, talented artist, Stinnett was beaten by RTD guards in 2018 while waiting for a train. He sustained a permanent brain injury and mental disability and can no longer create art like he used to. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
One dark night
There is no way to talk about Stinett’s art without acknowledging a harsh reality.
A little more than two years ago, Stinnett was sitting at Union Station after attending an art gala. Like thousands of others downtown that night, he’d had a few drinks and was availing himself of public transportation. It was just after midnight.
Guards from Allied Universal Security Services, the firm that Union Station employs, wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Though Mr. Stinnett was simply waiting for his train, he was caught up in RTD and Allied’s systematic campaign to target the homeless and communities of color for increased scrutiny and harassment,” said Felipe Bohnet-Gomez, one of Stinnett’s attorneys at Denver’s Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm.
It doesn’t matter that Stinnett was dressed well, that he wasn’t causing trouble, or that he moved seats and areas continuously to avoid the guards who he says stalked him — all of which can be seen in RTD’s security camera footage. It doesn’t matter that he’s Black.
What matters is that he’s a human being.
When Stinnett left Union Station three hours later, he had suffered a traumatic brain injury after being beaten in a bathroom by one of the Allied guards, according to a civil lawsuit filed around the two-year anniversary of the incident. Stinnett was unarmed and suspected of no crime.
RELATED: A Union Station guard beat a Denver artist waiting for a train while other guards watched, lawsuit alleges
Three of the four guards caught on camera that night pleaded guilty to their crimes. One is serving jail time, while another two are on probation.
“Beyond his diminished economic prospects, Mr. Stinnett’s injuries have robbed him of something more essential: his confidence and identity as an artist, his passion for creating and, with the loss of his capacity to make art, the very thing that imbued his life with purpose and meaning,” the new civil lawsuit states. “He has become a broken person, a shadow of his former self.”
At the time, Stinnett was on the cusp of completing a full-ride scholarship to the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design (RMCAD), but the incident left him unable to keep up with coursework, Bohnet-Gomez said. For now, he has withdrawn from school.
Stinnett has not spoken publicly about the incident until last week, when he agreed to meet at his lawyer’s office for a Denver Post interview.
“Columbine Mandala” by Raverro Stinnett (Provided by RedLine)
He has continued to try to create new work, he said through a face mask, his hands fidgeting, his arms folding and unfolding as he spoke. He has failed at that.
“As soon as I start to paint I just bust out into tears. That alone forces me to stay away from it,” he said. “Right now I’m not in the same artistic mindset I was back then. My skills aren’t the same. My mind isn’t the same. … All the influence I had toward go-get-’em art is gone.”
The case has received little attention outside of Denver, despite its egregious details and official medical diagnosis. The guard who pleaded guilty to the bathroom beating, James Hunter, left Stinnett unconscious and alone. The three other guards knew what was happening and allowed it to happen, according to the lawsuit. When they later came into the bathroom, they saw blood seeping from Stinnett’s head, according to a statement that one of the guards made to law enforcement.
None of the guards called for medical help, despite Stinnett’s blood and broken teeth. Video surveillance showed Stinnett walk out of the bathroom holding a bandage to his head. He traveled home, though he doesn’t remember how, he told his lawyers. He has no memory of the moments after the assault or of the two following days.
The incident only caught RTD’s attention when one of Stinnett’s friends posted about it on Facebook nearly a month after it happened. RTD has never penalized Allied in connection with the crime, and has continued to fulfill its overall $58 million commitment to the company — which also oversees security at various Denver events. As of May this year, the company was awarded a $4 million contract from the city of Denver to handle a pair of coronavirus homeless shelters north of downtown, Denverite reported.
“The problem with our civil justice system is that juries are forced to put a dollar value on everything, and that’s a difficult exercise,” said Qusair Mohamedbhai, co-founder of Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC, who is trying to get a jury to do just that. “Particularly when you’re valuing an artist’s contribution to our community, which is priceless.”
Raverro Stinnett’s knack for photorealism is apparent in his work, including this shiny but visceral eyeball. (Provided by RedLine)
Born in Trenton, N.J., Stinnett was one of eight children in a military family, he said. His father, an aerospace engineer, was briefly moved to the Middle East to teach other engineers and scientists how to build rockets.
Stinnett did not have an easy life. Poverty, instability and systemic barriers greeted him when he arrived in Denver, where his family landed after four years overseas. Stinnett took to the streets as a musician and graffiti artist. He sought out and traced the works of the world’s best graffiti artists, teaching himself how to create the same shapes.
“When I was doing street art, I was in trouble,” Stinnett said. “And I needed something else to do besides being in trouble.”
At the same time, Stinnett became interested in deejaying, working alongside influential crews that helped set the foundation for Denver’s contemporary music scene.
“When I got out here in the ’90s from New York, there weren’t many people doing hip-hop,” said arts educator Cutrell, 44. “But Raverro was one of those people. There were crews like Basementalism with DJ Discern, people like Low-Key and Lazy Eyez — the foundations of Denver hip-hop. Twenty years ago, Raverro was very much part of that movement.”
Evans, a.k.a. Detour, also first met Stinnett when he was a DJ. Evans quickly learned to rely on Stinnett for important gigs. Stinnett would help Evans dig through crates for records, and he even fixed Evans’ broken turntable when needed.
“It was on the Auraria Campus when we were both going to school there,” Evans said of Stinnett. “I started a club called Hip-Hop Congress and I had him DJ a lot of our events. It was super-fun to listen to him spin, and he got me into deejaying as well. Once I graduated and left the campus I didn’t see him again until about eight years ago at RedLine, when he was part of the Reach Studio program. I didn’t know he did (visual) art at all.”
RedLine’s Reach Studio launched in 2010 as a safe, welcoming place for people experiencing homelessness to create, store and display their art. Stinnett, who fit that bill at the time, became one of its first adopters.
That’s when Merage — RedLine’s founder — first encountered him.
“We quickly saw that he had an eye for art-making,” said Merage, also an established artist. “Then we saw that he was an amazing photographer, so we began to use him to photograph our events. Then I fell in love with his three-dimensional paper sculptures. They were so unique. In fact, I like his art so much that he’s in my private collection.”
A pointillist portrait of Malcolm X shows artist Raverro Stinnett’s skill with reproducing photographic images by hand. (Provided by RedLine)
That’s meaningful, given that Merage is the artistic half of the David and Laura Merage Foundation. Her husband and his brother, Paul, created Hot Pockets (yes, those Hot Pockets) and the Merage family was listed by Forbes in 2015 as having a net worth of $1.8 billion.
“He was ecstatic to see that people were so interested in his art,” Merage said. “And I took pride in him going back to school, since RedLine was instrumental in securing that scholarship at RMCAD.”
Stinnett’s progression from DJ to illustrator to photographer and painter was a hard-earned one. But whatever his personal trials, he had clearly dedicated his life to creative expression, friends said. It just didn’t click until he reached RedLine.
“They had a job lined up for him,” said lawyer Mohamedbhai. He later showed off some of his favorite works by Stinnett, from impressionistic drawings to elaborate, densely filled abstract landscapes. He’s proud to have Stinnett’s work in his personal collection, too, alongside large-format, original paintings from muralist Evans.
“He’d probably get mad at me for saying this, but recently he donated back to RedLine,” Futrell said. “It’s money that I knew he didn’t have, but he believes in RedLine and wants other artists to have the same opportunities he did. I said, ‘Raverro, man, I can’t accept this!’ And he just said, ‘You have no choice.’ ”
Without fail, everyone interviewed for this story described Stinnett as kind and introverted, before and after his assault.
“I always had to seek him out,” Merage said. “He’s very quiet, and his work can be very simple and calming, but it has that degree of mastery that makes it look easy.”
Art, in fact, was the only lure that reliably coaxed Stinnett out of the social depths. A self-guided tour through his creative process explains — to a degree, anyway — how he arrived at some of his creations.
“For one (sculpture) in particular, I dreamed about how to put it together,” he said in his lawyer’s offices last week, his speech halting and uncertain but picking up speed as he talked. “It’s only three basic folds, but it makes this really complex pyramid. So I woke up with that idea and submitted it to RedLine for one of their shows.”
They accepted. As he continued to create, Stinnett found inspiration in the work of MIT scientist Erik Demaine, who along with son Martin has crafted breathtakingly beautiful, eye-tickling designs. But Stinnett took it a step further.
“I doubled it,” he said. “And that gave me a wide spectrum of options of ways to fold paper into its own mathematical design. They take the same design and repeat it, and their shapes are not connected. Whereas mine is just one, seamless piece.”
Stinnett compares it to dropping a rubber band on a table. Twist it a couple of times, then watch the shape the rubber band naturally takes. That’s how he describes his sculptures, although sources for this story scoffed at the modesty, instead pointing to his innate skill and care, which they see as extensions of his personality.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a consistent theme,” artist Evans said. “It’s more like a diversity of medium and consistent quality. My favorite pieces are the paper sculptures, because I haven’t seen that before. That could have really set him apart from a lot of other artists.”
“I never knew what the end result was going to be,” Stinnett said of his sculptures. “It’s not like there was a heart (shape) in the rock and I just had to chip it out. It’s more about what it wants to be.”
That said, Stinnett’s paintings and sculptures and digital art could easily be the work of three different people. Each has its own feel and rules, he said, and one is not necessarily influenced by the other.
“I want people to feel what I feel when I look at something,” said artist Raverro Stinnett. (Provided by RedLine)
Secretive by choice
Stinnett describes his public persona and work process as secretive. He’s proud of not being able to find his photograph on the internet — and of the fact that nobody knows his work is held in more than a half-dozen respectable private collections.
But in his time since the attack, Stinnett’s enthusiasm for the art world has curdled. The public didn’t much care about his art when he was still regularly finishing pieces. It cares even less now, he said.
“I couldn’t get a single like on Facebook,” he said of his now-largely inactive artist profile. “I’d spend a lot of time on a piece, post it with a bunch of pride, and I couldn’t get even one. People can’t see how complicated it actually is so they can’t appreciate what it takes to make it. It’s probably so professional it doesn’t look like I did it in the basement.”
Failing to find self-worth in social media is not uncommon. But the comparative value system there is an analog of the real world — where pictures of food and cats often get more love than the projects artists tend imbue with their souls.
Raverro Stinnett’s deceptively simple, 3D sculptures use a single piece of paper to create impressively abstract shapes. (Provided by RedLine)
“What separates me from a lot of artists is that I’m a battle DJ. Since I was 13 years old, I had to be the best,” he said, noting various contests he had won. “We didn’t have somebody there showing us what to do. We had to sit there for hours, weeks, months and years just trying to figure out a basic scratch. I won contests because I had no other choice, and that definitely transferred into my artwork. It was the best I could do.”
Critics and the public may eventually come around to Stinnett’s work, whether he’s able to return to creating it or not. But it strikes him as odd that what he did in the shadows 30 years ago is now being embraced by the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau (see Visit Denver’s support for Crush Walls, the RiNo Art District’s annual mural event).
“We got chased off the block in the ’80s and ’90s for what they’re getting paid to do today,” he said. “It’s a marketing strategy. If you have a decent one, you can be a terrible artist and get a lot of respect. My idea of the art world now has completely changed from back then. Maybe it’s been that way all the time.”
Still, Stinnett is grateful for RedLine’s support and opportunities. If not for them, he said, he’d probably have made a name for himself in something other than art.
“Just them caring about somebody they don’t even know, a complete stranger, that was what did it,” he said. “That was the single biggest thing toward me saying, ‘I can probably make an honest living off of this. Just like every other major artist.’ ”
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