With a history behind the bar, Stevan Dupus has a unique perspective on the LGBTQ community. He captures our hopes, struggles and celebrations by bringing us into the heart of the ‘gay bar.’ “I feel it’s important to document our nightlife while the bars are still here. We are quickly losing a space that was once an important hub for of our community”
For 16 years, you could find Stevan Dupus smiling and pouring drinks from behind the bar at Cheers. What you probably didn’t realize at the time was that he was also busy traveling across Southern California thoughtfully building an art career through the educational system. He is now a full-time artist and arts educator at Cal State Long Beach, Long Beach City College and College of the Desert (Palm Desert). ”Depending upon the day, I’m an artist first,” he laughs.
Born in Belton, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, Dupus grew up around art supplies. His creativity was greatly encouraged by his father, who had studied to be an art teacher but found a career in construction.
“If there was one moment that I knew I wanted to be an artist, it was when my father took me to Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri,” said Dupus. It was at the museum that he first saw Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (C.1604). The master work captures the beauty of the young saint who is brightly light sitting alone framed by a dark wilderness. The revolutionary Italian painter who was bisexual was known for his sensual artistry [Check out Derek Jarman’s dreamy 1986 film Caravaggio for a fascinating introduction to the artist].
Dupus came out to his friends at the age of seventeen but it took much longer to tell both his parents. By twenty-two, with only $600 in his pocket he decided to leave the heartlands of America and head west. By chance, he had a friend in La Mesa that offered a couch and that cemented his love for San Diego.
Coming from a blue-collar family, Dupus didn’t initially think much about attending college. His first degree was in Computer Programming but that didn’t line up with his creative desires. Thrilled by the fact that California holds education as a fundamental right in its constitution, he decided to enroll in Wayne Hulgin’s ‘Intro to Painting’ class at San Diego City College.
Dupus continued his studies and now holds an Associate Degree in Arts, Visual and Performing Arts, three-dimensional design from San Diego City College, Bachelor of Fine Arts and Masters of Fine Arts degrees from Cal State Long Beach.
Through this educational odyssey, Dupus lived in Hillcrest and worked as a bartender. This would eventually find a way into his developing body of work. “I knew that I wanted to talk about the gay experience so it was natural that I started to paint the bar I was in regularly,” said the artist.
Though the style of his work has changed over the years, the nightlife is the central focus of his body of work. Metaphorically, the bar is the setting for a full range of emotions and experiences to mirror our community and act as a safe haven to meet, mourn and celebrate.
“I want to capture that this sacred space isn’t just a party place,” said Dupus. “We come to the bars for a variety of reasons. I’m exploring the full range of life through my work, including crappy childhoods, addictions, the challenges of accepting one’s self, building community, praising the beauty of our individuality and of course, to celebrate.”
Dupus enjoys weaving symbolism and codification into his work. You can find them among silhouettes, stripes and dots that perpetuate his paintings. Hanky codes, Greek symbols, Holocaust triangles, macho stereotypes like the Village People characters and musical anthems connect his work and the viewers to our past history.
David Park is Dupus’ largest creative influence. Park was a pioneer of Bay Area figurative movement of the 50’s along with contemporaries Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Wayne Thiebaud.
The barroom also provides a pivotal location for Dupus’ personal life. When sailor John Jackson walked into Cheers while Dupus was bartending, he whispered to a co-worker, “I’m going to marry that kid one day.” In 2015, they tied the knot.
Dupus hopes that his life and his art will show his students that there is a way and a path to achieving their dreams. He encourages them to keep at it and not give up. He believes that being a creative isn’t an easy path but artists are needed in the world.
Stevan Dupus can be found online at StevanDupusArts.com. Dupus also appears in the KPBS documentary, San Diego’s Gay Bar History, which can be streamed for free online.
Patric Stillman is a fine artist and gallery owner of The Studio Door. If you are an artist in San Diego’s LGBTQ community and would like to be featured in an artist profile, please contact Patric for consideration at [email protected].