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Joe Benneth
07-26-2010, 09:02 PM
Jim Stephenson, volunteer coach and former co-head coach for the Golden Gopher women’s gymnastics team, recently finished work on a book, “Championship Gymnastics: Biomechanical Techniques for Shaping Winners.” Stephenson illustrated the entire book, which was written by Dr. Gerald George, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Louisiana. Here, Stephenson answers questions about the project, his artistic career, and future artistic endeavors.

How did the project of putting together “Championship Gymnastics” start?
“It really started in the early 1980’s, I had worked with Dr. George in creating a book called “Biomechanics of Women’s Gymnastics”. That book was probably the only book out in years that addressed so many of the important fundamentals of women’s gymnastics. We were pleased with it, but Gerry called me a couple of years ago as he was preparing to retire, and he said that he’d learned so much since writing that first book that he wanted to redo the whole thing. I was thrilled because my artwork has improved so much that I wanted to redo the whole thing too. We decided that we would make this happen. I had some other commissions I needed to finish up on, but we eventually got started. There are some important changes in overall content, but more importantly, the illustrations are a better depiction of the concepts that we’re trying to get across. We’re very pleased with it, but this started a long time ago.”

Did you start by revising the older book, or did you start from scratch?
“We actually started from scratch. We outlined the new book and really tried to make it a fresh book. There have been a lot of changes in women’s gymnastics in the last 25 years, and we had to address those. Primary concerns have shifted a little bit, and we had to make sure that was balanced out in the new publication.”

What were some of your objectives in putting together this book?
“Right from the get-go, we wanted to produce a book that’s so great, people will want to have it on their coffee table. The people who designed the cover for us did a fantastic job, it really grabs your attention. We went with a hard cover, and printed on really good quality paper with really good ink. We spent a lot of time on the layout of every page, and I think we came up with a really top-notch publication that addresses some things that will really help athletes and really advance the sport of gymnastics.”

How did you work through the process of compiling the book?
“I would receive the text from Dr. George, along with his recommendations for the accompanying illustrations. I would take that and transpose that into my illustrations and do any artistic adaptation to make the illustration as readable as possible and as reader friendly as possible. My goal with this project was to have the concepts perceivable at a glance. In fact, I told Gerry that I entered this project with the goal of making the text unnecessary, so you could look at the pictures and understand the concept. From his end, he was trying to write it in a way where you wouldn’t need the illustrations. With both of us doing the best we could at each of our contributions, we ended up with a really understandable, readable book. The literature part of it and the artistic part of it are both understandable, even for younger people reading the book.”

You’re in Minnesota and Dr. George is in Louisiana. How did you go about sharing work, sending drafts back and forth?
“I did everything very old school. I mailed him hard copies of things. I didn’t scan stuff, and there was so much stuff, I wasn’t really in a hurry. I could send him a set of illustrations that were at one level of progress along with other illustrations that were in a different level of revisions. I was always working and circulating things back and forth to him for changes, corrections, or approval.”

How many revisions did you go through for each illustration?
“I did probably four revisions per illustration. Sometimes I would look at the work and not be pleased. Sometimes Gerry had corrections. It was a long process with over 100 illustrations in the book. As an illustration project, it was pretty big. The level of accuracy we expected of ourselves was so high. We wanted there to be absolutely no confusion, we wanted to meet our initial goal of the reader understanding the concepts at a glance.”

Who is the target audience for this book?
“We addressed that early on, we wanted to make this applicable to almost everybody who is involved in gymnastics. We look at it as something that should absolutely be in the library of anyone who is a coach, regardless of whether that’s club coaches teaching recreational-level gymnastics, all the way through the elite-level programs. This book is also useful for judges. A lot of times, judges’ decisions in the evaluation of our sport can be made not fully accounting for the reality of the biomechanics that you need to produce a skill. I think this book could be really helpful to judges. I also think it’s written and illustrated in a way that younger people who are involved in the sport can work their way through it and benefit from the information. We tried to hit as broad of an audience as possible.”

What kinds of advantages did you have in creating the artwork for this book, given your background as a gymnast and gymnastics coach. Could an artist without that relationship to the sport have done this project in the same way?
“The combination of those two things (artistic and gymnastics backgrounds) is effective in the intimate detail of the work. It’s similar to a coach who competed in gymnastics versus one that didn’t. There are certain details that I think I was able to illustrate because of my relationship to the sport. I think other artists could have done the work, but for some of the fine-tuned posturing and positioning, I think there was a benefit to having someone who was a gymnast and a coach do the work.”

You’ve been creating artwork in various forms for many years. How did you get started in your artistic career?
“I’ve been involved in art my whole life. I took coursework that was offered at the University of Michigan when I was very young and my dad was getting his doctorate degree there. I periodically took classes, and eventually worked with a portrait master in San Diego. While I was in college, I took enough art courses to meet the degree requirement for a major in art, but I was never enrolled in the art school. Art has always been a part of what I’ve done. The niche of gymnastics has been unfilled both on an illustrative level and in three-dimensional sense with sculpture. Some opportunities came up, which I took advantage of, and now I’m kind of the go-to guy for those things.”

Art is being carried on in your family through your kids, Jack and Sierra. How influential has your work been in leading them into artistic work?
“They have both gotten involved in art, it’s something that I wasn’t sure was going to go anywhere when they were younger. But, now that they’re both over 20 years old, it’s nice that they come to me with questions, and I can be helpful with that. Sierra and I are working on a coloring book together. It’s about a little girl who sees gymnastics on TV and wants to learn to do it. It’s about her getting inspired, motivated, and participating. It’s been a fun project for us. Jack is screen-printing t-shirts for a clothing line he started geared toward skiers, snowboarders and other extreme sports athletes.”

Since your coaching role with the Minnesota team has changed in the last year, is your artwork something you plan to spend more time on?
“My coaching here, as far as actual gymnastics training of the athletes, means that I’m still here for all of the practices and team meetings and those kinds of things. I do participate in some on-campus recruiting, but I don’t even have an office here anymore. I don’t have to travel for recruiting. So, it my new position as a volunteer coach has opened up a tremendous amount of time in my schedule and I have absolutely taken advantage of that. I’ve got a lot of projects going in my studio. I’ve got two sculpture commissions that I’m working on. I had always hoped to make this transition from coaching to art, and really, I thought I was going to do it a lot sooner. I came to Minnesota, and I have great pride in the university and in the program here, and I absolutely adore the women on the team and share their passion for the sport. It made it too easy for me to stay involved in gymnastics. I did gymnastics right up until my doctor said that I needed to change professions because I couldn’t be a spotter anymore. So, maybe it was a little later than I wanted, but along the way, I’ve been able to do some good artistic work. The opportunity to focus more on art is there now and I’m already taking advantage of that.”

Back to the book, you’ve worked with Dr. George in the past and renewed that partnership to update your earlier work with the new book “Championship Gymnastics.” Is there a possibility that you’ll work with Dr. George again for future projects?
“Gerry and I have spoken about doing some other work relatively soon on progressions, coaching techniques, and drills for core skills. It would be very applicable on-site for coaches. The book that we just did talks a lot about fundamental biomechanics that are the foundation of the sport, but we would like to take those things and move them toward the specifics of individual skills. So, we have talked about additional projects, in fact, we’ve done a little bit of preliminary work and been on the phone together talking about starting this project just like we did the last book. We think this could lead to a series of two or possibly three books.”