Begin with the eyes, when you take in a Southwestern pastel portrait by Sharron Stephenson.

Her Native American people aren’t passive idealized images of a bygone era. Stephenson attends pow-wows where she absorbs the positive energy of modern tribal culture. The eyes in “Regal” belong to a rugged, vital individual who doesn’t much care whether you approve of him or not. Those eyes, which have seen much, are those of a survivor.

“I’ve always referred to myself as a Southwestern artist using the colors of the earth and the people through chalk pastels,” Stephenson explains, adding that every portrait begins with the eyes of her subject, then the rest of the face evolves from there. Soul windows, her subjects’ eyes.

Stephenson, a native Kansan, for many years taught art education and therapy before transitioning into special education. Art has been her companion throughout, one that has resulted in her work being displayed in art shows and galleries, as well in the Dane G. Hansen museum.

Raised by hardworking, blue-collar women, Stephenson didn’t have the typical exposure to art of gallery-bred artists, but it didn’t stop her from throwing herself into drawing, painting, jewelry and printmaking during her educational experience and to continue that exploration afterward. Besides pastels, she also employs acrylics and colored pencils as mediums.

Photography, a life-long passion, takes her into the natural world where she captures such disparate images as mountain ranges, tumbling ocean waters, a startled desert lizard, water birds, and a pugnacious bison.

Her strong portraits, which have a flat, timeless folk-art quality, reflect the deep-grained strength of their painter, for, like her “Regal” subject, Stephenson is a survivor. Recently, she endured grueling treatment and surgery for an invasive, life-threatening cancer. Now in remission, her native optimism is informed by the knowledge that life is precious. Every stroke of her brush and click of her camera is dedicated to sharing her reverence and heartfelt joy in experiencing the natural world.

That continuing desire to explore new territory has led her into abstract painting of flowers, wine glasses, and sinuous shapes. She is experimenting with a variety of techniques and media.

“Art is in the eye of the beholder,” she says, and certainly the vivid colors and flowing lines of her new venture tell one that Stephenson’s passion for art is undiminished by her brush with death. If anything, that love has deepened.

She says, “Being a survivor has absolutely changed my perspective on life and doing what I love and finding the beauty in the world around us.”