The first time I saw Mark Stewarts work, I cried. I was a young widow with three children needing relief from the relentless press of single working parenthood. He was just words on a computer screen. He wrote that he was a painter (first mental image: man in overalls on scaffolding) and then directed me to the New York Graphic Society website to view several of his watercolor works in print. So, before I ever saw his face or heard his voice, I saw his ideal self there, in "Wooden Apples". Simple, rich, real and deep. All the "there" in the world there. That was one of the true, epiphanous moments of my life, when about 900 levels of meaning are hitting you at once, stopping your heart and your breath and bathing your face in tears. I saw that art, the good stuff, was Everything. It was completely the thing unto itself, but it was also completely the artist, and it lived and breathed completely through what it did to the viewer/participant, who completed this perfect little art/unity triangle! (Indulgent smiles . . .) In that moment I also saw myself, and my future. So I cried.
I was right. Less than a year from that moment, Mark and I married. We had a lot to bind us together. He had lost a spouse, too, to breast cancer. He also had three children just the ages of mine. We share an abiding Christian faith. And then there was the art. A huge part of Marks intrigue was this fascinating new world that I would be privileged to enter and explore. I fantasized about living in a house hung with gorgeous art and then getting to sleep with the artist!
That was nearly five years ago and I have lived the fantasy. The summer after our wedding he was working hard to put together a show for the MorrisWhiteside Gallery in Hilton Head, South Carolina. His studio was over our bedroom and sometimes, when he was working late, I would lie in bed and listen to the art being made up there. Very quiet, just an occasional scrape of his chair and the muted strains of some jazz or instrumental CD he always has playing . . . but there was a powerful, palpable intensity to the quiet. Something beautiful and real and lasting was being made while the rest of the world slept. Although I yearned to watch him work, I knew better than to ask. The best I could hope for was to wait till he went downstairs to make coffee or run an errand. Then Id slip up to the studio to see what had been birthed during the night. What I saw never failed to stir me.
I suppose, for me, that is the central thing about Marks work. It is stirring. But that central core, the raison detre, is often overwhelmed with the blunt realities and necessities of an artists life. It is the endless battle of the physical (blunt realities and necessities) versus the metaphysical (that which stirs), contending elements in all human conditions and endeavors, but borne out so complexly in the life of the artist. Like all artists attempting to make a living at their work, weve played the gallery game, exhibited, demonstrated, donated, spoken "artspeak" to strangers holding glasses of Chardonnay, advertised, built a website, worried that the resume might seem a tad thin in some circles, rotated our "private collection" on our wall space, debated the wisdom of "painting to the market" and, thankfully, deposited checks. I have to continually remind myself that even these blunt realities wouldnt be reality if Marks work wasnt stirring. [Note to self: keep the main thing (that which stirs) the main thing. And just try to flow with the blunt necessities.]
Marks work doesnt stir everybody. No artist can achieve that. But heres why it stirs me. Mark was gifted with drawing, practically from the cradle. He took that gift and developed and nurtured it himself. He has drawers of flat files full of his earliest work, many sheets of Arches watercolor paper painted on both sides. Early in our marriage, I spent hours in the studio, studying the patient progress of his art. Something about the Rugged Individualism of that appeals to me. But he took time out to seriously study the works of other greats. His library is full of books on Hopper, John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth.
I love the breadth of Marks work. Dryden once said that Chaucers work was "Gods plenty." That pretty much sums up Marks philosophy of subjects. He has painted everything from the humble mushroom to the endlessness of the night sky. Interiors, exteriors, trees, dogs, rivers, sky, a quiet child, a working man, blue crabs, teapots, ducks, magnolias, a tiny ship at the window. The ocean. Each thing an outcropping of wonder, a thin veneer over mystery. Gods plenty.
And yet, what Mark has chosen NOT to paint is pretty telling. Francis Schaeffer said that an artist cannot be known by one painting. To know his heart, his world and his take on things, you must view the scope and sequence of his body of work. Im probably more familiar with that parade of art than any other living person and the one true thing I can say is that Marks work is utterly congruent with Mark the man. He has a rage for order and for the familiar. Consequently, there are no black, silver and hot pink postmodern Mark Stewarts featuring stylized chaos and confusion. The man is pensive, observant, profound. He is singular, meticulous, and self-sacrificing to a fault. He craves peace and quiet, a rare commodity in a family of eight. So you will not find a boating party among Marks work, no café scenes of laughing, toothy women, no boys playing cricket, no madonnas on the beach. All that is fluid, momentary. Not still long enough for him to know and study. (Not to discredit the many artists who have beautifully explored those subjects.) At first I was amused in an ignorant, condescending way by his need to return to the same haunts and the same subjects -- over and over. I was amazed to finally conclude that he would probably never run out of subjects just around our home and garden. Although practical, the regularity with which these all-too-familiar scenes appeared in his paintings seemed . . . provincial, I guess. Slowly, I realized that he wasnt so different from a patient researcher, waiting for the thing within the thing to reveal itself, finding the truth, taking time. And what is painting, if not an attempt to tame time?
Francis Schaeffer also said that the best art tells the truth by tipping its hat to paradox, acknowledging and respecting truths need to embrace opposites. Marks eye is drawn to the beautiful and the simple, but there is a residue of regret and loss in his work, an element of the solitary infusing every image. All his human subjects are alone in their paintings, their faces often obscured or turned aside, the mystery of their thoughts or their pain unsolved. To me, there is such yearning in that. Yearning for unity or completeness. Yearning for heaven, I think. One of Marks recent paintings, "Crazy Quilt" resonates with that undefinable sense of loss over against a strange kind of triumph. It is a small bare bedroom in an old house, yet it is filled with light. The walls bear a sense of benign imprisonment, yet anything could be beyond that window. The crazy quilt on the bed throbs with the chaos of patternless color and movement, like life. But where is the occupant? Somewhere where she doesnt need her lamp or her boots.
And finally, Marks work stirs me because it is not one-dimensional realism. He knows the value of impressionism and abstraction. Modernism and its reverence for abstraction was drilled into him during his architectural training in the 70s. Although his work is instantly and accurately categorized as realist, the careful observer begins to see a kind of clever impressionism creeping through a selection of Marks paintings. At first glance a shady area under a tree or a path in the sunlight looks incredibly realistic -- but upon careful inspection, you see its smoke and mirrors, suggestion, shadow, negative space, chamelon shading. There is a delight in that, I think, for the both the artist and the appreciator. A tacit acknowledgement, a little inside joke, that this may ALL be smoke and mirrors, but isnt it just a ton of fun anyway?
And there is the operative word: fun. Its a word Mark uses a lot when hes talking about painting. Thats probably how he knows hes into the "zone", when hes painting whats good, what makes him happy, whats true. Or what feels true, anyway. Does it get any better than that?