“Portrait of an Artist” by Cheryl Alexander
In 1978, Mark Stewart, now and award-winning artist and architect, made his first visit to New York city as an employee of a large Houston-based architectural firm. He was less than two years out of college and was traveling with a fellow employee not much older than himself. They decided to hang around for the weekend and see some sights, especially since Stewart had never been there. From a recently released book about the art of Andrew Wyeth, he knew of a New York gallery that handled Wyeth’s work. With no more information than that, the two colleagues showed up at Coe Kerr Gallery in their jeans and T-shirts. They were greeted by Warren Adelson, a young gallery director in a coat and tie. He escorted them to a fifth floor gallery full of Wyeth paintings for sale. Stewart recalls, “I certainly knew, and it must have been obvious to Mr. Adelson, that we really weren’t serious art buyers, which made me feel a little self-conscious. But any self-consciousness evaporated as I entered the room containing the paintings and was caught up in the rich visual experience before me. I knew in that moment what I was made to do: draw and paint.” Some call it an epiphany, but Stewart says he prefers to call it “God talk.” It’s not like the idea hadn’t drifted through his consciousness before, but in the little experience, something inside crystalized and charged his will. Stewart says that words could never do justice to the emotion and excitement stirring within him as the three gentlemen packed into the little elevator returning to the street level of the gallery. He was so stirred that when he got back to Houston, he pulled out some old, old brushes and purchased some small tubes of watercolor paint. The brushes weren’t made for watercolor application and the paint was the least expensive on the art store shelf. He knew nothing about watercolor painting, but with those bits of ill-suited painting equipment, he began to learn. “Like anyone starting out, I painted when I could – in the evenings and on free weekends,” says Stewart. Museum shows and reproductions in books and magazines became his teachers. He admits that he had always been able to draw, and as a graduate architectural student at Texas A&M University, he had even taught drawing to underclassmen. He also admits that he would occasionally purchase lithographs of watercolors by Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer and Wyeth and copy them in an attempt to get results like theirs. He also would occasionally look into classes but found that the teachers almost always had a fluffy pastel-ish style or an experimental abstract approach.
One day he was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston sitting in a conference room studying a watercolor painting that the museum didn’t often exhibit. One of the curators passed by and introduced himself to Stewart. He recognized him as the juror who had selected one of Stewart’s paintings for a recent exhibition. He asked if the man if he knew of any good local painting teachers. Stewart says, “He remembered my painting and then told me that he knew of no one who could help me at this stage, and that I should simply continue what I have been doing. I took this as a good sign.” Stewart spent the next few years honing what craft he had. If he learned of an exhibit of paintings that he thought he might enjoy, he would go. His teacher, he says, was the interaction he had as he stood in front of a watercolor he admired.
Studying architecture in grad school, Stewart had been educated and influenced by a modernist abstract architectural education. In that school of thought, painting realism was considered illustration and not generally thought of as fine art. But he found himself growing and developing more traditional sensibilities. He found that he enjoyed realism. In fact, he says he was excited by it. “I was almost afraid to reveal that fact in a culture so steeped in modern thought and abstract expressionist art. I sometimes felt as though I was turning my back on everything that formal education had given me,” Stewart admits.
He had three pen and ink, charcoal wash drawings from his college days that he had mounted in some homemade frames. Though he didn’t feel they were great art, he liked them, so on a whim he took them to the only gallery he knew, which was primarily a frame shop, with the intent to learn about selling art in a gallery setting. The owner told him that he thought the big one was worth $175 and the two smaller ones might bring $100. Stewart thanked the owner for his time, packed the pieces back in his car and drove home with a new excitement percolating. “It was beginning to dawn on me,” Stewart says, “that I might be able to make money at this thing I enjoyed. Certainly a percentage of $175 is not much today, but in 1978 it seemed like a nice supplement to a day job salary.”
During this time, Stewarts only feedback came by entering juried exhibits. The shows were always all media competitions, so his watercolors were pitted against oils, acrylics, pastels and sculpture. The styles ranged from the photo realistic to impressionistic to abstractions. Within that milieu he received his share of awards and the occasional sale, but this period of juried exhibits provided him with the confidence to embark into the world of commercial galleries.
Over the years, Stewart has managed to be represented by galleries around the country including those in Jackson, Wyoming; Hilton Head, South Carolina; and New York City. He’s had numerous one-man shows in both commercial galleries and museums. He’s been a part of events that have raised thousands of dollars for educational and philanthropic causes. One painting entitled “Fresh Wind Fresh Fire” was auctioned for $30,000, which benefitted the Gladney Center in Fort Worth. He’s been privileged to have his work featured in numerous art magazines and even spotlighted on the cover of the September 1987 issue of Southwest Art. In 1991, Art Talk magazine featured him as “an artist worth watching.” And he was recently included in the “Over 60 Art Competition” for the Artist’s magazine. These achievements might appear to indicate success – and as culture gauges them, they do.
“But’” Stewart insists, “I’ve also had my share of rejection.” He was once seeking representation with a well-established gallery in Austin. After looking at his work, the director told him it was passe, a little too much of the “pail on a fence nail” subject matter that was past its time. One critical or thoughtless comment can eliminate a long string of positive experiences in an artist’s mind. Even his healthy list of apparent successes didn’t seem to be enough to counter balance that judgement. Eventually though, he became philosophical about that and other critical assessments of his work, remembering a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” about “meeting with triumph and disaster and treating those two imposters just the same.”
Last spring Stewart and his wife made a just-for-fun trip to New York City. While there Stewart discovered that Warren Adelson – the same man who introduced him to Wyeth’s watercolors all those years before – was having a grand opening of his new gallery on Fifth Avenue. Stewart managed to arrange an invitation for his wife and him to attend.
Stewart recalls, “the high point of the event for me was to re-introduce myself to Mr. Adelson. I didn’t expect him to have any recall of his random meeting with two fresh-out-of-college, T-shirt wearing gallery visitors that occurred 36 years earlier. I briefly described that meeting at Coe Kerr, the trip up the small elevator to the fifth floor and the room full of Wyeth paintings. He had a slightly embarrassed smile, but I pressed forward with my mission to thank him for making possible the brief experience 36 years earlier that still live vividly in my memory and continues to provide artistic inspiration for today.” Visit markstewartwatercolor.com for more information about Stewart and to see more of his art.