HANNAH HOLLIDAY STEWART: Cosmic Mysteries

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her studio- Matthews Gallery

It’s not a stretch to call Hannah Holliday Stewart‘s (1924-2010) sculptures cosmic. In the artist’s heyday, the bronze forms that emerged from her Houston studio were often over 10 feet tall and thousands of pounds. She aspired to create physical manifestations of complex ideas in science, mythology and other fields, a system of “pure [abstract] symbols as constant as numbers and letters of the alphabet,” as Paul Klee said in one of Stewart’s favorite quotes. The themes she explored were so vast that Stewart’s work was at times cosmically misunderstood.

In preparation for our posthumous solo exhibition of Stewart’s work this July, we’ve been digging through the sculptor’s carefully organized personal files. One folder marked “Press” holds a 1994 newspaper article from Stewart’s childhood home of Birmingham. By that time Stewart had lived far away from Alabama for a lifetime, building a reputation in Texas and the Desert Southwest as one of the first female sculptors to win competitive public art commissions. “Ms. Stewart talks of such abstract notions as harmony and energy and spiritual awakening,” puzzled the Birmingham Post-Herald reporter. Throughout the rest of the article Stewart scratched out or rewrote swaths of the writer’s analysis in black ink, clarifying concepts and modifying terms. “[I] always go back to classical order and laws,” she scribbled at the bottom.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Artist Process 1- Matthews Gallery

Stewart was born in 1924 in Marion, Alabama. She studied art in Alabama and Georgia for her BFA, and completed her MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. After working at foundries in Florida and Mexico, she landed a teaching job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and later at the University of Houston.

By the 1960s Stewart’s work had grown to a monumental scale, and a passionate group of Texas art enthusiasts rose to support it. In an era when female sculptors had to fight for recognition, Stewart’s bronze monoliths were popping up all over Houston—and beyond. In 1962 a swooping, Brancusi-esque bird form called “Libertad” appeared in the courtyard of Houston’s World Trade Center, and in 1972 an 11-foot-tall sculpture titled “Atropos Key” landed on a hill in Hermann Park. A commission for a monumental work in Dallas’ Samuels Park spread her name across the state.

“I found myself devoted to her work very early, I think,” says Dayton Smith, who befriended Stewart around 1969 when he was working for a Houston photography studio. “I realized the significance of it, the weight of it, shall we say.” Over the next few years Smith helped Stewart in various ways, photographing her artwork, transporting sculptures, and organizing a 1973 solo exhibition at Houston’s Jamison Gallery on Hermann Park.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Artist Process 2- Matthews Gallery

“As I got to know her, I became aware that she was a very literate person, very intelligent,” says Smith. “Her work really did relate to what she encountered in her learning.” Smith noted that Stewart explored many fields of knowledge, from science and architecture to music and mythology, allowing concepts in each field to influence her three-dimensional objects. In 1975 and 1976 she mounted her first major solo show at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, exhibiting a series of large plaster models (including “Adam’s Rib“, from the photographs in this blog post) that were based on smaller bronze maquettes. But even as Stewart’s legend grew, Smith says misconceptions about her work persisted.

“The word spiritual often comes to mind, but spiritual is such a misunderstood term in our society,” explains Smith. “If you look at the word itself, the Latin root of it is ‘spiritus’. That means ‘wind.’ We can see the wind when it carries things, when it moves things.” Stewart worked to bring the invisible—a musical note, kinetic energy or a wisp of air—into the physical world.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Artist Process 3- Matthews Gallery

More mysterious still to many of Stewart’s friends in Houston was her abrupt disappearance from the art world. Smith last saw Stewart in the late 1980s, when she was teaching at St. Thomas University and exhibiting in an impressive array of art institutions across the country. A few years later Stewart packed up and moved away from Houston, settling in Arizona, Alabama and then Albuquerque, New Mexico. She never exhibited her artwork publicly again. Why would a woman who once showed at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Museum and prominent galleries in New York, New Orleans and many other cities suddenly leave it all behind?

Smith has a few hunches. Stewart often said that she was inspired by the Desert Southwest, and sent Smith an image of her working in her new studio in Flagstaff. The move to Birmingham probably had to do with the declining health of Stewart’s brother and two sisters, who lived in the area. When it came to her art career, Smith thinks Stewart may have needed room to spread her wings and find new inspiration.

“Once we were talking about something she’d observed,” recalls Smith. “That sometimes to make it in your own town you have to leave and come back with something big. That people could get too used to you, but that perhaps you could come back and be accepted. Maybe she was planning that.”

Follow our blog in the coming weeks as we unravel the mysteries of Hannah Holliday Stewart’s life and artwork, and make sure to attend the opening of HANNAH HOLLIDAY STEWART: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered on July 4 from 5-7 pm.  Also pick up the July/August issue of American Fine Art Magazine to read more about the show, and follow our investigations on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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ACID JAZZ AND WABI-SABI: Michelle Y Williams

Artist Michelle Y Williams- Matthews Gallery- Santa Fe, New Mexico
Michelle Y Williams

Being “cloistered in” may be key to Michelle Y Williams’ process, but that doesn’t mean she’s a recluse. Solitude is what the Houston, Texas artist needs to focus her mind and  tune in to her subconscious. Her mixed media works are equally inspired by measured decisions and the pure emptiness of the blank surfaces before her. They’re conglomerations of the figurative and the abstract, and boast a subdued palette that echoes the artist’s fascination with rust, crumbling concrete and peeling paint.

When Williams isn’t in her studio, she’s not afraid to step into the spotlight. In September she’ll be featured in Luxe Magazine, and last week she granted an interview to the Matthews Gallery. Michelle told us about everything from her many materials to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a worldview that has taught her to accept her flaws and create with abandon. Here’s what she had to say:

Michelle Y Williams- Petit 28- Matthews Gallery
Petit 28, Michelle Y Williams

You write in your artist statement, “Inspiration for my work is both selective and completely random.” Is the same true for your choice of materials for a particular piece? How do you select a medium? 

The primary medium in my work is acrylic (very quickly after I began as a painter using oils, I realized I have an aversion to cleaning brushes). Pigmented inks have also proven to be an often used medium for me (applied with a dropper, then floated across the canvas using my palette knife).

The choice for other materials, indeed, comes more randomly. Whether I incorporate sand or oil bar or even attaching a piece of torched metal with wax string to the canvas happens naturally & intuitively as the work progresses.

You also talk about a “relationship that develops” between you and your work. Does this change your notion of when a work is completed? Is it sad to say goodbye?  

I suppose it’s more of a short-term relationship…shall we call it a fling.  I invest energy into a piece which is then reciprocated upon completion, but the real gratification comes when someone has made a connection with my work, which couldn’t happen unless I surrendered it readily.

Michelle Y Williams- Cut 12-532- Matthews Gallery
Cut 12-532, Michelle Y Williams

You prefer to work in solitude. What are some other important parts of your process? Do you listen to music? Do you work on multiple pieces at a time, or just one?

My preference for sequestration is actually paramount – in order to maintain the integrity and authenticity of my work, I eliminate most outside influences that could dull my own creative process. Diverse genres of music can be heard in my studio – from acid jazz to classic rock to classical – while I move between several pieces in various stages of completion.

You mention the importance of seeking a balance in your work. How does that connect with the tenets of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that embraces the transient self?

Rather than trying to exert control over a painting, my pursuit of aesthetic balance, (while maintaining my penchant for asymmetry), transpires more instinctively. The absence of obsessing over that quest for balance and the capacity to “let go”, relates to the principles of wabi-sabi.

Michelle Y Williams- Petit 18- Matthews Gallery
Petit 18, Michelle Y Williams

I found this part of your bio particularly beautiful: “In a stain, we find understanding; in a dent, our ability to heal; in a blemish, an unchained beauty.” Embracing your flaws can be a difficult process. How does your work help you do this? 

Quite simply, the alternative to embracing flaws requires far too much negative energy. For me, perfection is boring and I truly find immense beauty in flaws – chips & cracks in tea bowls used in Japanese tea ceremonies or uncut & unpolished rough just-mined diamonds – these things excite and inspire me.

I hear you’re quite the humanitarian. What projects are you involved with? 

I am an “equal opportunity donator”, giving my work with abandon to many different charitable organizations throughout the year.

Click here to see more of Michelle’s art, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for updates on her latest work.