Hannah Holliday Stewart: Letter from Houston

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston Studio- Matthews Gallery

Our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered
begins with an opening reception on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm

“In a day in which so many things in Art are merely exercises in Media and devoid of any real significance, it is refreshing to discover an expression which transcends the cerebral prison of its own time and manifests itself in forms poetically germane to a more cosmic significance,” wrote Dayton Smith, with poetic flair of his own, in a typewritten statement dated March 22, 1991.

Smith was referring to the sculptures of his close friend Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924- 2010), whose monumental forms caught the eye of the nation in the 1970s and 80s. As chronicled in our last blog post, Smith and Stewart met in Houston in the late 1960s as Stewart’s career was taking off. He assisted Stewart in various ways for a number of years, and watched as the artist found success in galleries and museums across the country.

More from the note:

Her art mirrors a consciousness expanded beyond the pragmatic doctrinal limits of our milieu. Her commissions stand to prick our higher sensibilities in a world which, it would seem, affords little for the pursuit of what may be a neglected cosmic heritage. In an age in which “symmetry does not balance make” (but which, nevertheless seems to be the applied solution for everything), her bold compositions embody a superbly balanced abstract expression of form and function suggestive of the anthropomorphic with its attendant graces and imperfections.

More than two decades later, Smith admits with a chuckle that the write-up can be a bit “over the top”, but it survives as an illuminating statement about an artist whose cosmic creations were at times misunderstood. After we contacted him, Smith was inspired to return to the typewriter—or, keyboard—and draft another statement on Stewart’s work. His musings provide new insight into the life and artwork of the dynamic sculptor.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

From Dayton Smith:

Hannah Remembered

It can be said with clarity and confidence that the monumental sculptural work of Hannah Holliday Stewart is cosmic in scope and spiritual in dimension and process. At the peak of her production in the 1970s and ’80s, there emerged from her studio great plaster forms, many well over ten feet in height. These graceful mammoths, cast in bronze, would weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds, and command public spaces in Houston and other cities. A major exhibition of these large plasters was mounted in January 1976 at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and another in the ’80s at One Houston Center. In the 1990s, she established studios in Flagstaff, Arizona, and later in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally in Albuquerque.

Born in 1924 in Marion, Alabama to a prominent family, she studied art in Alabama and Georgia (BFA), and at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (MFA); studied ceramics in California with the legendary Bauhaus potter Marguerite Wildenhain; worked in foundries in Florida and Mexico; moved to Texas to teach at Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the University of Houston, and the University of St. Thomas. Her notable public works include Atropos Key, installed in 1972 on the hill at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park; Libertad, a smoothly elegant birdlike bronze at World Trade Center Houston; works in Samuels Park in Dallas and New Harmony in Indiana; and Passage, at University of St. Thomas Houston. Her public commissions are claimed as example of landmark achievement by women in the arts. Respected among Houston architects and adept in various media she developed sand-blasted and sand-cast relief panels for specific architectural settings. Her works of smaller scale are to be found in notable private collections.

Her studies in literature, mythology, metaphysics, esoteric philosophy, religion, science, astrology, dance and yoga suffuse her output, revealing in form and textures. Her earlier smaller works reflect ineffable humanity, humor, elegant charm and always superb craftsmanship. She was disciplined, intelligent and well-read, possessed of an intense work ethic, compassionate and understanding and encouraging of others, and an inspiring teacher, respected and loved by friends in business, academia and the arts. Whether attired in her usual studio denim or occasional Dior, she moved among interesting people and was an accomplished host and gourmet. Music was her creative keynote and the atmosphere mystical, always stimulating and, on occasion, convivial. On so many occasions when I would assist her in some project: photographing, gallery installation and lighting, foundry, studio, even building repair, I was aware that I was only facilitating much greater work. I think she really did come to ‘see’ the wind, and must have stood in awe of that which materialized from her consciousness and hands. I can still hear her warm southern voice and motto – Nil desperandum!, and her memory, towering as her work, is quite, quite treasured.

D.A. Smith
Public Broadcasting, University of Houston, retired

Make sure to attend the opening reception of our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm. To learn more, check out our previous blog post and our Hannah Holliday Stewart artist page. For daily gallery news, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

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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.

Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924 – 2010) A Sculptor Who Forged The Way

Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924 – 2010) had her sculpture exhibited in over 40 venues including The Smithsonian, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and others. Her work and her career were instrumental to the increased recognition of women sculptors in the United States. The International Sculpture magazine wrote :

“(She) forged the way for serious women sculptors. Uniting Greek mythology and contemporary energy concepts … (her) work fuses both primitive and futuristic sensibilities.”

At a time when the art world marginalized women artists, she chose to create her own world from metal and stone and helped lead the way for a generation of women sculptors. Though she had achieved a high level of success and recognition, she eventually turned her back on the art establishment and continued to work in isolation for the last twenty years of her life. After her death in 2010, sculptures, consisting of work that spanned her entire career, were discovered in her studio – from pieces that are only a few inches tall to one bronze that is over nine feet.

A written statement discovered in one of her notebooks eloquently records her own thoughts on the origins and principles underlying her art work:

When I was eight years old, I asked my mother what the wind really looked like. I remember spending hours … days … sitting with my hands open wide or running with my lightning-bug jar, hoping to catch the wind. I wanted to SEE the wind, that magical force that could bend the huge oak tree in a summer storm, gently caress me on a hot summer day or sing to me as it played through a tree or around the house.

This early interest in natural forces has sustained me throughout my life as a sculptor. My goal is to render visible the hidden realities of pent-up contained energy. The direct fields of reference are Sacred Geometry, Astronomy, Myth & Physics … Each Sculpture is an energy form, the movement arrested in space, a form sustaining an energy. My work is a response to these patterns and delineations and communicates with viewers through the universality of symbolism and form.

The Matthews Gallery is pleased to show this pioneering artist and reacquaint the world with her work. If you would like to learn more about Hannah Holliday Stewart, we have created a website dedicated to her life and work which includes a 163 page online catalog of her work. Click Here to visit the site.