Hannah Holliday Stewart: The Messengers

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Candid shots of the secretive artist with her sculpture “Survivor“, Hannah Holliday Stewart archives

At last Friday’s opening for Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered, art enthusiasts who saw the press coverage for the show came armed with a diverse array of questions.

“What was her family like?”

“Where did the full-scale models in those photos end up?”

“What’s ‘Ockum’s Razor‘ ?”

“Who’s Brad?”

Of course, the most frequent question was also Stewart’s most impenetrable mystery: why did the sculptor abruptly leave Houston, the launching point and epicenter of her nationally renowned artistic career? In our explorations of Stewart’s archives over the past few weeks, we’ve stirred up as many questions as answers.

Stewart was resolutely private, preferring to tightly focus on her artwork in interviews, exhibition materials and even her diaries. A catalog for her 1975-6 solo exhibition at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum provides little more information on Stewart’s personal life than a birth year and a brief sketch of her educational history.

“Hannah was a very private person with a lot going on in her head,” close friend Dayton Smith told us. “I learned when to be around her and when not.”

Many of Stewart’s works, on the other hand, were always in the public eye. Kids lounged in the crook of her 11-foot sculpture in Hermann Park, students at St. Thomas University studied under her concrete-and-steel work on campus, and politicians were often photographed beside her “Libertad” fountain as they passed through the courtyard of Houston’s World Trade Center building.

For this week’s blog, we’re taking cues from Stewart’s ghost and focusing on the rich universe of her sculptures. Look below for new insight on five artworks, with behind-the-scenes materials from the artist’s files.

Hannah Stewart- Atropos Key Sculpture with Preparatory Sketch and Full-Scale Model- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

 Preparatory sketch for ‘Atropos Key’ and full-scale plaster model in Stewart’s studio

Atropos Key’ remains Hannah Holliday Stewart’s most well-known sculpture in Houston. Our maquette’s monumental counterpart stands on a hill in Hermann Park, measuring at 11 feet tall and 1,200 pounds. It debuted to much fanfare in 1972. From the Houston Chronicle’s August 11, 1972 edition:

“Out on the hill beyond Miller Theatre the blanket lollers who tune in to night concerts and shows from a horizontal position will have fresh ‘company.’ Overlooking the stage, now, is a bronze vertical figure.

‘Atropos Key,’ the title of which derived from one of the three fates in Greek mythology, was given to the city by Mrs. Patricia S. Woodward of Houston.

Strollers in the park may well stare at it and wonder what it all means…. Miss Stewart’s piece, in its new location, deserves the looking at, the ‘experiencing’ and the consideration of its meaning for you. Is it birth and, more encompassing than that, renewal?”

Hannah Stewart- Messenger Sculpture with Preparatory Sketch- Matthews Gallery BlogPreparatory sketch for ‘Messenger’ dated August 1973

Stewart’s ‘Messenger’ appeared on the cover of Houston Arts Magazine’s performing arts edition in October, 1982. Stewart was a fan of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and often listened to classical music in her studio.

A blurb inside the magazine traces the musical roots of ‘Messenger’:

“Sculptor Hannah Stewart… sees her work as an artist’s shorthand using symbols to communicate complex and abstract ideas— like a composer uses the symbols of musical notes to convey a spiritual idea in a sensuous form.

In Messenger… Stewart sees a parallel between the structure-strength-shapes interplay of her work and compositions played by Nathan Milstein and Bella Davidovich.”

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Ockum's Razor Sculpture with Original Typewritten Label- Matthews Gallery BlogOriginal typewritten label for ‘Ockum’s Razor’

Stewart was known for her mythology-inspired artwork, but that was far from the only subject she explored.

“Her studies in literature, mythology, metaphysics, esoteric philosophy, religion, science, astrology, dance and yoga suffuse her output, revealing in form and textures,” wrote Stewart’s friend Dayton Smith in a letter to the gallery.

In ‘Ockum’s Razor’, Stewart turned to science for inspiration. The title refers to a problem-solving principle devised by 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347). The principle states that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” In other words, the simplest path to an answer is the best one.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Maquette and Full-Scale Survivor Sculptures- Matthews Gallery blog

 

 Maquette and full-scale versions of ‘Survivor’

An article about Stewart’s work appeared in the local paper of her childhood home of Birmingham in 1994. In the story, Stewart explains the inspiration for ‘Survivor‘. From the August 1, 1994 edition of the Birmingham Post-Herald:

“I was teaching welding at the university, and I’d go to the welding studio and talk to friends of mine, and there were a lot of men coming down from Detroit who’d lost their jobs, and they were so tense and angry about having to reform themselves, to learn to do welding or something else at the age of 55, after having been an auto worker. I reacted to that force within them, and the drastic changes people have to make to survive.”

 Hannah Holliday Stewart- Einsteins Song and Polaroid of Hannah Holliday Stewart working on the sculpture in her studio- Matthews Gallery blog

Polaroid of Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Albuquerque studio working on ‘Einstein’s Song’

Stewart was 80 years old in the Polaroid above and still hard at work on her bronze forms, though she never exhibited again in her lifetime.

Here’s an excerpt from a typewritten artist statement Stewart wrote a year later:

“For me, the image should be an intellectual and emotional symbol plucked from the fringe of the imagination, it should suggest a classic truth and not be confused with social comment. The image at its most successful strikes a common chord of sensations in every viewer, and yet leaves each viewer with his/her own particular interpretation.”

See Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered through July 18, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more information on the artist.

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SECRETS OF THE WAREHOUSE: Hannah Holliday Stewart

Sculptor Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews Gallery

It’s just across town, but the complex that houses our storage unit seems universes away from the cheerful adobe utopia of Canyon Road. We punch in a code and roll through the gate into a desolate world of sharp edges. Seas of asphalt release masses of hot air and long rows of dull aluminum doors form the impenetrable walls of an industrial fortress.

Sculpture by Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryAs the shadows grow longer the sun’s rays swing sideways and those doors become enormous reflectors. The forbidding barrier transforms into a glowing, many-paneled modernist painting—Gerhard Richter’s Strip series in metal. At this time of day, it’s easy to imagine the units as a series of chests concealing mysterious treasures. What secrets hide behind this shimmering force field? Luckily, we have one of the keys.

With one great heave, we send the door to our space skittering up into the ceiling and find ourselves peering into another, much more fanciful, metallic landscape. We’re here to take stock of the life’s work of Hannah Holliday Stewart in preparation for a visit from some interested collectors.

Polished, patined bronzes large and small cluster on shelves, tabletops and patches of cement between stacks of cardboard boxes. They’ve accrued a thin layer of dust since we last visited, but it hardly dampens the strange energy that seems to simmer just beneath their surfaces. Stewart’s graceful abstract forms hold all the power that they possessed when we first laid eyes on them last year in Stewart’s studio, where they’d been sitting quietly since her death in 2010. It’s jamais vu: the feeling of encountering something you’ve never seen before.

Sculpture by Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryStewart was born in Marion, Alabama in 1924. She received her graduate degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art, moved to Houston and swiftly embarked on rapid rise that was uncommon for female artists at the time. At the crest of a new wave of social changes, Stewart and other artists such as Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann revived old legends and symbols that identified the woman as a powerful creative force capable of crafting her own destiny. Under Stewart’s paradigm, Nefertiti reclaimed her throne, Icarus had feminine curves and the symbol of the Aquarian Age was a densely muscled female torso.

Much of Stewart’s work is in bronze, a medium that set her apart from some of her female contemporaries who worked with fabric, wood and mixed media. It was a material that allowed her to look to the promise of the future as well as the legends of the past. In one corner of our storage space is a stack of boxes filled with overflowing folders. Along with the career-spanning work that was left in Stewart’s studio, the artist’s family gave us access to all of her personal files. That’s how we found an artist statement she once scrawled in a notebook:

[My] 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.

Sculptor Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryTo contain these gargantuan forces, Stewart was often compelled to produce her work at a monumental scale. Photographs in her files show her roaming through a forest of many-legged monoliths in her studio, or manipulating their twisty canopy atop a spindly ladder. In 1972 she was commissioned to create a monumental sculpture for Houston’s Hermann Park, a rare honor for a female sculptor—especially one who was known for her non-objective work.

The spotlight shone bright on Stewart for many years: she exhibited at the Smithsonian, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Then, 20 years before her death, she abruptly left the Houston art scene without saying goodbye.

Sculptures by Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryAt a studio in Albuquerque that we would visit after her death, the artist spent the remaining years of her life producing sculptures in solitude. The mystery of her departure from the art world has yet to be cracked. Many of her friends from Houston were still puzzling over it in her obituary.

Perhaps there are clues to the more shadowy parts of Stewart’s life hidden in her files, or in the beautiful invented language that she often etched into her sculptures. It’ll take more dusting than we have time for today to unravel the intricacies of her life and work, but one thing is clear: Stewart helped pave the way for a new generation of women sculptors.

As we reach for the long rope hanging from the door, we take one last look at Stewart’s peculiar menagerie. A bronze self-portrait peers out from a tangle of supernatural creatures on a tabletop, its eyes blazing in a shaft of sunlight. Then the treasure box slams shut.

Click here to see more behind-the-scenes images from the warehouse, and make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for updates on Hannah Holliday Stewart’s work.