Hannah Holliday Stewart: Open-Ended Questions

Houston Chronicle's article on Hannah Holliday Stewart among her sculptures- Matthews Gallery

Our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered
runs through July 24, 2014

Two weeks ago, Houston Chronicle arts editor Molly Glentzer appeared at our door with a camera around her neck and notebook in hand. We figured that if anyone could find answers to our burning questions about Hannah Holliday Stewart’s life, it would be a reporter from the city where she rose to prominence. Last Sunday her findings appeared on the front page of the Chronicle. Early on in the article, Glentzer outlines the challenges she faced in her investigation:

Stewart left Houston without saying goodbye in 1987, just as the art scene she helped establish finally began to blossom. Few friends knew where the pioneering sculptor went: not her most recent art dealer, nor her agent, nor people who’d been close enough to visit her weekly.

The beautifully detailed report lays out the highlights of Stewart’s art career. As Glentzer discusses Stewart’s accomplishments—from monumental public art commissions to solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions across the nation—she’s careful to outline the sculptor’s struggle for recognition:

Her success came at a time when women sculptors were rare birds in a man’s world. […] it was a coup when Houston accepted “Atropos Key” …. in 1972. Stewart’s sculpture was unlike anything else in the landscape.

When it comes to Stewart’s departure from Houston and the art world, Glentzer arrives at the same conclusions we did. Stewart first returned to Birmingham to care for her ailing brother, and chose the Southwest as a part-time home because she was drawn to the “light and open landscape”. However, her move to Albuquerque in the final years of her life hinted at grander plans.

“How many people do you know who at age 80 would move 1,000 miles away, where they had no relatives, and build a house and studio with 20-foot ceilings?” [Stewart’s nephew Rusty Stewart] said. “She wasn’t out there to retire.”

Sculptor Hannah Stewart with her cocker-poodle, Major, in 1967- Houston Chronicle

Stewart with her cocker-poodle, Major, in 1967; Photo from Houston Chronicle

And so the answer to one question opens up another mystery. What did Stewart plan to do next? Her friend Dayton Smith told us she may have intended to complete some larger projects and return to Houston. In her sketchbooks from the 2000s Stewart often mentioned a series of sculptures called ‘Harmonic Resonance’ that may have been her forthcoming magnum opus.

Other friends of Stewart who have called or visited us since the appearance of the Chronicle article had few answers. An acquaintance who took yoga classes with Stewart for years said he’d lost contact with her in the 1980s before she left Houston. Another friend who stopped by told us vivid stories from Stewart’s life in Houston, but had just as many questions about her Southwestern exploits.

Last week we switched gears and teased out some of the mysteries of Stewart’s artwork. As Smith told Glentzer, Stewart “always preferred her work be talked about rather than her life.” Perhaps she didn’t want us to know what happened in Houston, or what her future plans were. In a note from Stewart’s sketchbook dated 2007, the 83-year-old artist wrote,”Tired—work to finish FINALLY!! Move on to others in series…”


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Stewart with “Atropos Key” in Hermann Park; Houston Chronicle

Then, late last week, we received a call from Dr. Liam Purdon in Nebraska. We recognized his name from an elegant essay in Stewart’s files. In the 1980s, Purdon was working on a PhD in medieval literature from Rice University. He had seen Stewart’s “Atropos Key” sculpture in Hermann Park and was inspired to contact her.

“I literally stumbled upon it as I walked up the hill in the park,” he said. “You come over a rise and suddenly there it is in front of you. You’re startled by it, and the first question you ask yourself is, ‘What is it, and why is it here?’ When you read the name of it, then you suddenly realize it’s tied to Greek mythology.”

Purdon said the shock and curiosity he experienced was Stewart’s overarching goal. “She wanted to startle the observer into recollecting the whole mythology of a time when humans lived in harmony,” he explained. Stewart agreed to let Purdon observe her in the studio for three weeks, but kept a careful distance from the scholar. Later on they became good friends, and Stewart told Purdon her plans for the future.

“She felt that being in the Southwest… would be more supportive of her vision,” he says. “She loved the natural beauty of the Southwest. In some of her pieces, you do see it. In others you may not recognize it, but if you look at them for a while and meditate on them, it starts to become apparent.”

The two stayed in contact after Purdon took a teaching job at Doane College in Nebraska, and Stewart expressed interest in applying for public art commissions from the Nebraska Arts Council. When nothing materialized, Stewart was discouraged.

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Stewart in 1960 with a sculpture she recently completed; Houston Chronicle

“I think that probably underscored the fact that she felt… uncomfortable revealing the work until the time was right, until we re-cycled into an age when we wanted to hear the narrative again,” Purdon said. “She would have to wait for a period of time to introduce her work to people who were ready to understand.”

That’s the closest we’ve gotten to answering the ever-shifting riddle of Stewart’s twilight years, but perhaps it’s enough to know that people are ready to hear the artist’s stories again. We’ve had a huge response from collectors in Houston who read the article, and art lovers from across the country have discovered her work as a result of the press coverage our show has received.

“In general, i think that people are wanting narrative more,” said Purdon. “It is so remarkably different, her work… That’s why it needs a narrative. There has to be a starting point.”

Come see Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered through Thursday, July 24, and learn more about the artist on our website. Make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more gallery news!

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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.