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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THE MATTHEWS GALLERY: Arc of Art History

"Stride", Jamie Chase, Matthews Gallery
“Stride”

When Santa Fe visitors step into the Matthews Gallery, they often mention that something feels different. Our gallery location is in a historic adobe on Canyon road just like many of the other galleries so we have a hunch that the novelty they’re sensing is our devotion to carefully curating every wall of our gallery.

We show work from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Our curatorial direction is to exhibit a variety of work from these eras that relate to the artistic development from impressionism to contemporary art. Here are some of the names that you won’t see anywhere else on Canyon Road—or even elsewhere in Santa Fe:

Head of Baby with Finger in Mouth, Mary Cassatt, Matthews Gallery
“Head of Baby with Finger in Mouth”, Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) ~ The American painter and printmaker was refused entry to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, so she studied the masters on her own at the Louvre. She would become a master herself, named one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism by Gustave Geffroy.

"Les Saltimbanque", Pablo Picasso, Matthews Gallery
“Les Saltimbanque” by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) ~ Several works by the most influential artist of the 20th century have passed through the Matthews Gallery. Our most notable current work by Picasso is “Les Saltimbanque”. The drypoint etching the artist created as a teenager shows the harlequin, a personal symbol that would recur in his work throughout his career.

"Composition aux deux Personnages", Fernand Leger, Matthews Gallery
“Composition aux deux Personnages” by Fernand Leger

Fernand Leger (1881-1955) ~ The painter, sculptor and filmmaker’s lithograph “Composition aux deux Personnages” marked a shift in his oeuvre from Cubism to bold figurative works that would later identify him as a forerunner of Pop Art. As is the fate of all art movements, Picasso and Braque’s Cubism were irrevocably fractured.

"Blue Nude", Harold Frank, Matthews Gallery
“Blue Nude” by Harold Frank

Harold Frank (1917-1995) ~ Born in Southampton, England, Frank’s family moved to New York when he was a child. You can see influences from both shores in his colorful canvases that take cues from modernism and abstract expressionism.

"Alic", Enrique Echeverria, Matthews Gallery
“Alic” by Enrique Echeverria

Enrique Echeverria (1923-1972) ~ Echeverria and his contemporaries brought the ideas of modern European art movements to Mexico and subverted the traditional figurative painting style. They became known as the Generacion de la Ruptura, the Rupture Generation.

"Avian Keepers", Robert W. Hinds, Matthews Gallery
“Avian Keepers” by Robert W. Hinds

Robert W. Hinds (1924- present) ~ This World War II veteran was born a year after Echeverria. He had a successful graphics career for years before moving to Europe to study casting techniques in Italy and Bologna. Now he produces figurative bronze sculptures that are collected throughout the world.

"Untitled Grey Nude on Orange", Jamie Chase, Matthews Gallery
“Untitled Grey Nude on Orange” by Jamie Chase

Jamie Chase (1954- present) ~ The painter and graphic novelist was born in California, and traveled to Europe to educate himself on the work of the masters. He moved to Santa Fe in 1980, where he’s now known for his non-objective paintings, abstract landscapes and abstracted figurative paintings.

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