conceptual

Public Art, Conceptual

Q&A: Todd Smith


“I am increasingly interested in developing projects that engage the community…”
— Todd Smith


Louisville artist Todd Smith is currently an Adjunct instructor at Bellarmine University and Indiana University Southeast. He is now in the prototype phase of an ambitious public art project commissioned through Louisville’s Commission on Public Art’s (CoPA) ARTmovesLOUISVILLE alternative transportation project initiative. His project, Bike Sense Louisville, will need over 100 citizen cyclist volunteers to use custom sensor units to track their bike usage around the city for one year. He took the time to answer questions about his work and this unique project.

Where did the idea for Bike Sense originate? How long have you been developing the project?

Just after completing my MFA in Buffalo, NY last spring I got an email from Sarah Lindgren from CoPA about their latest public art call for proposals. The theme was ARTmovesLOUISVILLE, with a focus on projects that engage and educate the public in alternative transportation issues in the city. I was moving back to Louisville and excited to have the opportunity to potentially participate in the city’s growing public art programming.

From the call, I began to think about biking and biking infrastructure. I am an avid biker and have been trying to get lost all over Louisville since I was a kid in the Goose Creek neighborhood. Since then I have lived in 7 different neighborhoods in the city and watched the infrastructure change. I commend the city and the last couple of mayors on their initiatives to make Louisville more bike friendly, but I have also seen the efforts come slowly and with mixed results. I have experience biking in Portland, Oregon, and New York City, where separated bike lanes and bike sharing have been well funded and implemented. Louisville has a bike share program that I have rarely seen used and painted bike lanes that many cars ignore. I wanted to come up with an idea that would help the city get more information about bike usage that could be used to raise awareness about biking in the city and potentially be used to improve bike infrastructure.

My most recent projects in grad school were based around data and sensor technology. I had created a glove with pressure-sensitive fingertips, which in its prototype phase, measured the quality of a handshake. The intention is to create a pair of pressure-sensitive gloves and shoes that can measure the relative distributions of pressure in a tree climb and give it to multiple climbers to see how climbing techniques vary.

In my thesis project I embedded an accelerometer into a large Y-shaped branch that was attached to a sturdy steel frame. I placed that branch in the center of an abandoned grain silo and invited people to climb onto it. As they moved and shook the branch the lights in the silo would flicker and a hidden subwoofer would rumble at very low frequencies. The intent was to make the participant feel as if their movement on the tree branch was causing the destruction of the silo. Essentially it’s an interactive metaphor for the history of the industrial site: man makes concrete silo infrastructure, industry booms and busts, vegetation begins to spread across the site inserting roots into cracks allowing water and rust to slowly destroy it.

My idea for Bike Sense Louisville is to take sensor technology and give it to citizen cyclist volunteers, collect their usage over one year, and interpret that data into a real-time sound work that will be broadcast on the Big Four Bridge. In a way, it is a combination of the two previous projects I described, only it’s about micro-measurements of where people are biking and creating a responsive sound piece that draws the public’s attention to bike usage and infrastructure. I also want to add ambient temperature and carbon monoxide sensors in an attempt to see how weather is changing across the city, as well as monitoring the worst part of car exhaust. Then at the end of the year-long project, the entire dataset will be open and available for anyone to see and use, and maybe even help to determine ways of improving Louisville’s bike paths and routes.

I submitted my idea to CoPA in June 2016. I then was selected to develop a more detailed proposal and budget in the fall. CoPA helped to facilitate meetings with members of the city from their bike program, innovation, parks and more. I also met with the Louisville Waterfront Corporation who graciously agreed to broadcast the project on the pedestrian bridge. Then on December 12th I presented my project to the public art commission committee. The project was approved and the prototyping and marketing phase is beginning now. We hope to launch the project with 100 cyclist volunteers by late summer.

You’ve secured support from Metro Louisville and the Commission on Public Art? How are they helping?

CoPA is funding the project, helping to organize PR, public outreach, and facilitating partnerships with the Louisville Waterfront Corporation, Bike Louisville, and more to make sure the project is successful. They will also start a speaker series this summer to be held at Metro Hall and I hope to participate and present the project in relation to art and infrastructure.

This is pretty conceptual with a capital “C”, was it difficult to get that level of municipal involvement?

The most difficult part of the project is explaining how the technology will work and be translated into art. Once I broke it down to the basic concept and explained the possible benefits from such a massive dataset, the project was very well received. The sound portion will be accessible and the complexity of sound will directly relate to the level of bike usage. No bikers = no sound. A few bikers = simple sounds. A lot of bikers in a lot of different locations = lots of sounds...and all in the vein of a wind chime or wood blocks. I control the harmony and chords so that the differing sounds firing at random will work together, just like the tones of a wind chime are made of notes in a harmonious chord. It involves public interaction, citizen science, and lots of potential for public good. I didn’t find that it was difficult at all to get people on board.

You are asking for volunteers who use bicycles on a regular basis? What is it exactly you need them to do?

First, I am asking all interested cyclists of all kinds go to bikesense.net and fill out a volunteer survey. I am interested in seeing who you are, where you live in the city, how often you bike, where you bike, etc. Then I will select 100 volunteers that best represent all the different kinds of Louisville bikers, plus a waiting list. Then I will hand out the sensor units to the volunteers with these instructions:

  • Use the sensor unit whenever you bike.
  • Keep the sensor unit charged.
  • Return if it stops working or you no longer wish to participate.

Your work is very focused on the subject of urban ecology, and is dominated specifically by trees. This is relative to that, but also different. How would you characterize the relationship between this and your previous work?

During my time in Buffalo I made the conscious decision to expand my practice beyond tree-climbing. I believe this was a natural evolution from all my time in the treetops, seeing all the ways in which humans impact trees and natural spaces. A large part of my Daily Climb project involved walking, biking, and driving around Louisville in parks and neighborhoods to find trees to climb.

Over the many years climbing, my observation of trees inspired me to research the heat island effect, tree canopy studies, writings about invasive plants vs. native, tree and urban ecology, previous weather disasters and floods, and more. I also spent countless hours up close with varying infrastructure in the city. In learning how every creature, plant and thing are connected in our ecology, I found more and more ways to approach making art that draw attention to our impact on our environment. When it all comes down to it, I still love trees and believe that the more people bike instead of drive and the more people support initiatives to improve bike infrastructure, the better the trees will be.

I also believe the more people in the community become directly involved in issues like alternative transportation and collecting data about bike usage, getting their hands dirty planting trees with groups like Louisville Grows, the more they will care about their city. Most of my previous work was about me and my personal experiences climbing. I am increasingly interested in developing projects that engage the community in activities that can provide positive results.

Tell us about an important moment of transition for you as an artist?

I have experienced 3 important transitions as an artist. The first happened in undergrad in 2002 when a visiting artist challenged me to share my perspective as a climber. From that moment forward I stopped drawing and painting and started using whatever means necessary to share my experiences climbing trees.

The second was when my Daily Climb project ended in July of 2010. It was unexpected, incredibly sad, and my obsession was broken. It was a relief, but also such a hard place to rebuild after so long. It has taken me since then to slowly let go of my identity as strictly the tree-climbing guy. I still haven’t let it go completely.

The last transition just recently happened in grad school. I came into my first year ready to discard tree climbing and start new. The first year beat me down, confused me, and cornered me into re-embracing tree climbing again. Then finally, one month before my thesis exhibition was to open in my last semester, I had an on-site meeting with my 3 committee members. They finally saw my idea to share my tree-climbing experience with projection and virtual reality in an abandoned grain silo and they all thought it wasn’t right for the site. They challenged me to reassess. I went back to the drawing board, spent hours walking the site, and through some research and countless discussions and writing and sketching, I came up with an idea with two weeks left. It still may have had an element of trees and climbing, but it went beyond sharing my own perspective as a climber. I finally moved on. It allowed me to create works focused outward. It’s where I find myself now.

What's the most challenging part when starting on a new work?

Every project presents different challenges at different times in the process. I’d say for Bike Sense Louisville, my challenge was how I would translate the data into sound. I went to a Sound Builders meeting at LVL1 Hackerspace and asked them about programs that can translate data streams into sound, and someone recommended Pure Data. This open source programming language has been around for a while and is incredibly flexible. I started teaching myself by watching YouTube tutorials and fell in love with it. It’s been a steep learning curve but it has been really exciting to add another tool to my toolkit.

Plus, every new language or skill I learn I look for opportunities to include it in my teaching. My students teach me so much in return when I see what they do with these skills. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to teach Pure Data and physical computing using sensors. Teaching and creating has really become a rich back and forth.

Given how project oriented you work is, how long do you usually spend on a specific piece?

This is a difficult question to answer. I suppose there is no “usual.” At times, I have felt frustrated when I compare my productivity to other artists who work in more traditional media. I see them pumping out a series of paintings or object-based work they can do by themselves and I feel the pressure to be as prolific. But I don’t usually work in a studio where I can go and make something. I am more interested in larger projects that are outside and involve long periods of learning new technology and working with other people. I finally came to accept that I work a different way and that’s okay. That’s why I have really come to enjoy teaching at a University. It allows me to fulfill my teaching passion as well as make connections with students and faculty that might be interested in collaborating. The time in the classroom feeds my art while also providing a way to support projects that don’t always pay.

"the GOOD GUY glove" by Todd Smith (2015) |  Click here  to learn more about this project

"the GOOD GUY glove" by Todd Smith (2015) | Click here to learn more about this project

That being said, I recently participated in one of Zephyr Galleries Project shows with a series of photographs called Conic Sections . The series was inspired by my hobby of doing parkour. I had discovered that I could use my iPhone to take panoramic pictures, but rather than scan from side to side, I would arc backward or scoop the phone in a “U” shape and get really interesting images with 2 horizons. I asked a close friend to do parkour through spaces around Louisville and New Albany while I shot the pictures. He was often in the picture 2 or 3 times in different locations, moving as I slowly bent over backwards. The results were really disorienting and playful.

It all depends on the idea I suppose. That idea came to me one day walking around in a park and playing with my phone. The moment I realized I could capture two horizons I had the idea in a flash. I scheduled the shoot, spent a few hours shooting and then ordered the prints from the best few shots.

Other project ideas pop into my head at random moments and I keep a list. Then when opportunities present themselves like public art calls, I look back at my previous projects and my list of ideas and see if any apply or can be tweaked or altered to fit. The bike project wasn’t something I had thought of before, but elements of previous projects helped form the final concept.

How do you feel about local art scene in Louisville? Would you change anything about it?

I see two sides to the art scene here. One, it’s cheap to live and still relatively cheap to rent studio space. The culture is supportive of the arts and there is more and more programming going on with public art. Plus, with U of L and IUS and Bellarmine and KyCAD there are programs producing young artists...I just don’t know where they go after they graduate.

The flip side is that there is a very small group of people/collectors who support all the arts in the city. It doesn’t seem like Louisville is a draw for outsiders to look in and see what’s happening here. That means it’s up to us artists to look elsewhere for opportunities. And then many leave. Because of that, great galleries and art spots like Land of Tomorrow are forced to close. I love the energy that Dan Pfalzgraf is bringing to the Carnegie in New Albany.

He’s trying new things, getting local institutions and artists involved, and he’s especially open to young, local talent. It would be great to see all the curators from all the local museums and cultural institutions get more hands on with local artists and include them in programming. I assume it is happening more than I know and am just not aware of it.

Another example I did recently see was Human Abstract at the Kentucky Center put on by Louisville Ballet. It featured the collaborative work of Tiffany Carbonneau, Andrew Cozzens, and Ezra Kellerman, and the show was amazing! I really appreciate that these kinds of opportunities are coming to local artists. I guess it’s up to me to stay plugged in and make sure I am not missing more of these opportunities to get out and support my fellow artists.

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Age: 35
Education: MFA, Emerging Practices, University at Buffalo, NY, 2016; BA, Studio Fine Art, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 2003
Website: http://www.toddcsmith.com

Entire contents copyright © 2017 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved. 

"Inward Out: Spontaneous Reverberations" by Todd Smith (Exhibited on April 30th 2016 at Silo City in Buffalo, NY) |  Click here  to learn more about his Master Thesis exhibition

"Inward Out: Spontaneous Reverberations" by Todd Smith (Exhibited on April 30th 2016 at Silo City in Buffalo, NY) | Click here to learn more about his Master Thesis exhibition

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Fiber, Painting, Mixed Media

Vignette: Denise Furnish

"Gain/Loss (detail)" by Denise Furnish, 31x31in, yoyo quilt patch, archival ink on cotton, acrylic, $900 |  BUY NOW

"Gain/Loss (detail)" by Denise Furnish, 31x31in, yoyo quilt patch, archival ink on cotton, acrylic, $900 | BUY NOW


“I was asked, ‘What is a quilt?’ It is a question that, at first, seems obvious, but the answer goes much deeper than a hand-made bedcovering. The process of defining a quilt is the essence of my art. The quilt is a sign of women’s work. The making of a quilt implies a chain of signification through conception, use, deterioration, and, in my case, transformation.” — from Denise Furnish’s Artist Statement


"  Gold Star" by Denise Furnish,   77.5x76in, discarded lone star quilt, acrylic, $3200 |  BUY NOW

"Gold Star" by Denise Furnish, 77.5x76in, discarded lone star quilt, acrylic, $3200 | BUY NOW

In the history of Modern Art, or the still-being-written chronicle of Contemporary Art, the quilt can still seem like an outlier, despite several generations of fiber artists using it as the foundation of their work. Yet the very associations that might lie at the heart of perceived limitations – namely its functional role as comforting family heirloom, are also the source of the quilt’s unique power in communicating themes and ideas. Denise Furnish exploits these attributes but also subverts them by using discarded quilts as a vehicle for painting.

"Bed" by  Robert Rauschenberg  75.25x31.5x8in, oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports (1955) © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

"Bed" by Robert Rauschenberg 75.25x31.5x8in, oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports (1955) © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

“The quilt as a sign for bed interests me, yet I nearly always remove quilts from the bed and put them on the wall. For his collage, “Bed”, Robert Rauschenberg took a quilt from a bed and destroyed it to make art in 1955. The difference is that I am interested in taking already damaged quilts and transforming them into art. I later realized that seeing that work in the Museum of Modern Art in 1968 has influenced me.”

The inherent qualities of each quilt are crucial in the conceptual nature of Furnish’s approach, informing her thoughts and application of medium, but there is also a sense of rejuvenation emanating from the transformation of a tattered, worse-for-wear object becoming a wholly new creative action.  

“My work developed as a chain of signification beginning with the recognition of quilt as a sign of pre-feminist ‘women’s work.’ This work was created and executed with attention to design and purpose. It was used, washed, worn. Often, it was separated from its maker. It was found by me and painted–a sign not only of transformation, but also of post-feminist women’s achievement.”

Denise Furnish’s work is currently featured in the Louisville Visual Art exhibit, Tessile Ora, on display at Louisville’s Metro Hall through May 26, 2017.

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Education: BA, University of Kentucky, 1972; Attended Louisville School of Art 1980-1981; BFA University of Louisville, 2008; MA University of Louisville, 2009
Website: http://www.denisefurnish.com

"Red Basketweave" by Denise Furnish, 56x37in, worn and discarded flower basket crib quilt, acrylic, $1200 |  BUY NOW

"Red Basketweave" by Denise Furnish, 56x37in, worn and discarded flower basket crib quilt, acrylic, $1200 | BUY NOW

"  Flower Garden Boogie Woogie" by Denise Furnish, 48x53in, worn and discarded flower basket crib quilt, acrylic,telephone wire, tablecloth, $1200 |  BUY NOW

"Flower Garden Boogie Woogie" by Denise Furnish, 48x53in, worn and discarded flower basket crib quilt, acrylic,telephone wire, tablecloth, $1200 | BUY NOW

"Lavender Log Cabin" by Denise Furnish, 40x28in, discarded log cabin crib quilt top, acrylic, $900|  BUY

"Lavender Log Cabin" by Denise Furnish, 40x28in, discarded log cabin crib quilt top, acrylic, $900| BUY

"FIreball" by Denise Furnish, 43x29in, discarded fireball crib quilt, acrylic, $1200|  BUY NOW

"FIreball" by Denise Furnish, 43x29in, discarded fireball crib quilt, acrylic, $1200| BUY NOW

Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserve d.

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Ceramics, Print Making

Vignette: Elizabeth Stevenson

"Untitled #1" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 4.5x4.5x4.5in, fired white clay (2015)

"Untitled #1" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 4.5x4.5x4.5in, fired white clay (2015)

We are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age, but many argue for the current period to be term “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has incurred a profound enough impact on the earth to merit the classification. Claims about global warming aside, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, and pollution on a large scale have inarguably changed the planet.

"Untitled #4" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 11x15in, collograph relief print on paper (2015), $150 |  BUY NOW

"Untitled #4" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 11x15in, collograph relief print on paper (2015), $150 | BUY NOW

Elizabeth Stevenson is directly inspired by this concept in her work, “… it fueled me to keep creating,” she explains. Natural patterns are what originally inspired me to create this body of work. The lines I would see in sand when water washed over it or the small orb like forms of pollen particles. After looking to so much of nature for inspiration it made sense to study the science surrounding it. Once I had a better understanding of how nature works and the way in which humans are destroying it I found even more reason to create work motivated by it.”

For Stevenson, the process begins with a study of microscopic images: “Beginning with open organic forms I wished to investigate natural configurations that I saw and abstract them.” In the very beginning, she finds the three-dimensional forms to be soft and fragile, almost vulnerable to the pending manipulation by the artist’s hand. Her carving is primarily deductive, removing mass to create new empty space.

“The forms continued to push me to create and find different processes for making, which led me to develop a more jagged and unraveled representation of the natural world. With these new lines and shapes I began to look to more macroscopic imagery for inspiration. There is a glacial quality in the appearance of the newer pieces, as the lines seem to melt and become undone. Fluid lines drip off into empty space, or are they being contained? All of these forms seemingly contained within a circle, which I can only explain as an attempt to control what I was creating or to control the things that inspire me.”

Age: 21
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Education: BFA candidate, Interdisciplinary Sculpture, Kentucky College of Art + Design at Spalding University, Louisville, Kentucky

"Untitled #3" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 13.5x10.5in, monotype print on paper (2015), $100 |  BUY NOW

"Untitled #3" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 13.5x10.5in, monotype print on paper (2015), $100 | BUY NOW

"Untitled #2" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 3.5x3.5x3.5in, fired white clay (2015)

"Untitled #2" by Elizabeth Stevenson, 3.5x3.5x3.5in, fired white clay (2015)

Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

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Mixed Media

Vignette: Steve Heine

“Sweet Camille’s Halo” by Steve Heine, 18x18x2in, laser-cut steel, blue handblown sheet glass, poplar, one of a series of “Cloud Panels” (2015), $2700 |  BUY NOW

“Sweet Camille’s Halo” by Steve Heine, 18x18x2in, laser-cut steel, blue handblown sheet glass, poplar, one of a series of “Cloud Panels” (2015), $2700 | BUY NOW

Steve Heine is the owner of Cranium Glass in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is also the chief designer. Although trained as an architect, his work is primarily commissioned art glass for individual and corporate clients.

“Stained glass—composed of glass, paint and metal [lead]—is the prototypical architectural glass form. Currently, I’m working on a fresh approach to architectural glass using these same materials—hand blown sheet glass, paint [stark white metal primer] and metal [laser-cut steel]. My “Cloud Panels” [like stained glass] are designed to be illuminated by the sun. I’m particularly fascinated by the wash of color across steel. I’m working primarily with blue, violet, amber or green hand blown sheet glass for each of my “Cloud Panels”.

“I’m trying to transition to some smaller pieces and gallery sales. However, the high cost of my materials creates a bit of a dilemma for me. So, I’m trying to sell these new "Cloud Panels" by way of a concept drawing and a paper study model [8” x 8”] and images of past, completed pieces. Once a concept is commissioned, I can then make the piece in my studio.”

“Lucent Cloud” (concept drawing on left) by Steve Heine, 18x18x2in, laser-cut steel, blue handblown sheet glass, poplar, one of a series of “Cloud Panels” (2016), $2700 |  BUY NOW

“Lucent Cloud” (concept drawing on left) by Steve Heine, 18x18x2in, laser-cut steel, blue handblown sheet glass, poplar, one of a series of “Cloud Panels” (2016), $2700 | BUY NOW

Of course the final glass version is what both artist and viewer are drawn to, yet the minimalist clarity of Heine’s paper models is notable, a clean, simple aesthetic with an appeal all its own. While we envision an artist’s preparation as furiously scribbling on a pad, hands dirty with charcoal or chalk, the architect’s approach is on display here; the merging of the artist’s creativity with the practical functionality of an engineer. 

“Buoyancy” by Steve Heine, paper study model (2016) |  A  vailable for Commission

“Buoyancy” by Steve Heine, paper study model (2016) | Available for Commission

During 2016, Heine’s work was accepted in three juried exhibitions: 

•Louisville Visual Art & University of Louisville’s Hite Institute’s Open Studio Weekend Exhibition, juried exhibition, Cressman Center for the Visual Arts, Louisville, KY
Gathering: Contemporary Glass from the Heartland, juried exhibition “featuring the best of emerging and established glass artists from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Wisconsin—the heartland of America”, Muncie, IN
• Merit Award in Bluegrass Biennial: A Kentucky Juried Exhibition, Morehead, KY

Heine is now a member of PYRO Gallery in Louisville, and will be featured in the PYRO New Members Show, January 5 through February 11, 2017.

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Age: 55
Education: BA, Architecture, University of Kentucky, 1996; 
Website: http://www.craniumglass.squarespace.com/

“For My Brother, Gary, Who Is Much Older Than Me” by Steve Heine, 7x5(d) in, cast glass [lost-wax process], lathe-turned Kentucky black walnut. The wax positive for the glass was slowly turned by hand on a wood lathe. One of a series of “Wood Lathe Vessels”, NFS

“For My Brother, Gary, Who Is Much Older Than Me” by Steve Heine, 7x5(d) in, cast glass [lost-wax process], lathe-turned Kentucky black walnut. The wax positive for the glass was slowly turned by hand on a wood lathe. One of a series of “Wood Lathe Vessels”, NFS

A wax model for one of Steve Heine's “Wood Lathe Vessels”

A wax model for one of Steve Heine's “Wood Lathe Vessels”

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Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

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Mixed Media

Curatorial Spotlight: Ann Stewart Anderson


“I believe that I’m here to create in a world that’s falling apart.”


A photograph of Ann Stewart Anderson. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA

A photograph of Ann Stewart Anderson. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA

I’ve known Ann Stewart and her work much of my adult life. As I got to know her work, I admired it for its visual accessibility and its conceptual complexity. Her resume of accomplishments and milestones is pages long. Over the past several weeks, I’ve read what others have said about her work, what she’s said about it, and looked at images of pieces I remember, along with ones I’ve never seen. This process has only increased my admiration.

Recently, she and I had a conversation in her studio that ran the gamut from homemade paper dolls to theologian Paul Tillich’s assertion that myths express truth. 

In our conversation, Ann Stewart talked about her father, a Presbyterian minister who studied architecture in college, built a playhouse for his three little girls, and had the courage to stand up publically for civil rights in a time when most other white ministers steadfastly kept their seats; and her mother, an artist who nurtured her daughters’ creativity with easels and paints in the sunroom, building supplies outside, and the steady encouragement to imagine.

Her parents were bedtime story readers, letting the girls take turns picking the book. When it was Ann Stewart’s turn, she always picked Greek mythology, tales of valorous men in war and the women whose lives intersected their personal and public battles. 

Dolls hanging in Anderson's studio. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA.

Dolls hanging in Anderson's studio. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA.

After graduating with honors from Wellesley with a BA in art history, Ann Stewart got a job as a secretary to the Assistant Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With additional odd jobs and what she saved (proudly recalled) from her $2,700 a year job, she paid her own way through graduate school, earning a degree in painting from The American University.

Although she began her career in art as a painter, early collaborations with friends like potter Sarah Frederick and fiber artist Lida Gordon offered opportunities to experiment with other media. Her first big collaboration came when the Louisville Visual Art Association chose Ann Stewart as one of five artists for its “Collaborative Effort” show. The only condition was they needed to pick an artist from outside the region to work with.

But whom would she ask? “Somebody suggested Judy Chicago,” Ann Stewart recalls. At that time, Chicago was gaining a national reputation as a feminist artist with The Dinner Party. So Ann Stewart wrote a letter and sent some of her work. Miraculously, Chicago called. 

“What do you want to do?” Chicago asked.

A close look at Anderson's studio's desk. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA

A close look at Anderson's studio's desk. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA

Ann Stewart recalls feeling unprepared. “When she was on the phone, I had to say something, so I just said ‘menopause.’”

And that was the birth of the Hot Flash Fan project, a giant multi-media collaboration that eventually included work by over 50 artists and helped bring menopause out of the shadows and away from silly euphemisms like, “the change.”

Throughout her career, Ann Stewart’s subject has been women and the sustaining rhythm of their ordinary days. Her goal has always been to see women as subjects, not as objects. “That opens the possibility for other women to identify with the women in my work. I don’t paint portraits. I make up these women and somebody will say, ‘That reminds me of so-and-so,’ or the situations will remind them of themselves. Only women can do that. I admire male artists and have been influenced by the painting of Matisse, Bonnard and Max Beckmann, but I think there’s something significant about a woman artist being able to see something and identify with other women.”

But she’s also been a thoughtful artist, one who reads widely, assesses dispassionately and, for much of her life, kept an ongoing journal about her work: a conversation of ideas, technical struggles, connected and disconnected thoughts.

"Esther" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 14x12in, paper mosaic (2016)

"Esther" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 14x12in, paper mosaic (2016)

It’s Ann Stewart’s point of view that makes her work so provocative. In one series, she creates women in conversations. “It’s the kind of thing women are criticized for,” she says, “nattering, gossiping, but it’s how people learn things. It’s how the important things of life are passed on.” 

Her point of view sometimes reveals a wicked sense of humor, too, like the Ugly Bride series, and the Reject project that she put together at a time when she wasn’t being accepted in shows. “I got depressed,” she says. “Nobody wanted my work. It was going on too long and I decided I had to do something, so I created an art project.” By following the steps to enter a juried exhibit--excruciatingly well known by most artists—she made a point of attempting acceptance in twelve shows. The project culminated in a gala at Louisville Visual Art (LVA) when their home was the Louisville Water Tower, where all her rejection letters were displayed.

“The theme was ‘lemonade from lemons.’ Everything was yellow, and I put up all my rejections on a big wall and invited everybody else to stick theirs on, too, and then I gave ribbons for the best and worst rejections.” Although it was not part of the plan, the mojo worked. After that show—she started getting accepted again.

In her artist’s statement, Ann Stewart says her work is “characterized by dynamic ambiguity.” You can see that in the planes and angles of her “broken dish” women, or in those whose faces are partially hidden—under the brim of a hat, behind a veil or sunglasses, or the old women in extravagant dress and accessories. “You have to fill in the spaces yourself,” she says.

Various works hanging in Anderson's studio. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA.

Various works hanging in Anderson's studio. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis Photography for LVA.

One of the most satisfying experiences she’s had as an artist came with a series depicting the relationship between mother and daughter from the time the mother was pregnant until the day her daughter stood by her mother’s flower draped coffin. At the time, this work was displayed through LVA at Louisville International Airport. One day, Ann Stewart got a call from LVA telling her a woman had called, wanting to talk with her. She assumed the caller wanted to purchase her work, but as Ann Stewart recalls, “It was even better.”

“Are you the artist?” the woman asked.

When Ann Stewart said yes, the woman told her she’d never talked to an artist before but, ”’I was at the airport between planes when I saw your work. My daughter and I were having a big fight, but after I saw your work I was moved to reconcile with her.’ I tell that story to a lot of artists—it’s easy to feel guilty for ignoring social ills, but we don’t really know how our work affects people. “

"Sun Stand" by Ann Stewart Anderson, broken dish mosaic (2008) NFS

"Sun Stand" by Ann Stewart Anderson, broken dish mosaic (2008) NFS

Throughout her life, she’s been blessed with having good jobs to “support my habit,” she laughs. For her, there’s never been a question of how to balance making a living with making art. “Art has always come first. I always had a studio because making art is what I do.” Even marriage to Ron Mikulak, food writer and retired Food Editor for the Courier-Journal, has not created the tension some artists experience trying to balance home with making art. “I’ve been lucky. Ron cooks and I make art. When I’m working in the studio, he’s creating in the kitchen, where he loves to be. And when I come out of the studio, there’s a beautiful meal on the table.” 

Her work has tended to follow the chronology of her life. Today, she’s working on “old women” and, most lately, a series she calls the Teffubud Sisters

“I was working on the broken dish women, and I was getting really tired having to be in a mask breaking dishes. It was a big mess.” A friend gave Ann Stewart a book about paper mosaics. “I thought, ‘I’d like to try that,’” so she began hunting through some old art magazines she’d tried unsuccessfully to sell at a yard sale for material to use in mosaics. “I discovered I loved working with paper and scissors.”

"Discord (Women and War)" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 46x40in, oil on canvas (2010)

"Discord (Women and War)" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 46x40in, oil on canvas (2010)

That change of medium was fortuitous when she and her husband moved into a condominium where she couldn’t work with oil paints any more because of the fumes, and still more so later when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “There are some things I can’t do, but fortunately, I can still cut.”

The Teffubud Sisters were born from a picture of a grotesque man by artist Jean Dubuffet that Ann Stewart discovered in one of the art magazines. Each sister’s face takes its basic shape from the Dubuffet “parent,” but after that the ridges, lines and contours of each woman—and her adornments—belong to her alone. 

Parkinson’s has forced other accommodations. The most painful? - The fact that she can’t write any more. As she tells me this, Ann Stewart points to a long row of books and notebooks on the top shelf in her studio. “I’ve always journaled about what I’m doing—and I can’t any more. That’s really hard.”

So how does she look at her art now? “I don’t think being recognized is the most important thing anymore. I want to be like Renoir—and this story might be apocryphal—but he’s supposed to have painted on the day he died. That’s what I want to be. I want to keep creating.” 

Today, she says, that’s more important than ever. “I believe that I’m here to create in a world that’s falling apart. Creative energy is the only counter to all the destructive energy out there. That’s why it’s so important for all of us.”

"Phoebe" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 14x12in, paper mosaic (2015)

"Phoebe" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 14x12in, paper mosaic (2015)

"Millie" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 14x12in, paper mosaic (2016)

"Millie" by Ann Stewart Anderson, 14x12in, paper mosaic (2016)


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This Feature article was written by Sarah Yates.
Sarah Yates is a writer who lives and works in Louisville, KY.


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