“I believe that I’m here to create in a world that’s falling apart.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. “
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.”
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.”
This Feature article was written by Sarah Yates.
Sarah Yates is a writer who lives and works in Louisville, KY.
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