This New Orleans artist takes inspiration from the Louisiana wetlands for her graceful ecological works
by Elizabeth Dewberry, SOUTHERN ACCENTS
Allison Stewart’s transition from a biology major who wanted to create black-and-white drawings for medical textbooks to an expressionist painter whose watery dreamscapes are colorful, vibrant, and anything but sterile is not as strange as it may seem. Stewart moved to the Deep South to attend college in Mobile. And while her classroom training brought her an appreciation for how the human body works, her affinity for local topographies led her to translate her scientific knowledge into an intuitive feeling for ecosystems as living bodies that can get sick or be wounded and even die, but which can also be cured. Now a longtime resident of New Orleans, she creates pictures inspired by those bodies, specifically the Louisiana wetlands, hoping her work will contribute toward their healing by celebrating their fragile beauty.
Louisiana wetlands, she explains, are “not quite water, not quite land, and even before Hurricane Katrina, they were eroding at an alarming rate. I paint about how man and nature work and, sometimes, don’t work together—that uneasy balance.” Arthur Roger, who represents Stewart in his New Orleans gallery, describes her work as “so exquisite that you could hardly imagine there’s something political about it.” But, he says, “the motivation is her concern for the erosion of the Louisiana coastline.”
She first draws man-made representations of nature, such as flight charts or maps that show locations of natural resources. She is less concerned about re-creating her original materials with accuracy than about creating “the architecture, the scaffolding onto which I hang color and shape,” she says.
Although she takes inspiration from photographs and sketches or rubbings of leaves or tree bark, she avoids using specific sources. “I”m painting about change, about a swamp where the morning light is very different from the afternoon, where the shape and composition 10 years ago aren”t the same as today or 10 years from now,” she says.
Stewart works on two or three paintings at a time because, she says, “I don’t like to sit around watching paint dry.” She uses opaque acrylics to move into what she calls “a more visceral, less conscious design activity, any gestural activity where I’m just throwing the paint around. Moving from one painting to another creates an energy, a conversation within and between the paintings.”
She compares the last step of the process to a musical call-and- response pattern. At this stage, she adds medium to make the paint more translucent, then layers on the colors, with each successive layer answering the others in a manner similar to the way a tuba, for example, responds to a saxophone in a jazz band.
“It’s a gestural composition in which the paint and the process are fluid,” she says. “At some points, I need the paint to be in control. At others, I need to take control and make order out of the chaos I just created.”
When she’s finished, her passion to express and protect the organic beauty of life is always apparent.