Painting a place where art, environment collide
by Stewart Oksenhorn, ASPEN TIMES WEEKLY
“River Run,” mixed-media on canvas diptych, is part of an exhibit of new works by part-time Snowmass Village resident Allison Stewart. Courtesy of David Floria Gallery.
Allison Stewart says she entered the art world through the back door, and there’s truth in the statement. When Stewart began a master’s program in painting at the University of New Orleans, her prior exposure to the visual arts was through her undergraduate studies — in biology.
“I’m one of those people who loved dissecting plants and animals, and making my own slides. It was a creative thing, and most of all I loved the visual part,” said Stewart.
It is equally accurate to say that Stewart backed into making art. After her undergrad years, at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., she worked in transplant studies in Jackson, Miss., analyzing blood work for organ-transplant patients. She might have gone further in the medical field but for the fact that she hated chemistry. So while her kids were very young, Stewart re-examined her career path. When her kids were off to grade school, she took up fine art.
When it came to choosing the predominant subject matter of her work, Stewart entered through the front door, in an act of willful choosing. A Chicago native, Stewart had discovered New Orleans on weekend trips from Mobile. “And once you have a taste, you don’t go back,” she said. Stewart now spends part of the time at her home in Snowmass Village, but her heart belongs to New Orleans, where she has a house in the Warehouse District. Stewart speaks with a wealth of insight about the city’s music scene, social issues and political challenges.
And the environment. In the mid-’90s, her attention was grabbed by the physical deterioration of southern Louisiana. She learned that the area was losing 25 square miles a year into the Gulf of Mexico, and the figure was accelerating.
“It just sank off the coast of Louisiana, into the Gulf of Mexico,” said Stewart. “I spent a long time on research, figuring out why this was happening. Didn’t paint for months. I wanted to find out about the political machinations, the oil companies.”
Around the same time, Stewart took a class at the Andersen Ranch Arts Center, led by Mel Chin. “And he said, you have to be responsible for what you put out in the world: ‘Don’t put it out if you don’t have anything to say,'” she recalled.
Stewart’s flight back to New Orleans passed over southern Louisiana. She could see, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, shallow areas that had once been above water. “I thought, ‘That’s my subject.’ Just like that,” she said.
Stewart began making images that balanced between the abstract and the figurative. They were meant to put viewers in mind of the disappearing coastline, but in a most subtle way. There was no overt message to the paintings.
“I don’t want to be that kind of preacher in art,” she said. “The bigger picture for me is beauty and loss. For me, it’s about the visual, what you see. And the visceral. If I don”t feel it that way, the art hasn’t spoken.” Her art, she noted, was “not as forceful as maybe other people do it.”
Three years ago, Stewart witnessed the natural devastation wreaked on her city by Hurricane Katrina —which she simply refers to as “the storm” — and the unnatural, even inhumane response to the disaster. It was a pivotal moment: “Everything is defined as before the storm or after the storm,” she said.
The environmental issues in her paintings haven’t changed, but the way Stewart approaches them has. In her latest series, opening at the David Fiona Gallery with a reception on Wednesday, July 23, the pieces are more chaotic; there’s an almost-violent way the elements are placed on the canvas.
“Before the storm, it was more plush,” she said. “Now it’s more spare and disconnected. There’s some uprootedness. Nothing is stable.”
Where her earlier work depicted nature in its natural state, post-Katrina pieces like “River Run” and “In the Wind” reveal the disruptive hand of humanity
“It’s how nature works of its own accord, finding its rhythm and balance,” said Stewart. “And then how man interferes. And look at the results.”