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      August 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
Page 4    
Twilight on the Ranch (Indianola, Sanpete County) by LeConte Stewart, circa 1950, courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts

LeConte Stewart . . . from page 1

Stewart was taught by Swedish-born New York artist John F. Carlson, who was well versed in European schools and techniques and passed this training along to Stewart. The range of artistic approaches available to him allowed Stewart to elicit a symbiotic relationship with his formal approach to the subject and the mood it effectuated. Stewart was a prolific artist whose decades of painting and teaching have made him one of the most influential artists in Utah. The majority of work in The Soul of Rural Utah comes from the first few decades of his career and show the artist experimenting stylistically. His motifs, however, remain fairly consistent. As Davis explains, “He was attracted to the land, to the loneliness of the deserts, the isolated homes and the relationships he found in the contrasts and disconnects.” As a young artist he was not motivated by anything other than his own desire to discover the land through his painting. “Each one is new and original and fulfilling,” says Davis.

Looking at LeConte Stewart’s vision of the open landscapes of rural Utah, one might think of Vincent van Gogh in Arles, engrossed by the light he had discovered that allowed him to create his expressive wonders. In the mesmerizing painting "Kaysville, Winter" (1930) we can see something of the expressive color of van Gogh.|1| The white of the snow on the road and atop the houses has cool tones of violets, blues and greens; the hue of the house, partly obscured by sinewy trees, is a hypnotic shade of turquoise, lending this painting a distinctive expressive quality.

According to Davis, this expression was natural to Stewart and not contrived. He worked from the inside out. The mood came and the method followed, making the realization authentic and the mood palpable. “He did not like pretense or presumptuousness… he was ‘take it or leave it’.” From Carlson he “learned to use his teachings as a vehicle to summarize how the mind balances the structural and the beautiful and each landscape was a new experience,” says Davis. “He expressed his feelings through moods which was a balanced self-expression.”

"Afternoon Sunlight, October," painted when Stewart was 30, is a brilliant example of his balanced self-expression (see below). The painting is an interesting composition, a hedge of trees on the left bordering a country road, a field of grass occupying the remainder of the foreground, a slight hillside to the right pulling the eye back into the center of the composition. The painting is a very successful plein air landscape after the tradition of the Impressionists. The sky would not be so bright without flakes of yellows, golds and pinks, or the field feel as rich without hints of amber and gradient tones of greens; the trees would not come alive without the variety of color reflecting the afternoon sunlight. The mood evokes relaxation, calm, joviality, rest, freedom… an abundance of good feeling.

This artist, cloistered in his artistic reality, so true to himself and his own experience, can he be relevant to an audience today? Is he a Utah “old master,” or does he still matter? For the exhibition at the LDS Church History Museum, much of the relevance of LeConte Stewart’s work comes from the legacy of the land itself, and the title The Soul of Rural Utah attests to, as Davis says, “the soul being projected by him through landscapes, sharing the spiritual through the visual.” Observe "Twilight on the Ranch," a vista from Indianola, in Sanpete County, painted in 1950.|0| The scene is a classic Stewart composition: a foreground of prairie, a middle ground with a ranch and hills, and then sky. No piece in the show takes a stronger academic approach than this one, looking something like a pointillist piece, and no landscape in the show evokes a feeling quite like it… one of peace, harmony and utter tranquility. The painting is in oil but the colors are light pastel hues, with cooler tones in the back, warmer in the front, the ranch a simplified shape. In this assemblage of dots and dashes of color, bathed in subdued twilight, one feels a serene sense of balance and calm… one might call this feeling spiritual.

The landscapes of LeConte Stewart are compellingly relevant today. They show a prolific range of formal approaches and each evokes a particular mood, an emotion, a spirit, a feeling… feelings that can be experienced on a personal level by today’s audience. These are not dry academic experiments but are LeConte Stewart’s experience and his personal artistic expression and are still as powerful and alive today because his experience of them then was truly authentic. Says Davis, “There were those who mastered the art of landscape and there were those who understood it” and LeConte Stewart did understand it and feel it because he loved it.

Afternoon Sunlight, October, circa 1928, by LeConte Stewart, courtesy Harris and Amanda Simmons

Hints 'n' Tips
The Plein Air Attraction
Reflections on an artistic journey

Besides the actual art, what is it about plein air painting that attract so many artists? Most of us would probably agree that it is all about the light, coupled with atmosphere and a certain peace of mind. As I see it, most people are drawn to light; it fills our very beings, when we are out in nature especially. Think for a moment, about one of your fondest memories in the field, and I would bet you have feelings of warmth; of the sun shining on your face, with a soft breeze and calmness in the air. On another level, it’s almost as much a place of mind as it is a physical location. I see my time in the field not only as a way to create artistically, but as a means to commune with nature and find solace in a troubled world. This solace is key to finding peace, and a centeredness that satisfies the artist inside. I think, as a group, plein air painters enjoy the pleasure of the moment, so to speak. We savor our environment on a deeper level than most; it’s who we are.

A few years ago, while on a trip to Ventura, California to see family, I needed to make a stop in Carmel for some gallery business. I decided that a trip up Highway 1 was in order and made sure to pack my paints for the journey. On the way up, I passed through some amazing country along the coast of Big Sur, where my family had stopped to camp in my teen years, back in the '60s. It was the perfect day, the tide was low and the rock formations and tide pools, bathed in the misty air of that afternoon autumn day, were outstanding. I made several stops along the way to take out my paints and savor the beauty that was everywhere. Needless to say, it took me a while to get to Carmel; I camped one night beneath the giant redwoods just as we had done years before. Morning was even more spectacular, and the experience was so wonderful I could hardly stand the thought of getting back to the real world again. As I stopped to work along the coast, I felt a peace that was poetic in nature and would be hard to describe to anyone who isn’t familiar with the plein air experience. You know what I am saying, this was something that was enjoyed by all five senses, and it was not only the physical presence of the light and air, but it was an experience of smell, taste, hearing and touch; add to that a sort of spiritual awakening and you have it. I think in some ways, this type of journey is the glue that holds plein air painters together in a sort of brother/sisterhood that is unique to our sub culture.

I have noticed that, as a group, we tend not to dwell too long on the negative. We share a passion for art and nature and enjoy each others’ company on paint-outs, and any time we can get together to talk art. There isn’t a lot of competition either, and for the most part we share our knowledge and experience with our friends freely.
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I sometimes head out early in the morning with a painting destination in mind, passing over roads and freeways with the rest of the rush hour traffic, heading to my “office of choice” while feeling sorry for those who don’t get to glory in this unique experience. Those of us who paint in nature have it good, there’s no doubt about it! The boss is friendly, the office has ambiance, the breaks are unscheduled and the hours are dictated only by how long the desired ratio of light and shadow will last at any particular site; who could ask for more? The old song “Free Bird” by Lenard Skynard comes to mind.

In the bustle of modern life, so many people are caught up in the rush and din, that they hardly take a moment to enjoy the beauty that surrounds them. It’s an easy negative spiral to get into. Life becomes so hectic that one can often let cares and worries overshadow the necessity to commune in a positive way with the natural world. Since I can remember, I’ve always felt the desire to go to that peaceful place in my mind or in nature, that carefree Walden Pond environment where the world can be shut out. Of course this way of doing things came with its own set of punishments; I spent some time in elementary school being scolded for daydreaming by the Nuns at the New York parochial school I attended when I should have been paying attention to the lesson de jour. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my behavior was just part of being an artist at heart. In a sense, I was doing my job and they didn’t get it.

Fortunately, over the years, like many other artists, I have learned how to straddle the divide between both worlds; living on the left and right side of the brain in a world designed mostly for left-sided thinkers. I’m sure that this is a shared experience that most of my readers will relate to in their own personal way. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my artistic journey for anything!

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