A blank canvas. Thoughts, emotions, laughter, facial expressions- all brought to life by simple brush strokes. Creating the painting, the artist molds the work into a unique perception of the subject. When the work is done, it’s displayed, with pride, as a conversation piece.
Looking at the painting, one thing is clear; a talented and mysterious artist is behind the masterpiece. This artist- Lonnie Stewart- is also as unique as one of the many masterpieces he creates as a labor of love.
Capturing a person’s depth and character is a talent Stewart had to develop, but today, capturing people’s spirit in a way no one else can is what he does best- from commissioned portraits of Pope John Paul II to Princess Diana to Mother Theresa.
The Early Years
The artist developed an appreciation for his surroundings at a young age. “I grew up outside of Galesburg in a rural community; it was a wonderful experience for me. I loved being involved with nature, the countryside, playing in the streets, and tobogganing down the slopes.”
Although being immersed in nature and country living was an advantage, not having an art curriculum in the schools was one disadvantage Stewart took to heart.
“My parents acknowledged I had an artistic talent and sought art lessons for me when I was nine. They gave me a set of oils when I was 10, and I sold my first portrait at the age,” he said. The portrait was of a family of five who lived in the country. “They liked the portrait very much, and I think they gave me a candy bar,” laughed Stewart.
Stewart’s family moved to Galesburg when he was in the ninth grade, to a school that offered an art curriculum. “I was in Heaven,” said Stewart.
After high school, he spent time in Europe and studied with a Florentine artist in Italy who helped him learn the elements of portraiture and figurative painting. “That time was a period of intense independent study. I tried to visit every museum and gallery possible,” he said.
Stewart later returned home to study briefly under Isaac Peterson at Knox College. He continued his education at Chicago’s Art Institute where he received a classic education in art history and applied arts. “My dream was always to be an artist. The early years were a constant struggle. No matter how far removed my various careers seemed to take me from my dream, I was always painting on the side. Often, most of the night. I never gave up the hope or vision I had as a child, though it was a long time before I could support myself completely as an artist,” said Stewart.
As a professional artist he admits it was a lot of work, as it always is. Stewart advises young artists, and those struggling with the profession to stay with it, because eventually it will work out. “Artists should always continue to work towards their goals, eventually they can do it. Sometimes you have to do other things to get by, but as long as you can always keep going, you should. That’s what I’ve always done, no matter what, I always kept working with the arts,” he said.
The fascination with people’s character, and their eyes, isn’t something that he can explain. “I’m not sure why, but I have always been fascinated with eyes and the character of a person, and I’ve always loved to record that. It’s funny, but at the age of nine and 10, I was drawn to faces in portraits and it’s never left me,” he said.
Concentrating mainly on portraiture, Stewart is also interested in bronze portraitures, monotypes, and other creative expressions. His most significant bronze is his recent six- foot statue of Mother Theresa commissioned by Bishop Myers. The statue is located at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.
Inspired by Charleston, South Carolina, he used the Palmetto bug as a theme for a series of monotypes. “The Palmetto bug is a very large pest in the low country. I’ve made this bug fun and sort of turned it around into a mascot. All of the monotypes relate to Charleston, it is such an inspiring place. I like the texture and the richness of the colors, and the work is a total departure from what I normally do,” Stewart said. Along with Studio 621 in Peoria, he now has a temporary studio in Charleston. “I have been visiting Charleston all my life, it is my favorite city in the United States, without a doubt. Everything is there… it’s so cosmopolitan that it’s really fascinating.”
Inspiration is different for everyone, and Stewart has many catalysts for his creativity. “There is so much that inspires me, other artists, people- just people. Environment inspires me, if I don’t like the environment it’s such a downer, I get physically ill. I’m very compatible with most people, and that’s very helpful; obviously it’s important to what I do, to extract someone else’s personality. I’m always looking at art and sculpture- I can’t get enough of it. That’s true inspiration,” he said.
The First Commission
When inspired, a mentor may help make sense of expression, and how to express. Stewart has such a person, M.J. Ostrom, an Illinois designer who has lived most of her life abroad. They met in Galesburg, and their friendship has continued for the last 20 years. Because of her design work, Ostrom had several connections in Europe and was eager to introduce Stewart to her associates. “All I had to do was introduce him, and his talent did the rest,” said Ostrom of Stewart.
“M.J. has been a terrific mentor. She pushed me to broaden my horizons, and I learned nothing is impossible if you work hard enough. She’s a fascinating person who introduced me to many people in Europe. My first commission was introduced by Ostrom,” said Stewart.
Stewart’s first commission was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse, and also one he’ll never forget. “I was painting a portrait for a Greek shipper whose daughter had died. I had to do the painting solely from photographs. I finished the painting and was going to deliver it to the father the next day. I took the painting down to my car to take it home, but when I got home, the painting wasn’t in my car. I retraced my steps and couldn’t find it anywhere. I put announcements on the radio, and in the paper in hopes someone would see the painting and return it to me. I got a call from a truck driver who said he ran over the painting. I got the painting back from him, and it wasn’t badly damaged so I dried it off, varnished it again, and took it to the father. About a year later I got a call from him telling me that tire tracks suddenly appeared on the painting. I was so horrified,” laughed Stewart.
Other commissions followed, including former King Constanine, Duchess of York “Fergie”, Princess Diana, Maharana of Udaipur, and many others.
The list or portraitures Stewart has completed, or is in the process of completing, is impressive and remarkable.
He has painted some of the most interesting and well- known people in the Peoria community, and the world. He has traveled countless miles to capture a subject in their homeland, and in their environment.
When talking to Stewart, there is a sense of awe; it’s simply remarkable. Included in his travels are mystery, and sometimes, danger.
“When I traveled to the Philippines to paint Ferdinand Marcos, it was the time of the coup, and there was a lot of publicity about an American artist who had come to paint Marcos. I had death threats and disturbing phone calls; there were so many terrible things going on at that time. Marcos gave me guards while I was painting; it made me feel pretty important,” he laughed.
Commissions come to Stewart in many different ways. “I had a commissioner who was Mother Teresa’s spiritual advisor for 14 years. The commissions surround me, and come from all channels. The Europeans, Greeks, Indians, and many others have come through Ostrom. When I complete a portrait, there are viewing parties and people that see my work, then commission me,” said Stewart.
One of the most exciting portraitures for Stewart to paint was the Maharana of Udaipur. “It was a fabulous experience. It was like a storybook land. Most of the Maharajah have lost their power, but this ruler is so well respected because he is one of the only ones who works for the people of the country. His father started some very important work with schools, hospitals, and other community building projects. Many of the previous leaders were very selfish and taxed their people into poverty for their own wealth. This family was not like that,” he said.
When Stewart was commissioned for this project, the Maharana opened up his home for three months for the artist. “The palace has 1,000 rooms. You can imagine my reaction when flying into Udaipur, in a small plane and the pilot said to me ‘If you look to the right you’ll see where you’ll be staying.’ He had the most exquisite antiques and arts… everything was there, it was a fabulous three months,” he said.
The uniqueness of Stewart’s paintings comes from what he is able to extract from the subject. “When I did the portrait of the Maharana, I looked at the history of portraits and found they were very heavy and dark and didn’t represent India. This country is all about light and colors. I wanted to bring that out in the present ruler, and I finally convinced him this would be a great portrait- with light, not darkness,” Stewart explained.
Another icon of present day Stewart was able to capture before her death was Mother Theresa. “When I was in Calcutta, I visited the leper colony and her orphanage The Home of the Destitute and Dying. It was amazing to me what she did in the course of her lifetime, helping to many people. Treating the hopeless and dying, she and other volunteers held the people and touched them, and let them know that someone was there… no one should have to die alone,” he said.
The key for Stewart is to get the full idea of who someone is, to meet them in their home or native land.
“I really like to be able to paint a person where they are at the time. That was very important for me when painting Mother Theresa; I felt like I needed to be in Calcutta to see the real person. I could then see and understand her better,” he said.
A Personal Style
“I prefer to paint from sittings, because that’s the best way to capture a person, but people don’t have much time and I don’t have much time because I travel so much. There is nothing like painting from life, nothing in the world,” Stewart said.
“People fascinate me. I can generally empathize with most of the people who I paint. I think I have the ability to understand how a person sees themselves, and what’s important to them. It’s a real challenge to interpret another human being to their satisfaction. I’ve always been complimented on my portraiture’s eyes. Years ago, I heard someone say that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. So capturing that aspect is very important to me,” he said.
The portraiture of the Pope is an extraordinary example of how Stewart displays the character of who he’s painting. “The Pope has a favorite gesture, and his favorite sculpture is in the same pose, with his arms outstretched to the Heavens. The whole purpose or theory of being a Pope is that you are ascended to the power of Christ, and in this painting that’s what I wanted to capture,” he said.
To have a majority of people enjoy the work you produce is rare, and a delight. But, there is always someone who isn’t completely happy.
“The only bad comment I received was when I painted G. Gordon Libby. His wife didn’t like the face that I painted him with a bald head. At the time he was filming Miami Vice and that’s the way he was; he had a shaved head,” laughed Stewart.
Setting His Roots
Stewart likes Peoria and considers it his home. “I like the people of Peoria. I love Peoria. It’s native to me. I love my studio, the history; I like the whole feeling. I love seeing the development of the riverfront,” he said.
The riverfront development is an exciting project that Stewart is proud to be a part of. “When I looked at the studio space, nothing had been done to the building. Now look at it- there is so much down here, but the river remains the true jewel,” Stewart said.
Since Studio 621 is Stewart’s private Peoria studio and workplace, commissions and studio visits are welcomed, but by appointment only.
Stewart’s future is unknown, but will definitely include many new and familiar faces, as well as new and unique stories behind the portraits.
“I just want to paint everybody,” laughed Stewart. “You go to the ballet and see these beautiful people, then you walk along the street and see people, they are all characters, and I want to record it all,” he said.
Stewart would also like to be able to continue working with bronzes, but on a larger scale.
“I would like to tackle more pieces of large bronzes, I love working large; I like that challenge. I’m currently working on a piece for Charleston. There is a group resurrecting a submarine that went down in Civil War time, with eight people still inside the vessel,” he said.
The amazing part of this story is where Stewart steps in. In his studio he has a small version of the bronze he would like to complete in memory of this tragedy. It has a coffin- symbolizing the submarine- with the confederate flag draped over the top.
The coffin is being pulled out of the water by the eight soldiers who have been trapped in the vessel since it sank. It is a moving interpretation of the moments of the Civil War.
Through the years, various things have been a struggle for Stewart, but one constant has remained. “I’ve just always worked night and day, and done two or three paintings at a time; I just wish I has more time, that I didn’t have to sleep,” he laughed.
With all the famous people and leaders of our day who he has painted, Stewart is still very modest.
“I describe success like this- if I’m allowed to work as I feel, and the freedom to create as I please, then that in itself is being successful. I am happy, and I do what I want to do now, which is work as an artist, and at this time in my life I am very grateful to be able to work as an artist and go wherever the path leads me,” he said. AA!