Commissioned by royalty on two continents, Lonnie Stewart is a superstar in the international art world; yet he’s so dedicated to his central Illinois roots that he continues to base his life and work in Peoria.
And why not, he asks? “Living in Peoria has never restricted my work elsewhere in the world. The very fact that I live here seems to intrigue many of my clients elsewhere. It creates a story you otherwise lose living in the heart of New York City, for instance. The key is that I must travel constantly so I know what’s going on,” he explained.
Even after spending time in Europe during his late teen years with a Florentine artist in Italy, it is tobogganing down Illinois slopes in his youth that still affects his aesthetic appreciation for nature.
Stewart spent his early years in the rural community of Delong, outside of Galesburg, where the school system didn’t offer art classes. Fortunately, his parents encouraged their young son to develop his artistic nature. “They sought out private lessons for me and gave me my first set of oils at the age of 9. I started to paint portraits of everyone in the neighborhood; many of these early portraits still exist,” he said. Just before the age of 15, his parents moved to Galesburg and a school district that offered an art curriculum.
“I was in heaven,” he said.
As far back as he can remember, Stewart spent his free time drawing, frequently staying up all night to work at his craft. Faces, especially, captured his attention. “Faces still intrigue me—in particular the eyes of every person I meet,” he said. “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.”
His budding talent was obvious to everyone around him, and Stewart said friends, family and neighbors all commented on his unique ability. He never considered another career path. “I believe you’re either born an artist or you’re not. Whether you apply your art as a lifetime commitment is something else altogether. In my case, I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything but art. I’ve ventured into other fields along the course of my life but have always held onto my art as the eventual outcome—my goal in life.”
Thousands of people hope to make it as artists, so how did he achieve what others only dream? Stewart credits much of his success to his steadfast goal to make it in the profession. “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 along as you can, you should always keep going,” Stewart said. “No matter what, I always kept working with the arts.” He also credits his exposure to people all over the world to a dedicated network of friends and family. “Exposure is obviously vital to an artist’s career,” he said. “I’ve been blessed in this area. My first commission in England was the daughter of a famous Greek shipper, which led to many other commissions. The Greek community in London led to meeting the polo crowd; British royalty; the Greek king in exile, Constantine; and princely families of India and parts of Europe.”
Stewart’s career blossomed at a break-neck pace, and he now splits his time between his Peoria studio and a studio in Charleston, S.C. “Charleston has always held a strong attachment, partially because my father was from the South, and I’ve always been fascinated with the history it holds. I also love the architecture, the food, and the community of artists. Having said that, I also like Peoria because of wonderful friends—and the growth of this city is exciting as well.”
The art he creates in both studios has taken shape in a variety of mediums. Stewart said his specialty is portraiture but admits sculpture is his true passion. “I love sculpting anything—from portrait busts to orchids and animals. I visit every zoo possible as I travel and always take clay with me to sculpt the animals from life.”
Stewart’s recent sculpture commission, the “twin” bronze statues of St. Jude to honor Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy’s co-founding of the Memphis-to-Peoria Run, has attracted a lot of local attention. “The assignment was for me to connect Memphis, which is where the run begins, to Peoria, where the run completes. I came up with the image of St. Jude releasing doves in Memphis, then receiving them in Peoria. St. Jude holds a club smiting a serpent, which symbolizes the conquering of disease,” he explained.
He said the Peoria statue, currently in a temporary location, ultimately will be displayed at the new Children’s Hospital.
The statues for St. Jude are just the latest in a long line of career highlights for Stewart. “I’ve traveled to exotic places and met some of the most interesting and influential people in the world,” he said. “Many of them were commissioned portraits: Mother Teresa; HRH Diana, the Princess of Wales; HRH Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York; Pope John Paul II; HM King Constantine; and the Maharana of Mewar in Udaipur, India, to name a few.”
Sometimes what happens during the portraiture process is as noteworthy as the individuals themselves. “I was given 24-hour armed guards in Manila while there painting President Ferdinand Marcos. Then later during the revolution, I watched my painting being destroyed on television as the revolutionaries stormed the palace,” he said.
Among his other adventures, Stewart lived in Mother Teresa’s convent in Calcutta absorbing her experiences and observing her work firsthand.
“I visited the leper colony and her orphanage. It was amazing to me to see what she did…treating the hopeless and dying,” Stewart said. “She and other volunteers touched them, no one should have to die alone.”
He was also the only artist allowed into the holding tank on the Confederate submarine, the Hunley, immediately after it was raised to measure, sketch and photograph for hours prior to bodies being removed.
While many of his commissions have contracted for famous people or events, Stewart said he treats all of his portraits the same. “My work is to collect the character and personality of the subject. Therein lies the challenge and never-ending excitement for me. I’ve always been fascinated with individual characters and what makes them tick, to observe and feel who they really are, how they see themselves, and how I see them. It’s a combination that becomes a sensitive issue and a delicate balance in a portrayal.”
Stewart said before he touches clay or canvas with a commission, he has to do his homework. “All require research—whether it’s a portrait or a historical project like the Hunley painting and sculptures in Charleston, S.C. This might be research of the character’s life or what makes a flower what it is. Every work is a different challenge. Sometimes I read biographies, sometimes the Bible, sometimes the Farmer’s Almanac—anything pertinent to the project at hand. This part of a commission is hidden from view at the finish of the piece, yet very time-consuming and so essential.”
Despite the enormous success he’s enjoyed, Stewart said there are still statues he intends to bring to life. “My dream is to create enormous bronze statues of the original great explorers who developed the Illinois River bed: Marquette, La Salle, Jolliet, Gravier— including some of the famous Native Americans, each one a unique personality and so fascinating. These monuments would be placed strategically in the Illinois River to provide education of our history and to promote tourism for the towns and cities along the Illinois River. Our river is a vital part of our history here. We need to understand its importance not only from historical development, but how it plays a part in our present and the unfolding of our future as well. These colossal monuments would attract tourists from all over the world and provide exposure to the importance of Illinois history through our treasured waterway.”
The projects with which he’s currently involved—portraits in Peoria, New York and North Carolina and sculpture commissions in New York and Memphis—will take him across the country. But at the end of the day, Stewart is clearly satisfied with where he makes his home—appreciating both the comfort and inspiration he finds in central Illinois. “If I don’t like the environment, it’s such a downer, I get physically ill. I guess I’ll always be a small town guy in many ways,” he said. “After all, my roots are here, and the change of seasons is beautiful to feel and observe.” a&s