Exhibition Celebration: August 12, 2023 at 1:00pm
With its 19th-century charm and old-world grandeur, Victoria Hall is the perfect venue for Shelagh Stewart’s current exhibition and collection of works, Forever Lately. Standing before her tall triptych From the Top with swirling colours, though abstract, one is momentarily transported to a space illuminated by colourful lights streaming through stained-glass windows. The omnipresent celestial beauty encountered is reminiscent of a heavenly constellation—dynamic and alive. Stewart’s embodied approach to painting can be seen through vigorous brushstrokes and movement. Thus, many of the large painted canvases on display highlight the significance of the artist’s physical body in the process of creation and that of the viewer in relation to the works. This exhibition is a culmination of Stewart’s use of bold colours and skillful mark-making.
A long-time resident of Cobourg, Shelagh Stewart is no stranger to the artistic community in Northumberland County. She has been an active member of the local art scene since 2016, when she curated the highly successful exhibition Northumberland Honours Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. This featured 30 celebrated Canadian artists, many of whom were county residents. Building upon that initial partnership, Stewart has since become actively involved with the Art Gallery of Northumberland and its array of exhibitions, many of which she has curated. Honing her curatorial skills during her time at the Ontario Crafts Council, although short in duration, Stewart found the research and engagement with artists deeply engaging and intellectually stimulating.
Shelagh Stewart was born during a rare snowstorm in Guildford, England, a fact she considers an auspicious foretelling of her eventual move to Canada. At 16, Stewart began her art education at the Hornsey School of Art, now Hornsey College of Art, where her painting advisors included renowned British artist Bridget Riley—a prominent contributor to the Op Art movement of the 1960s. Outnumbered by male students and teachers, Stewart recalls her encounters with Riley as one where two women talked about an art world where being an artist was viewed as synonymous with being a man. One of only four female students in the painting studio, Stewart’s stories highlight the early struggles women faced in a highly gendered environment.
Belonging to a generation of artists for whom abstraction was a way of seeing the world rather than a mere style, Stewart recalls long-gone days when as students, they would congregate at one London cafe or another, forever talking about art. On rare occasions, they might even find themselves lucky enough to garner a gem of knowledge from more established artists such as Francis Bacon. Stewart’s early works of the 1960s consisted of large canvases with hard-edged geometric shapes and semi-abstract images exhibited in Great Britain.
Always one for taking on adventures and breaking through barriers, Stewart left her family behind upon graduating from art school and made the long sea journey to the United States on The Aurora. After meeting her late husband, artist, and potter Vaughan Stewart, in Wisconsin, the couple moved to Detroit, Michigan, and eventually emigrated to Canada. Several years and two sons later, they bought a farm in St. Thomas, Ontario, where they established a pottery studio and taught various workshops. Continuing throughout this period, Stewart painted and exhibited large canvases and, keeping with the minimalism of the period, tended to focus on no more than two or three colours at a time.
In the current exhibition, a Shelagh Stewart painting brings to mind a warm sunny day—bright yellow, lush greens, and sky blues—even though they were completed in the dark, cold days of the Canadian winter. Irrespective of changing seasons, on most days, she could be found working in her studio surrounded by perfectly arranged tubes of paint, bottles of ink, brushes, and coloured pencils—many of which she rescued from local charity shops. Cutting a singular figure amongst at least a dozen half-finished canvases, now completed, she was never alone—Peppa, the rescue dog, could be seen quietly napping nearby.
Having been brought up in Wells, Somerset, England, the gentle countryside—water, hills, and coastline—seems to have imprinted on her memory. The Somerset series in this exhibition, which consists of mixed media collages, is an homage to Stewart’s memories. Almost as if mimicking nature itself, each piece of paper, in varying shades and colours, is harmoniously brought together to create a whole—framing a moment of calm reflection. This early way of seeing the world from an artist’s perspective is something that Stewart learned firsthand from seeing her grandfather create art. Reg Gammon, a British painter and illustrator, believed being an artist is something you learn from life rather than something you are taught in school. Stewart fondly recalls her arms growing numb after holding long poses while modelling for her grandfather as he taught drawing from life to local ‘dowager’ ladies. Indeed, Stewart finds it challenging to put into words the immense influence her grandfather had on her developing artistic sensibilities. One can glimpse Gammon’s early influence in the lively colours of Stewart’s works. Though stylistically far removed from Gammon’s expressionist paintings of fishing boats docked at a marina, Stewart’s dynamic brushstrokes reach beyond the canvas like lapping waves on the shore, revealing a shared love of colour–one that lasted until his death at the age of 103.
When Stewart left England, her early canvases were painted on by Gammon—Stewart finds a sense of poetic partnership and collaboration in knowing that she and her grandfather painted upon the same surfaces. Raised during a time of scarcity and rationing, Stewart’s appreciation for materials has remained with her throughout the years. Recycling, reusing, and upcycling, though acutely practiced by Stewart’s generation of artists (and indeed their forerunners), was always a necessary part of the process rather than a preference or theoretical approach. The works displayed in this exhibition are created using new and recycled canvas, linen, and paper. Never wasteful in her approach, watching Stewart pick through pieces of paper, fabric, and materials is in and of itself an education in the creative use of materials.
Having spent over three decades teaching students from all ages and walks of life, as professor emeritus, Stewart remains steadfast in her affinity for those interested in learning about the arts. Starting her career by teaching art and history to servicemen returning to school on the G.I. Bill at the University of Georgia, Stewart sees the potential of inclusive learning. Stewart taught colour theory at the University of Western Ontario before a long and prolific (27 years) career at The School of Fashion at Ryerson University (recently renamed Toronto Metropolitan University). During her academic career, she has been active in all areas of teaching and service, including being initially hired as Chair of the School of Fashion. Additionally, Stewart has mentored a generation of staff and faculty, always focusing on gender equity where possible. At the time of her retirement, Stewart’s positive impact on the program was evident not only through the popularity of the program but also through the numerous young designers and brands whose careers she fostered.
Shelagh Stewart’s multimedia works are in private collections and public contemporary art galleries. Her fashion illustrations and paper collages have been among her most famous works. Having lived a rich life, Stewart creates multilayered works of art—at times both theoretically and literally. Injecting her sharp wit and sense of humour into her work, Stewart’s art is a lesson in artful living. Stewart’s impact on the arts will continue for generations to come.
– Azadeh Monzavi
Azadeh Monzavi is a Ph.D. Candidate and interdisciplinary artist/researcher in the Communication and Culture program at Toronto Metropolitan University. She holds an M.A. from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) and a B.A. (Hon.) in Art and Art History from the University of Toronto/Sheridan College. Azadeh is currently an Artist in Residence at The Textile Museum of Canada.