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Q&A with Award Winner Nicole Stewart

Watching Her, oil, by Nicole Stewart
Watching Her, oil, by Nicole Stewart

The figure above, standing just under life-size on a four-foot high canvas, is keeping an eye on visitors to the Gallery this month. Viewers’ responses to that gaze are varied, as artist Nicole Stewart explains below — but exhibit juror Jay Hall Carpenter’s response was to award the painting the Gilham Award for best in show, named for one of the founding members of The Art League.

Carpenter said Watching Her was the best example of a work directly addressing the exhibit’s theme, “Body Language,” pointing to the figure’s pose, anatomy, and drapery. The artist told us more about figure painting, portrait commissions, and starting a second career in art:

What was your inspiration for Watching Her? Given the title, how do you interpret the subject’s pose and gaze?
Nicole Stewart: When you like painting people, you tend, without thinking, to put them into poses, to see them as you might paint them. He is my neighbor’s grandson, so I had gotten to know him before I asked him to model for me.

Initially I wanted to catch that transition in someone this age between child and adult. I did a first painting, in profile, that captured more a child-like vulnerability. Then I asked him to lean against my studio wall, and imagine he was at school, watching a girl he really liked, who didn’t know he was watching.

What I wanted in this painting was to capture the vitality of youth, and the tension underneath the casualness of the pose. In my mind I could see him, ready to leap off the wall and go towards her if she just turned around.

But what I love about this pose is that when people look at it, they bring their own experiences into it. My husband, who was very shy in school, sees the pose as the young man looking at someone he can’t have, hoping she might notice him.

What’s your goal with a figure painting or portrait?
I approach portraits and figure paintings differently. In a portrait, I want to capture the personality or expression, like the tilt of a head, that is unique to that person. The expression that a loved one would look at and say, “That’s my dad!”

I see figure paintings in three ways: as figures that fit into a scene, organic and part of the whole, or perhaps as the focal point. Or I see figures as depictions of the human form in all its variety.

My favorite figure paintings are figures as portraits — imparting a part of the inner person. With models, the luxury is that it can be a purely artistic interpretation. I have set the scene. But for me, I like to think I am showing a little something from each model that we all feel or have felt at sometime in our lives.

Why are you a painter?
This is a second career for me. Although I do not have a PhD, my first career of over 25 years is what most people would recognize as a “plant doctor.” I was a horticulturalist and IPM specialist for both government and private companies. My husband and I used to be the hosts of the WMAL Garden show, and my last regular job was as an adjunct lecturer, teaching plant pathology at the University of Maryland, Institute of Applied Agriculture.

I loved art as a kid, and I dabbled a bit in pen and ink, graphite and water media as an adult, doing one or two pieces a year, but took my first oil painting class in 2006. I loved it! I started painting constantly. Oil is so forgiving, so easy to “fix'” my mistakes. And I was good.

In 2008 I told my director, “I’m going to paint full time.” I loved teaching at UMD, but the three hour round trip commute was rough. Now I have a studio in Leonardtown, Maryland, the newly designated Arts and Entertainment District, and it’s a joy to paint there as many days of the week that I can. And when I get a portrait commission, and visit my client at their home, I feel privileged to become for a brief time, a small part of their lives.

What’s your creative process like, from an idea to a finished painting?
It depends on the type of painting I am doing.

If I am painting one of my husband’s cacti or other unusual succulents, I tend to work from a photograph, either because the flowers are so ephemeral, or the plants are so small. I also seem to be fixated on old, often crooked buildings. I am a terrible landscape painter but enjoy painting old townhouses from my own photographs. The paintings are more simple, more graphic. Compared to portraits, this is color book coloring for me. I throw in a lot of saturated color and just have fun with it.

Painting a person is the most challenging for me, and I seem to be drawn to challenges. While I can paint from photographs, I do require some “face” time to find that expression I need. At the very least, I want to do a quick color sketch. Usually I do a portrait from both life and photographs that I take. Whether I work with a models or a client, we are often having conversation during the painting or photography process. I want them to be comfortable. When they relax is when I get the most natural poses.

What are you working on now?
I am finishing one of my townhouse paintings set in DC and will start back on a series of period portraits that will be included in the exhibits next June at the Saint Mary’s County Historical Society, marking the raids of 1814 in Leonardtown by the British, during the War of 1812. I love early American fine and folk art portraits and the history behind them, and I’ve been able to indulge this passion in my paintings. I am honored that one of those works, Member of the Tuesday Club, is part of the Maryland Historical Society collection.

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