Story by Justin Bailey
LeConte Stewart’s granddaughter stopped midsentence, overcome by emotion. More than two decades after her grandfather’s passing, she still has a tendency to tear up when talking about him and his work.
Standing in a semi-secluded corner of the Utah Museum of Fine Art, where an exhibit devoted to the artwork of Stewart entitled “LeConte Stewart: Depression Era Art” is displayed, it’s easy to see how she could feel a twinge of nostalgia.
The largest-ever exhibition of Stewart’s work, the show was put together by the UMFA in conjunction with the LDS Church History Museum.
Suzie Sutherland is Stewart’s granddaughter. She went to see the exhibit in part because she knows a show of this magnitude was something that never would have happened if LeConte were still alive. “He was sort-of quirky… People were always trying to put together big shows for his work, but (he would just tell them) to ‘Go to hell!’ He was always telling people to go to hell.” Sutherland said with a laugh.
This social clumsiness is seemingly common to gifted artists. Sutherland called it the “artist temperament.” Fine artists tend to speak to people through their work, rather than with their words. “He was kind-of crusty, but he felt really deeply about people, and you could tell,” said Sutherland.
Looking at Stewart’s work, you can see the social change he was trying to effect. His paintings, etchings, and drawings are depictions of everyday life during the great depression, a time when almost everyone was struggling mightily just to survive. It’s a poignant aesthetic given the state of today’s national economy.
Referring to a painting of an old shop, forced to close it’s doors due to the depression, Karen Kone, an attendee of the exhibit said, “there may not be boarded up windows today like there was back then, but it’s that same feeling. (It makes you wonder if) people are still out there riding the rails.”
That type of nostalgia may not seem very uplifting, but it can still work to inspire hope. “He always smelled like turpentine,” said Sutherland, “As soon as I walked into the room and smelled the turpentine, I could tell ‘grandpa’s been here.’” He was always working, creating; trying to show people what was going on in the world. It’s a tribute to the core American values that got the nation through its worst economic downturn in history. As show attendee Mike Mabey said, “Hard work, perseverance, struggle and triumph; that’s what being alive is all about.”
22 years after his death, LeConte Stewart’s voice is still being heard. Not in a sound bite or a quote, but through the statements made in his artwork.
Standing in the middle of the museum, surrounded by her grandfather’s paintings and drawings, with tears beginning to well in her eyes, Sutherland said, “I can still feel his presence…”
“LeConte Stewart: Depression Era Art” is on display now and runs through January 15. For more information visit umfa.utah.edu or call the museum at 801-581-7332.