LeConte Stewart saw with his eyes, but he painted with his soul. "Painting," he said, "is more than expressing the appearance of things; it is expressing the spirit of things."
The works of this prolific and revered Utah artist will be presented in a collaborative exhibition, which opens Thursday, sponsored by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah and the Church History Museum at Temple Square. Billed as "One artist, two exhibitions, over 200 works," the joint venture offers a singular opportunity to view the heart and soul of the man many consider Utah's most important "regionalist" artist.
It also marks the first of what both institutions hope will be a continued collaboration. "In partnership with our colleagues at the Church History Museum, the UMFA is proud to present the stunning work of LeConte Stewart with the aim of cementing Stewart's legacy in the art of our state and the region," says Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA executive director.
"In many ways, these exhibitions represent a new era in the arts and culture of Salt Lake City," adds Kurt Graham, director of the Church History Museum. "There is such a synergy in both the collaboration and in Stewart's works. He is an artist that represents Utah in all aspects."
The church museum is thrilled to be opening this exhibition in conjunction with the UMFA, Graham says. "We hope that it won't be a one-time thing, but a new reality. We are all trying to reach the widest audience possible and hope that viewers who might visit one museum will expand their horizons and see what both great institutions have to offer."
The UMFA part of the exhibition will focus on Stewart's "Depression Era Art," while the Church History Museum will showcase "The Soul of Rural Utah." Together, they comprise the largest-ever showing of Stewart's art from the 1920s to the 1940s. "This is art from Stewart's master period," says Robert Davis, curator of the Museum of Church History exhibition.
Stewart was born in 1891 in Glenwood, Sevier County. He was drawn to art early on, studying at the University of Utah and at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock, N.Y., and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
But he also pursued a teaching career, working in Murray, Davis County, Salt Lake and Ogden schools before becoming the chairman of the art department at the University of Utah. For most of his later life, he lived in Kaysville.
He was at the U. for 18 years, notes Donna Poulton, curator of the UMFA show. "During that time, he influenced many, many artists."
But he also never stopped painting, and over a career spanning 75 years, Stewart produced thousands of works, primarily landscapes. He also painted murals for LDS temples in Laie, Hawaii; Cardston, Alberta; and Mesa, Ariz. "He created images that are simultaneously epic and intimate," Poulton says.
Poulton began thinking about a Stewart exhibition a couple of years ago, when several coincidental things came along. "The museum received a large behest that included 30 LeConte Stewart paintings that had not been shown before. I also realized that 2011 would be the 120th anniversary of his birth. And then with the economic downturn, I got to thinking that we are going through some of the same things now as they did in the Great Depression and thought some of his paintings from that era would have a special resonance."
But as Poulton looked at those paintings and then at some of his "wonderful landscapes," she realized that it was bigger than one show, and the idea of a collaboration was born. Another of the exciting things, she says, is that they also found some studies Stewart did for some of his major works, "so you really get insight into the processes he used."
During the 1930s, Stewart turned to what he described as the "raw side of life," depicting storefronts, gas stations, old homes in his community through minimal forms and expressive color, Poulton says. "They evoke images of abandonment and isolation that had roots in his childhood."
Between the ages of 12 and 15, Stewart lost four siblings to childhood diseases, and his mother also died. "He lost 90 percent of his family, so you know his life changed drastically," Poulton says. "When he was 15, his father remarried, but he was still left alone a lot. I don't think he had a depressed personality, but there is an underlying sadness that he tried to portray."
Stewart himself once said that these early deaths "contributed to my feelings of loneliness. Throughout my life, I have desperately yearned to put that feeling down in paint."
At the same time, Poulton says, "he shows great empathy for what other people were going through, the farmers and ranchers who found it cost more to grow wheat than they could sell it for, and all the people out of work. There was 34 percent unemployment in Utah at the time, and he understood what that did to people."
Wallace Stegner noted that Stewart's Depression-era paintings had a "bleak clarity of vision." Stewart once commented that "it is not that I love the lyrical in nature less, but I feel that in modern life there is no time, no inclination for it. In these pictures I'm trying to cut a slice of contemporary life as it is in the highways and byways as I have found it."
He didn't paint a lot of the pretty things, Davis adds — the birds, flowers and sunsets that many landscape artists are drawn to. "He looked at the meaning and substance of things. He had high integrity and was not painting with an eye to selling or impressing people. He wanted to grasp what was there much in the same way poets and musicians do."
Stewart was painting Utah and the West long before the term "Regionalist" was coined to describe the like of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, Poulton says, but that's where he fits in.
"He moved between realism, tonalism and impressionism as he tried to express what he felt for the land," Davis says. "He had a good aesthetic sense of shape, form and color," he adds, but that's not what you think of first when you look at his rural landscapes. "He captures the spirit of the landscape. And when it comes to sensitive and moving work, he is up there with the best of them. He is yet to be really put into context with other American and Utah artists. He is important for the sheer quality of his work, but the poetic beauty and deeper meaning puts him at a high level. He has done things that others have not done in looking at man's imprint on the land."
Poulton, too, is happy to see Stewart receive more appreciation. His works are not nostalgic, she says, as much as they are liberating. "The offer us respite from the numbing effects of sprawl and the pace of modern living."
And this joint exhibition offers a never-before-seen chance, she says, to connect with "a profoundly introspective artist who devoted his life to making visible his deepest emotions."
LeConte Stewart: Soul of Rural Utah
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah
When: July 21-Jan. 15, 2012; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
How much: Adults, $7; youth and seniors, $5; first Wednesday and third Saturday of every month, free.
Visiting option: Trax stations are within 500 yards of both museums; museum officials suggest it as a way to see both exhibitions in one excursion.
Church History Museum:
Images, information and more at www.lds.org/museum.
Interactive kiosks in the galleries.
An introductory eight-minute biographical video.
Utah Museum of Fine Arts:
Virtual tour of paintings, journals, footage of the artist at www.umfa.utah.edu/lecontevirtual.
Audio stops for cellphone or mp3 players, available for checkout.
Book Nook featuring themed books for kids and adults and film about the artist.
Adult class — LeConte Stewart, American Regionalism, Aug. 3 and 10, 6-8 p.m.; $59.Comment on this story
Third Saturday for Families — Aug. 20, create your own landscapes.
Film series — provide insight into 1930s culture with "To Kill a Mockingbird," Sept. 14; "Modern Times, Oct. 19; "Seabiscuit," Nov. 2. Films begin at 6 p.m. and are free.
Lectures — Death, Loss and the Artist," Oct. 22, 1 p.m., with Laurie Wilson; "Let's Go Slumming, Nose-Thumbing at Park Avenue," Nov. 6, 1 p.m., music of the Great Depression with Michael Lasser.