UMFA, Church History Museum collaborate on LeConte Stewart exhibit

Published: Saturday, July 16 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

"Private Car" from the LeConte Stewart: Depression-Era Art exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Silver Foundation, Church History Museum

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."

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