This year citizens from a variety of backgrounds and points of view have been complaining that Americans are shouting at each other too frequently instead of discussing matters. Perhaps worse, some critics say, we’re often not even talking to people who look or think differently than ourselves.
But not everyone has been in a shout-down or stand-off mode. One person who has been doing what he can to bridge cultural gaps through discussion is Darius Steward, a big, friendly, exceptionally talented, 34-year-old African-American artist from Cleveland, who during the past year has witnessed seeing his reputation rising among art enthusiasts and fine art museums around the United States like a meteor whose bright light fills the evening sky.
“I try to do what I can with my art to create positive energy by showcasing life as I know it,” said Steward. “When viewers see my images, I hope they feel free to actually enter with their imagination into the space my art fills, and that their reaction to my pictures helps to begin a dialogue about life in our times. … All of us are in this together.”
The Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute is presenting an exhibition of Steward’s art from Jan. 18 until March 3. The show’s opening reception will begin at 5 p.m. on Friday. At 7 p.m. he will talk about the exhibition. About 40 of Steward’s watercolors in all shapes and sizes will be on display.
Some of Steward’s pictures are scale-model watercolors he originally drew to use for his mural, “Breaker of Chains,” which he finished in 2018 in the Cleveland area.
Few artists have the talent to bridge cultural and experiential gaps with their work, but Steward’s watercolor imagery reveals that capability. His artworks compel viewers’ engagement, whether the poses of his subjects portray struggle, sorrow, or joy.
Steward accomplishes this with a superb touch employing bold strokes of varying watercolors to convey the emotions of his characters, which are often shown from surprising angles of artistic perspective.
The skillful portrayal of people in his pictures makes deft usage of the blank white space surrounding the images, a minimalistic technique he has mastered by drawing his watercolor images onto off-white Yupo paper. This gives the viewer sensations that his artistic subjects are reaching out toward them from their frames while also feeling drawn into the artistic space of the artwork. It is as if they are spectators at a theater-in-the-round settling into feeling part of a set when attending a play.
In part, Steward is a product of the tough streets where he grew up in East Cleveland, Ohio. He got exposed daily to the sight of poverty, guns, drugs and a sad panorama of many human beings struggling and failing to survive in such an environment. When he was 8, two of his best friends were shot.
But his mother, Rhonda V. Steward, proved herself to be an even more powerful influence in his life than East Cleveland’s gritty streets. She was determined that her son would grow up to be somebody. While Steward was a child, it became obvious to Mrs. Steward that he was a visual learner attracted to drawing. She purchased art supplies for him when he was six, setting him on his way to developing a successful career as a professional artist.
“My first drawings with my art supplies were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Steward said.
Ninja Turtles’ creators depicted the human-like mutant ninja creatures emerging from their homes in the sewers of New York. These creatures use the unconventional Japanese warrior technique of ninjutsu to do battle with criminals, aliens and vicious overlords.
“When I was six or seven, I drew my own version of ‘Ninja Turtle’ comic books,” said Steward. “Once I drew a comic series of the Ninja Turtles fighting the ‘Rat King.’
“In the part of town where I grew up, you’ve gotta have something to hold onto. I’ve stuck with art from my early youth. It’s been my way to express myself, my way forward. Art got me out of regular schools. By the ninth grade, I had been accepted to study art at a magnet school in Cleveland. I was lucky to have talent because I did not like public schools.”
Steward recalls it was quite an experience for him seeing how the other half lives as he navigated back and forth between a neat and tidy genteel artistic hub and his impoverished urban neighborhood, but it made him realize that he could do more with his life if he kept at his art and that he was capable of adapting to both environments.
Steward first used art to express his budding social consciousness during the 9/11 crisis.
“I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened,” said Steward. “It really shook me up to see my country attacked by a foreign enemy. I did not react as an African-American youth but as a concerned American.”
Steward’s first 9/11-influenced artwork depicted a girl’s face. In one of her eyes, he drew a building, in the other a jet.
“I ended up doing three or four pieces based on 9/11. In a personal way, being witness to 9/11 taught me that no matter what happens in the world, people have to keep going on, living life every day as best they can.
Steward’s high school art so impressed his teachers and other art professionals that after graduation he was accepted into the highly respected Cleveland Institute of Art for his college undergraduate degree. From the Cleveland Institute of Art, he continued art studies at the University of Delaware and earned a Master of Fine Art degree.
At the art institute in Cleveland, Steward became seriously interested in African-American history, a subject attracting him during this time of his life because often he was the only African-American art student in a room full of whites, a reality that made him feel more aware than ever of his blackness.
“Until recent years blacks have not had much of a history in the art world,” said Steward. “Now this is starting to change.”
The more Steward read about black history, the more aware he became that in the not-too-distant-past blacks were “just not in the rooms” where art was being created. Some of the exclusion was very subtle, in his opinion. For example, he noted from his reading that blacks were rarely, if ever, involved in the Abstract Expressionism art movement that became so popular in the United States after World War II.
One African-American literary artist whose history inspired Steward while he was an undergraduate was Zora Neale Hurston, a now-celebrated black author who died in 1960. (Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was the 2017 “Big Read” selection of the Vigo County Public Library.) Hurston was a contrarian in the African-American community. One of her politically conservative ideas was that blacks should self-confidently stand on their own without expecting help from the government or white organizations, but instead live successful lives rooted in their own abilities and culture.
By studying African-American history, Steward also became aware of visual artist Kerry James Marshall, who grew up in Los Angeles in a similar environment to the one Steward had experienced in East Cleveland. Through reading, Steward learned how Marshall incorporated his own experiences of early life in an African-American community into his signature painting style. Another influence Marshall had on Steward’s developing work as an artist was how Marshall used art to show how blacks fill their space, even everyday space, with their own characteristic style.
Now that he is an established African-American artist in his own right, Steward has stated, “…I am obligated to present my thoughts and emotions on issues I face. Often times we must ask: ‘Do we have an identity? Do we even have a voice? Are we grounded or are we unstable?’ I must create work that attempts to ask questions, work that will ignite conversations centered on these issues.”
With his MFA degree in hand in 2010 from the University of Delaware, Steward had opportunities to be an artist or a teacher on the East Coast. However, around the time he finished his master’s work, he learned of a killing and then of another death in the family of a close friend. This knowledge pulled him back to Cleveland.
“At that moment, I thought it probably wasn’t a great idea to go back to Cleveland,” Steward said in a magazine interview, “but there was so much going on. I have a much closer tie to this place than I had thought. I came back home a week after I graduated. … When I came back, I saw the same stuff, but I had different eyes.”
Back in his hometown, Steward took a teaching job at Cleveland’s Roman Catholic Saint Ignatius High School, a private Jesuit school for boys. He has also taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Currently, he is employed full-time as the program manager of the Cleveland Museum of Art. He lives with his wife, Angela, and two children, Darius and Emily, ages 6 and 2.
Notwithstanding family and professional responsibilities, creating art remains the driving force in Steward’s life. He says that being a family man has enhanced his appreciation for the entire human family. His children often come into his studio while he works.
“My 2-year-old daughter, Emily, likes to be on my lap as I sit on a rocker drawing,” Steward said. “My 6-year-old, Darius, often has lots of questions about my art: ‘Daddy, why don’t I have any legs in this picture?’ or ‘Why have you painted me to be blue and green?’”
His son has been used by Steward as an art model of self-portraits of himself as a child; his wife has posed as the image of his mother in a series of three pictures in his “Baggage Claim” series, an homage to his deceased mother that will be displayed at the Swope.
Steward’s art has won high official praise in Cleveland and beyond, including his winning the 2018 Cleveland Arts Prize’s Emerging Artist Award; plus, in 2018 he won the Curator’s Choice Award at the 25th Annual Minneapolis Print and Drawing Fair. His pictures are displayed at museums around the United States and in corporate collections in Cleveland. He has been awarded grants to do murals in Cleveland, from the city’s downtown business district to its art district.
One mural, “Breaker of Chains,” a celebration of Cleveland’s cultural diversity, is a 200-foot-long, six-foot-high mural spanning across the Euclid Avenue Bridge in Cleveland’s Inner Belt. The original watercolor images that he used as models for the mural are to be displayed in his Swope exhibition.
The Swope Art Museum has come into Steward’s life as a consequence of him meeting Tom French, a long-time patron of the Swope and a national fine arts dealer whose connection to Terre Haute stems from the fact that his grandfather lived here.
“I literally stumbled across Darius’ work a year ago,” said French. “I was visiting the art gallery of a friend of mine in Cleveland, and I was stunned by what I saw. I had never just accidentally run across a talent like his. I knew immediately I had to have one of his paintings. I was so impressed with his art that I wanted to show Darius’ work to museum collectors to make sure that the quality wasn’t just in my eyes. Darius’ art excited all the experts. …
“He is truly an extraordinary talent in the earliest stage of his professional development.… I am proud that I am now the exclusive dealer of his art…. My interest is in getting people to appreciate his talent and his art.”
For Steward, exhibiting art at the Swope presents an opportunity to keep pushing for positive change. Discussions are under way for him to do a mural in Terre Haute following his art exhibition.
“We are in a time when we need to start unifying, to start pushing for something better. I want to get the conversation started,” he said. “When we get people together in a room joining in conversation, they start to realize that they have more in common with one another than they had thought.”
Steve Kash is a freelance writer in Terre Haute. He often writes about the arts and was commissioned to do this piece on behalf of the Swope Art Museum.
Sidebar 1: For more information about Darius Steward and his art visit dariussteward.com
Sidebar 2: (Note to editor: The following caption could be used in connection with Darius’ “Baggage Claim” series if this is part of the photo spread.): “In his 2017 series ‘Baggage Claim’ Steward memorializes his mother. Each piece in the series is signed in her name, ‘Rhonda V.’ The pictures symbolically depict the baggage she (we) carry throughout life and the grace and determination with which she faced her troubles.”