When Peter was little, he took everything apart — old toasters, radios, television sets. He was obsessed with how things worked so it was no surprise that when he grew up, he became a mechanical engineer.
Some kids are like Peter — born with an obsession that never leaves them. I’m betting that Bill Stewart was one of those kids. I’ll bet his pockets were perpetually full of “treasures” — shiny rocks, shards of bone and shells, pieces of twine and odd bottle caps. Throughout his life, Bill remained fascinated with obscure, funny, quirky objects of human life — mechanical toys, plastic G.I.Joes, doll parts and shop tools. All those things and a million other bits appeared in his art — sculpture that bristled with texture and pattern. And co-incidentally, formed a unique narrative of life stretched throughout the 20th and into the 21st Century.
No-one casually meeting Bill Stewart would ever have pegged him as an intellectual and certainly not an artist. He could talk sports as easily as contemporary painting; loved sailing as much as visiting museums. He was rarely without a baseball cap on his head and hardly ever missed Saturday morning breakfast with “the guys” in the local diner, the-flannel-shirt-overall-Carhart crowd. Growing up, Bill was part of an average, middle class American, mid-western family -- none with any particular interest in the arts. He entered college with no clear career goals.
That changed when he stepped into the art department, particularly the ceramic studio. There, he was free to knit together various strings of interest and talent: working with his hands, spatial perceptions, weird sociological observations and setting, working toward and meeting specific self-made goals. The Master’s Degree in Art gave him a key to lifetime security teaching at S.U.N.Y. Brockport. He and Bonnie raised three sons in that nearly idyllic rural setting. Bonnie taught english in the regional middle school.
A review of his art over near-fifty years of work illustrates Bill’s exploration of ideas, techniques and interests. At its core are a few unchanging basics:
- Always sculptural and figurative (Bill had little interest in functional pottery and to my knowledge never did any work at all on a potter’s wheel.)
- Obsession with texture.
- A unique visual language. Only a few other artists — recently labeled “Outsiders” — share a similar vocabulary.
- Shining through always, a sly sense of humor.
The academic art community never quite knew what to make of Bill or his art. He simply didn’t fit the categories. The work was purely sculpture (fine art?) but hand built of clay, (craft?) It was easy to underestimate the seriousness of Bill's art. Living and working on the east coast may have further been to his disadvantage — the Funk and Ashcan Art Movements on the west coast seem most similar to Bill’s visual playbook and could have offered him more support and intellectual recognition.
But those of us who knew him, loved the core of the man and recognized the originality of the work. His fans always looked forward to the next curveball that Bill was forever throwing in our direction. He didn’t disappoint.
Bill Stewart died December 30, 2020
See major pieces by Bill Stewart installed in Rochester, New York, at Monroe County Airport, Grove Place Neighborhood (Selden Street)
and Memorial Art Gallery.
|One of the last major sculptures Bill Stewart finished now installed at Memorial Art Gallery.|
|Bill Stewart at his home with "Socks", 2019|