Charleston oil painter Sue Stewart is as real as the Lowcountry scenes that line the walls of her gallery at State and Chalmers Streets. This Georgia native possesses a talent for painting scenes of the Holy City and its surroundings in a way that few visual artists can.
Stewart’s subject matter is the Lowcountry, but the Atlanta transplant doesn’t necessarily paint for an audience, which gives her work an uncommon intimacy. “I paint for myself; I’ve done the best I can do, and I hope that it translates to my audience,” she explains humbly. “I also like to paint scenes from a different point of view,” she says. “If I give the subject special attention, my hope is that a viewer will respond.”
This University of Georgia Honors graduate describes herself as both a lifelong student of art and a free spirit. Her curiosity and fascination with life manifest themselves not only in her work but in her interests. Among those, she counts restoring old buildings, hiking with her son in the mountains of western North Carolina and buck dancing to the music of Well Strung, her favorite bluegrass band. She also professes a love for the sounds of the late American blues legend Howlin’ Wolf.
Stewart has always enjoyed a challenge, painting from life since she first picked up a brush. In the 1980s, she joined the resurgent plein air movement. Plein air, or painting on location, cuts the time that an artist has to capture an image down to two or three hours.
Working on location, according to Stewart, is “impulsive, immediate and stimulating.” She believes that painting from life is especially helpful to representational artists as a way to heighten awareness and sharpen skills. “If you paint on location every day for a month or two,” says Stewart, “you start dreaming about the next painting in Technicolor.”
In this genre, knowing the rules is as important as being spontaneous. “When you work from life, you are forced to think quickly—and comprehensively,” she explains. “You need to think carefully about all the ingredients of a painting: composition, shadow, light and accuracy—a whole host of elements,” she explains. “You evaluate the scene and decide what you want to bring out, what you want to push back. Having a background of painting from life has given me the confidence to ‘put it down and leave it.’ ”
Although health issues have brought Stewart back into the studio, her art is clearly influenced by her earlier plein air experience. After many years of painting on location—from the Lowcountry to the coast of Maine—Stewart has developed an appreciation and understanding of a natural world that she’s observed firsthand. She continues to draw on her personal reservoir of knowledge, even as she works in the studio.
Whether it’s carriages on State Street or shrimp boats at sunset, Stewart’s rich images, full of depth and vitality, resonate with locals and tourists alike.
Charleston, with its natural features and great architecture, is heaven for a painter like Stewart. “Everyone is so hospitable here, and there’s a great community of artists,” she says. “After my travels, Charleston seemed like the best next step. Everybody has something that excites him or her, and that’s what makes us all different as artists,” she adds. “I prefer to paint everyday things, and Charleston is a wonderful place to paint the everyday.”
Stewart purchased her space at 12 State Street in 2005 and opened her gallery last March. Stewart Fine Art is open Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., as well as during the French Quarter Art Walks and First Fridays on Broad.
Erin Holaday Ziegler is a freelance writer in Charleston. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.