Name: Dena Stewart
· Do you make a career out of or hope to make a career out of art, or is it a sideline for you?
For more than thirty years, art in one form or another – painting or writing – has been my life – either doing it or teaching other people how to tap into their own creativity.
Growing up I had no opportunity to test my artistic talents. I majored in business education and psychology in college and worked as a high school office-skills teacher, an editor for a major textbook company, and as personnel manager/job trainer for a national department stores chain. I had no passion for any of my jobs. Then, shortly after the company I was working for closed its doors in bankruptcy a friend asked me a hypothetical question:
“If you had all the money in the world that you ever needed and didn’t have to work for a living, what would you want to do with your TIME so that at the end of each day you felt gratified and looked forward to doing it again the next day and the next?”
I answered my friend’s question whimsically with the first thing that popped into my mind. “I want to be an artist and spend my time painting and writing. I want to use my time creatively.”
Of course, I did have to work for a living, however, for my birthday that year, my husband (Stewart Stewart) gave me a set of watercolor paints, some brushes, a pad of watercolor paper, and a wooden easel — the very best gift I ever received. I painted every day after that. With no formal art training, no rules and no boundaries, I developed my own style of painting to portray my life experiences, dreams and beliefs.
I ended my serious job search and, as most artists do, made trade-offs. By doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I found innovative ways to cover my bills. I customized jerseys and T-shirts with hand-painted scenes based on personal stories told by the buyers. The New York Daily News and New York Magazine featured my designs in their “Best Bets” column. I hand-painted house portraits from photographs people mailed to me. Country Living magazine featured these portraits. When I had a big enough body of work, I had my first public exhibition at the Greenwich Village art show. A passer-by recommended I contact America’s Folk Heritage Gallery on Madison Avenue; and the gallery became the first of many to show my art. My paintings were selected for a prestigious “Eight Woman Show” at the Interart St. Amand Gallery in New York.
· What is it about your work that makes it speak to people or to the community at large?
All of my paintings tell stories that people can relate to. They are personal and universal in message, yet visually pretty and non-threatening to look at.
For example, while still living in New York, when the holiday season came around, I painted a Christmas tree. The following season I added background to the painting. The next year I submitted the artwork to UNICEF. It was selected for the 1982 UNICEF Greeting Card Collection. UNICEF issued Christmas Tree in the City again in 1983 and 1984. What started out as my eighth painting, helped to feed starving children in third-world countries. In 1989, Christmas Tree in the City once again was part of the UNICEF Greeting Card Collection. My card sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, generating over $300,000 for UNICEF. In appreciation, I was awarded the honorary title of Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, a humbling experience.
The work I do through CFCA, with and for the community-at-large, is specifically designed to address social and health-related issues and improve the human condition.
· How do you let people know about your work?
My website www.denastewart.us has a fairly large sampling of my paintings. My YouTube videos www.youtube.com/cfcartmurals show some of my professional work-related Center for Folk and Community Art interviews and projects.
· What do you feel inspires you to make art in the particular medium you have chosen?
When I first started to paint I lived in a small New York City apartment. My studio was in my bedroom. Watercolors seemed the least messy medium to use. As my work evolved I switched to acrylics, primarily for the same reason. Oil paint took too long to dry and in a small room with bad ventilation, was too toxic.
· Why Miami?
In November of 1986 when it was cold and snowy in New York my husband Stewart and I took a two week vacation, our destination Sarasota. A story in the travel section of the NY Times described it as a scenic old southern city with art museums, a sizable artist colony and beautiful landscapes, seascapes and sunsets. We booked a flight to Miami because it was less expensive than flying directly to Sarasota. We rented a car and drove to Miami Beach for the weekend before driving north. Stewart had never been to Miami Beach and was curious to see the grit portrayed so vividly in Miami Vice, the hottest TV show at the time. After ignoring the clerk at Budget Rent-A-Car not to go below 41st Street because of the notorious high crime, we checked into a small, very old but clean hotel on 18th Street and Collins Avenue for twenty-two dollars a night. The next morning, we asked the hotel concierge about sights to see. We had mentioned that we were artists. He suggested we go to Lincoln Road to visit the newly opened South Florida Art Center.
We counted over one hundred empty stores. The Road was desolate and run down. Finally, near the west end we found the Art Center. We were shown several storefront properties that could be our studio; with a State grant, one thousand square feet for under a hundred dollars a month! We never made it to Sarasota. A good feeling in our gut and a warm reception from the friendly locals kept us on South Beach the full two weeks of our vacation, during which time we were formally invited to join the South Florida Art Center.
When our phenomenal vacation ended we went back to freezing New York temperatures with great tans and wonderful memories. As both began to fade, we got a call from the Director of the Art Center. The space we designated as “ours” in our fantasy game had just become available. It was mid January 1987. If we were seriously interested, she needed a rent check from us by February 1st. I looked at Stewart, he looked at me, we both looked out the window at the gray slush that had accumulated on our terrace and said, “Let’s go for it.” And we’ve been here ever since!
Shortly after Hurricane Andrew, grateful for our opportunities and a desire to give back in return, Stewart and I co-founded Center for Folk and Community Art (“CFCA”), www.artmurals.org with the mission to use visual art as a tool of intervention, prevention and education to impact social issues and improve the human condition; we created Telling Stories Through Visuals, a unique workshop and exhibition program to help people express and understand their feelings. The program was selected by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities as a “national model.” At both local and national conferences, Stewart and I train teachers and mental health professionals how to use art to improve their communities. In between doing my outreach work, I continue to paint and write.
· Do you have a favorite artist from the past or present?
Grandma Moses’s primitive style was initially inspirational; the Skull Sisters (Haydee and Sahara and their son/nephew Miguel). They were good friends who were funny and imaginative in their three-dimensional work; and Tomata du Plenty – an outsider artist I had the privilege of working with. He taught me how to be loose and non-competitive.
· How would you compare the art scene in Miami to other cities you have lived or worked in?
There is no comparison!
· If someone wanted to get into being an artist, what would be your first suggestion to them?
If you are passionate about your art it is the most rewarding way to spend your time. However if you need the instant monetary gratification a weekly paycheck brings, then figure out a way to balance being an artist and doing what you need to do so that the tradeoffs won’t cause resentment or regret.
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.denastewart.us
Beliefs, fantasies, and experiences are the essence of the paintings created by Visionary Artist, Dena Stewart. The first time she picked up a paintbrush, with no formal training in art, she used it to express her feelings, hopes and dreams. Her heavily detailed street scenes with hundreds of people, her caricature-like portraits with personalized backgrounds, her lush landscapes, her breathtaking seascapes, and her tropical paradises include meaningful messages within beautiful surroundings.
Another Dimension – her latest group of vividly colorful, florally framed paintings, open a window of the imagination to look into or look out of and wonder about the inner spirit of those individuals portrayed, together or apart, as they enter a dimension of pleasure or leave a dimension of pain. Many of Dena’s works include her vision of a guardian angel, an illusive image of an all-knowing spirit taking the form of a face in a cloud or a figure swinging from a rainbow hovering above to watch over and keep “souls-in-need” from life’s harm.
Dena’s paintings have been shown in: America’s Folk Heritage Gallery, NYC; “Eight Woman Show”–Interart St. Amand Gallery, NYC; Galerie Bonheur, Greenwich, CT; Cuban Museum, Miami, FL; Gallery: Why Not?, Miami Beach, FL; “Two Person Show”–Amdur Gallery, Miami Beach, FL; Gallery of the Eccentric, Coral Gables, FL; Sokolsky Gallery, Miami Beach, FL; “Portraits”–Metro Dade Library, Miami, FL; “A Salute to Outstanding Florida Artists”–State Capitol Building, Tallahassee, FL; The Sher Gallery, Aventura, FL; South Florida Art Picks, Miami Beach, FL; Miami Beach City Hall; The Stephen P. Clark Government Center, Miami, FL; The Capital Children’s Museum, Washington, D.C.; The New York Public Library, NYC; The North Miami Public Library, No. Miami, FL. One of Dena’s most well known early works, “Christmas Tree in the City” was selected for the 1982, ‘83, ‘84 and ‘89 UNICEF Greeting Card Collection. More than three million “Christmas Tree in the City” cards were sold world-wide and raised over $300,000 for UNICEF. Ms. Stewart served as an Honorary Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1989.
Born in Manhattan, Dena graduated from Pace University with a degree in business education, and took graduate courses in psychology at the New School for Social Research. Dena taught High School in New York, was an editor for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishing Company, and personnel manager for E.J. Korvettes, a national department stores chain, before becoming a professional artist.
Along with her husband, artist Stewart Stewart, Dena relocated to Miami Beach, FL in 1987. Together they founded Center for Folk and Community Art, a non profit organization with a mission to use visual art as a tool of intervention, prevention and education. Dena’s artistic talents, along with her teaching and administrative background have been a compelling force in creating and implementing the unique art programs for the organization. Her nationally acclaimed Telling Stories Through Visuals program was selected by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities) as a model outreach program that impacts communities and helps enrich people’s lives.
Dena is an honored recipient of the 2001 “Woman Worth Knowing” award bestowed upon her by the Miami Beach Commission on the Status of Women. Her bio is included in Who’s Who in the World (2006); Who’s Who of American Women, (2006-2007 and 2008-2009); and Who’s Who in the South and Southwest (1989). She received the Key to the City of Miami Beach in 2006.