One of my favorite artists is Sally Stewart. Based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the wise and skilled former art teacher works in different media, but she is most known for her pieces in wood. When she started exhibiting in the 1970’s she was the only woman in shows with male artists. Those were the years when “boys went to shop class and girls went to home economics classes,” she said. Luckily, that is different today. When visiting the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. this summer I thought of this surrounded by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s huge cedar sculptures at her exhibit Contour of Feeling.
After 9/11 Stewart began making sculptures of crosses integrating woods from around the world. They have been presented as ecumenical gifts by the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA in more than 30 countries.
I was intrigued by a recent conversation Stewart and I had about art and healthcare and access to essential medicines. I was describing some of the misconceptions around drug pricing. She saw a correlation. Stewart has done a lot of commissioned pieces. She has been surprised at how frequently someone will be looking at a piece of wood and touch the spot where a flaw begins. The flaw or change in texture often results from a disease, insects, or an injury that disrupts the way a tree would usually grow. They like it. “This,” they insist, should be included.
This is where it gets interesting. This has personality. We trick ourselves into thinking only perfection is desirable. We dismiss damage, and the aging process and how to attend to them.
Today I am also thinking about two lines from “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman’s 2021 inaugural poem:
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
Here’s to making that emerging possible. Here’s to what we craft and stop and change and summon on behalf of each other – battered and beautiful people in our battered and beautiful country.
Pictured are some yet-to-be used pieces of wood we looked at during a studio visit. On the far right is a detail from Sally Stewart's “Jonah and the Great Fish” (cherry, obeche, walnut and poplar).