Michael Stewart Transforms Dark Emotion into Political Art

Michael Stewart Trump Demon Mask
Michael Stewart, Trump Demon Mask, 2017, glazed earthenware (detail).

Michael Stewart works in several media, making beautiful things using paint, collage, ink, clay and other materials artists use. Moons ago, Stewart went to Wittenberg University in Ohio with the intention of becoming a lawyer (actually his mother, who was an artist, wanted him to be a lawyer). Despite scoring so well on LSATs that he “would have had his pick of law schools,” Stewart didn’t — couldn’t — become a lawyer. Instead, he studied art, went to work at a tiny ad agency as a copywriter, learned graphic design on the job and built a portfolio. Eventually he landed in New York, where he now works independently as a graphic designer and fine artist.

First, I painted Bush’s crazy eyes.

I visited a gallery show he had up in New Paltz at ROOST last year. It was there that I saw his series of incredible clay sculptures, titled “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which was promptly snapped up by lucky collectors. I heard recently that Stewart was beginning a series of Trump demon masks, so I wanted to talk to him about the project, his foray into art with a message and political art.

Betsyann Faiella: How do you describe yourself?

Michael Stewart: A fine artist in many media: sculpture, printmaking, painting and graphic design.

BF: So, you can’t be pigeonholed?

MS: Yeah, pretty much. It’s not real popular in the art world to be multi-faceted. People want you to do one thing, but it’s becoming a little more acceptable when you have someone like Jim Dine in the marketplace. Picasso worked in various media. I liked his sculpture more than his paintings. He did ceramics as well.

BF: Where did you grow up?

Michael Stewart Reagan print
Michael Stewart, Ronald Reagan Forgets He’s Dead, 2008, lithograph.

MS: In Gary, Indiana, a completely, racially segregated place. One street divided the city; north of it was all black and south was all white. It was an incredibly tense place and there was a rumble after every football and basketball game. Gary had one of the country’s first black mayors [in 1968], Richard Hatcher. After he was elected, there was complete white flight of people and businesses, and Gary turned into a ghost town. A new town grew up south of Gary, called Merrillville, where all the white people moved. A suburban mall opened, and all the white businesses went there. (To read Mayor Richard Hatcher’s own explanation of what happened in Gary, Indiana, click here.)

BF: Did growing up in Gary have an influence on your work?

MS: Well, I think it had a big influence on my political art. I read a term paper not too long ago that I wrote in high school on Richard Hatcher. It was called, I think, “The Rise of Black Power” or something, and it was heartbreaking to me, because, you know, there was so much hope and then within two years it was over. Hatcher remained Mayor for years, but the city was eviscerated. You know, Michael Jackson is from Gary.

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BF: Where did you study?

MS: I studied art my last year at Wittenberg. When I moved to New York, I studied at the Art Student’s League for five years with David Leffel, who is a legend. It was classical training and I learned so much from him. That’s the training that allowed me to do those portraits, but I did them in a much flatter, more modern style.

BF: I’ve seen your “Seven Deadly Sins” sculptures, and I’ve seen the beginnings of the Trump demon masks, as you call them. Did you do any political art previous to those?

MS: Oh, yeah! In 2004, before George W. Bush’s re-election, I did a show called “States of Heads.” It was a collection of big, blown up portraits. First, I did Bush’s crazy eyes, you know, because I felt there was such fear in his eyes, like a dear in the headlights. So my idea was to make it very evident to people. That painting was eight feet wide by four feet high. Then I proceeded to do more full portraits of people in the administration, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and then other people like Silvio Berlusconi, the Tyco guy Dennis Kozlowski, and the guy who sold nuclear secrets, A.Q. Kahn. I sort of did his head like an atom bomb. They were cool, and they’re somewhat realistic, which I think is part of the power of them. I wanted to say, “OK, this is a real person here, but also kind of a nightmare.” It was very successful show. It toured galleries in four states, and showed in Chelsea during the Republican convention. There was actually a democratic event at one of my shows in New Hampshire.

Michael Stewart, Ventriloquist With Dummy, 2004, oil on canvas.

BF: That was your first foray into political art?

MS: Yes, it’s an interesting story how it happened. I was living in the country and my house is very isolated. I got into it with this contractor and I had to sue him. He turned violent and threatened my life. I was living there full time, and I got really scared that he was going to come in the middle of the night and do me in. Well, I wasn’t going to buy a gun, so I started sleeping with an axe by my bed. I had a female neighbor in the city (where I was subletting my apartment) who said, “Michael do you know how to use an axe? You got one shot, you have to go straight for the heart, right for the middle of the torso.” I was living in all this fear, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I started painting mass murderers, and I noticed they all had these crazy eyes. So I focused on the eyes, and that led to doing politicians.

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BF: Did you have an intention to make “art with a message” when you decided to do the “Seven Deadly Sins”?

The Trump glaze is toxic, it’s perfect.

MS: I got off on putting dark emotion into art. And I really feel it’s a way to transform that emotion, and by personifying it and objectifying it, it’s powerfully healing. There’s humor in my art too. I think where Kathy Griffin went wrong is she lost her sense of humor.

BF: Well, her “thing” was hard to look at, knowing real people have experienced seeing their loved ones beheaded. It was just extremely poor taste, but I defend her right to have done it.

MS: Yeah, I think she has a blind spot. You have to have a little bit of lightness about it, or it loses. If you go totally dark, gruesome, it becomes something else.

BF: What’s your favorite piece of political art?

MS: Guernica. It’s stylized and Picasso doesn’t show blood and guts and it’s so beautiful with the blacks and grays. Some Goya stuff is interesting too. I was very inspired by Honoré Daumier’s political sculptures. To me, the Damien Hirst stuff is so gruesome, you know, where he cuts the cow in half — I think it’s supposed to be political. I just don’t think the work should disgust you.

Michael Stewart Vanity Sculpture
Michael Stewart, Vanity, The American Consumer, 2011, glazed earthenware. From “The Seven Deadly Sins.”

BF: “The Seven Deadly Sins” — tell me more.

MS: I’m expanding beyond “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Since there are so many sins now, I’m just going to keep going. I started out with just making interesting faces. That’s the thing about art — in the making you go on a journey. Then they became the “sins.” I decided to make the “Vanity” one more iconic with the gold lustre, because it’s more of a comment on society. The “Envy” one — there was so much pain and need and bitterness, I showed her sadness and all that through wrinkles. I had to be very specific with it.

BF: So now you‘re working on the Trump demon masks, and exhibiting them?

MS: Yes, there’s a long tradition of demon masks in Africa, Japan, Indonesia and so on, where they have these rituals personifying the demonic force, and then they exorcise it. It’s done as a group, and that’s my idea: to exorcise the demonic forces that are in that man, and in our society and all of us. I want to create at least 100 masks and have them in a very small room, floor to ceiling, even covering the ceiling. I found a small room I’m considering — a large closet, really — on Governor’s Island. I will light them. I want to give the visitors a visceral feeling of him being in their face, which he is. We can’t get away from him. He will take up all the space in the room, which is what a person with narcissistic personality disorder does. I want to give people the fear. Someone said to make sure I have air-sick bags on hand.

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BF: What’s the most challenging aspect of doing the masks?

More of the toxic glaze on Michael Stewart’s Trump Demon Mask.

MS: Producing enough of them — and money. But I found a papier maché master who gave me some tips. I was going to do them all in clay (slip), but it was 4-5 hours to dry, then after that, glazing and firing — hours and hours for each. I may do a small series of them like that, though.

BF: Are you afraid Trump will be out of office before you finish?

MS: Yes, I have a fire under my butt, but on the other hand, I think it’s wishful thinking.

BF: I saw that crazy glaze you did on your first Trump mask experiment.

MS: Yes, I call it the post-apocalypse glaze. It’s totally toxic and full of lead. Perfect for Trump.

BF: What other political art do you like now?

MS: I think the signage from the Women’s March and the Tax March was incredible. I think Stephen Colbert is absolutely great. Have you seen the Trump troll doll? It works on so many levels, of course because he is an internet troll. They really did a great job of really getting Trump. Little hands, four fingers, that face! I hope my Trump dildo bud vase is as good.

BF: Oh my! How do you hope people interact with your art?

MS: Well, even the Bush eyes painting transformed itself after time into a beautiful painting, almost like a landscape. I hope people hang my art on the walls, and see it change over time, or take on different meaning for them over time.

BF: What role does an artist play in society?

MS: Essential. Think: no entertainment, no music, no dance, no art. It’s what separates us from the animals, except maybe the whales who might be singing, and we don’t know it.