If Mac Stewart looked like the kid brother of one of the artists celebrating at the recent opening reception for the High Museum of Art exhibition “Sprawl: Drawing Outside the Lines,” instead of one of the 76 guests of honor, that was understandable.
At 20, Stewart may be the youngest artist ever to have work added to the High’s permanent collection of more than 15,000 pieces.
His two 11-by-14-inch works on paper are modestly sized compared to his 104-foot-long Living Walls mural in downtown Atlanta or to an indoor one he recently completed at Salem Middle School in Lithonia. But having drawings in “Sprawl” looms large in the Lawrenceville artist’s emergent career.
“It’s a huge deal to have a piece in a museum when you’re like 20 years old,” Stewart said. “I always wanted it to happen. It was always like a thought in the back of my mind, like this would be super cool. But, you know, being 20 you can’t really hope for something like that.”
Stewart’s paintings came to the attention of High Museum modern and contemporary art curator Michael Rooks at a Living Walls event at Goat Farm Art Center last year. Rooks was magnetically pulled toward the graphic oomph of the work, which resonates with strong geometric lines and potent patterns.
He found Stewart’s art at the street-art nonprofit’s party “very sophisticated, very technically proficient” and wanted to meet the maker. When he did, the curator was taken aback.
“I thought it was (the work of) an artist who was far more advanced in age,” Rooks said, recounting with a laugh that his first instinct was to ask Stewart, “Is your mom here?”
Painting professionally for less than four years, Stewart already is constructing a strong resume, including three one-man exhibitions, an outdoor mural in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District and a collaboration last year with Gwinnett Ballet Theatre in which he designed the set for artistic director Wade Walthall’s world premiere, “Pictures.”
Impressive as that may be for a 20-year-old, it’s clear that Stewart sees all that as a springboard to bigger and bolder opportunities, in what he hopes will be a long career as a self-supporting artist.
One recent Saturday morning, he greeted visitors to his family’s three-story red-brick home in Lawrenceville, emerging from the mostly unfinished basement that includes his multi-room studio and sparsely decorated bedroom with eyes bright and abuzz with energy. In his regular uniform of T-shirt and jeans, he allowed that he’d slept only one hour because he was jamming on a new painting series on four hollow doors.
In the weeks since “Sprawl’s” mid-July opening, Stewart has fielded lots of phone calls and emails from collectors wanting to make studio visits, as well as others wanting to discuss potential mural projects.
Buoyant by nature and exhibiting zero attitude, he admitted he didn’t imagine this turn of events.
Certainly, neither could some of his classmates at Suwanee’s Peachtree Ridge High School when Stewart left after his sophomore year to home-study so he could better focus on making art.
“When I left school, everyone was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to be homeless, blah-blah,’” Stewart said. “It’s ridiculous.”
His mother, Denise Stewart, who carted Mac and his older brother and sister to museums at every opportunity when they were growing up and plied them with sketchbooks, encouraged his embrace of painting as well as his instinct to be an independent thinker.
As a young teen, Mac was enamored of the vivid Living Walls murals that were transforming blighted outdoor spots in the inner-city, and Denise would drive her son around so he could photograph them. The idea that he might one day paint his own was being seeded.
The first flowering of Mac as a painter came in 2011 during a family trip to visit his father, Joe, a computer programmer, who was temporarily living in California. Deciding to decorate his dad’s digs with fresh art, Mac worked with a brush and paints for the first time.
When they returned to Atlanta, Denise bought him a 100-foot roll of craft paper and canisters of spray paint, and Mac filled up every inch. She soon became a regular at the art supply store, as her boy cranked out more than 500 paintings in his first year. The best of the lot are stacked here and there in his basement studio, though Mac is now a harsh critic of most of them.
His mom had home-schooled him through elementary school, so she wasn’t surprised when he pushed to leave high school in favor of home study, this time via a computer-based program.
As he worked through the diploma program, he decided he wouldn’t pursue art school, partly because of the expense and partly because he’s a self-proclaimed autodidact who learns best through self-teaching.
When he expressed small doubts about prospering as a full-time painter after high school, his mother emailed him articles about artist success stories.
“We started having a conversation then that if this is what you want to do, there is no Plan B,” Denise recalled. “It’s both feet in, all in, or you’re wasting your time.”
Denise says college is an option if Mac decides at some point that’s what he wants.
“We’ve just encouraged him to believe in himself.”
And most of the time, Mac does. The more he works, the more he realizes he’s moving beyond simply reflecting his influences — Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring — to finding a voice that, while incorporating those influences, is uniquely his own.
Whether he’s painting a flower or a tribal-style mask or some other form in his typically limited palette of black, white and pink, a long-time love of geometry sparks Stewart’s work. He’s intrigued by symmetrical shapes, precise lines and repeated motifs, all of which he feels convey a particular beauty.
He tries to impart emotion in everything he paints and believes his art tells stories. But if viewers can’t discern the narrative, that’s not a problem — he’s cool with whatever meaning they may want to attach.
In his pursuit of the perfectly drawn line, he loves staying up late, often pulling all-nighters. He believes he does his best work around 2 in the morning, when the texts from friends stop making his phone ping, when it’s just him sequestered in his color-splattered concrete-floor dungeon with his paints and brushes.
He’s also ambitious in gleaning what he can from more established artists. At Art Basel in Miami last year, he met a favorite artist, Cleon Peterson, and ended up helping Peterson and his even better-known collaborator, Shepard Fairey, paint a wall in Wynwood Arts District. The next thing he knew, Stewart was painting his own Wynwood mural.
The artist knows he won’t be young forever, just as he won’t always enjoy the relative nest of his parents’ basement, so he wants to put his ample energy to good use while he can.
His aspirations demand it.
“As a 20-year-old, I don’t want to be put in the same box as other 20-year-olds,” Stewart said. “I want to be at the level that Jeff Koons is at, or (the graffiti artist-turned-gallery artist and product designer) KAWS, whose work has always blown me away. For me, it’s very important to work as hard as I think they would.”
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