Graduate student Justin Stewart turns everyday things into award-winning sculpture.
By Pauline Oo
When R. Justin Stewart looks at a map, he sees more than a way to get from Point A to Point B. For example, a transit map that shows a bus route can also reveal where people without cars might live. Or a bridge, built to connect one place to another, has an underbelly that can serve as shelter.
Stewart's eye for detail and ability to notice what the rest of us may miss or take for granted is apparent in most, if not all, of his complex and often whimsical mixed-media installations and wall sculptures. Last fall, Stewart received an award for Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1960 to advance the understanding of sculpture and its contribution to society. He is one of the 21 recipients selected from a pool of 339 college students from five countries—and the first University of Minnesota winner.
“I've never been nominated for anything like this before," says Stewart, an M.F.A. candidate in the U's sculpture program whose name was among two submitted by University assistant professor of art Andrea Stanislav. “I wasn't holding my breath because it's such a big international award. It's a gigantic honor."
His winning piece—a 15 feet-by-8 feet creation called Connected, made mostly out of things you can pick up at a hardware store—is part of the Grounds For Sculpture exhibition in Hamilton, New Jersey. A culmination of three years of work, Connected “represents an approach to thinking about networks, systems, and structures," Stewart says, “of how these entities affect each other and the world … they are connected to and how the new environment they end up in can alter their forms."
The piece also explores the idea of “taking common materials and transforming them into something … more beautiful than any one of them by themselves," says Stewart.
“I am interested in people asking, ‘What is that? It looks familiar, but I'm not sure what it is.' And [after seeing my work], they notice, say, the pipe outside the building that looks like something I used inside .... A good piece of art prods you to think."
Stewart was no child prodigy growing up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Instead, the lively artist candidly admits not valuing art until his sophomore year in high school.
“My football coach was the ceramics teacher," says Stewart. “I thought, ‘It's ceramics; how hard could that be?' But I really fell in love with making things, and then from there, I went on to art school. Art school completely transformed my way of thought. It blew open my world."
Today, Stewart works six days a week as an artist, in addition to being a fulltime art student, teaching assistant, and faculty research assistant at the University. He is currently working on three projects related to the Minneapolis-St. Paul bus system. He graduates from the University in May, and then it's off to New York with his fiancée.
“Sure, it's hard to break in there," he says, “but it's hard everywhere. My goal isn't at all to make it big. That'll be great if it happens, but my goal is to continue pushing myself to do things that I'm interested in.
- by Pauline Oo