Meet Mac Stewart

Not old enough to drink, the painter and muralist is making his mark on ATL

Not many people can say they have found their passion at the age of 20. Mac Stewart has not only found it, he's already a pro at it. Stewart, who is self-taught, has accomplished more in the few years he's been painting canvases and murals than many Atlanta artists have in their careers. He's been to Art Basel, painted with Cleon Peterson, Shepard Fairey, Michael Lin, and now has paintings in the High Museum of Art. Not bad for a kid living with his parents.

Stewart's work employs bold lines and repeated motif to construct elaborate sketches of Minotaurs, dissected bodies, and heads being impaled by industrial beams, or cut through by ribbon-like objects. He pairs these more violent paintings with ones of flowers and indistinct vegetation painted in the same confident style. There's also a touch of Picasso's cubism, Matisse's fluidity and Keith Haring's neo-expressive style which makes his subjects looks like they are in motion: in Mac's case, mid-morph. His style is surreal yet very tangible. His talent comes from being able to sit on the fence between extremes: fluid and rigid, simple and complex, violent and soothing. The steady theme, however, is the line and what the line can do: It can carve out the grotesque, embrace the beautiful, and move fluidly between the abstract and the real. Stewart's teams of masks, body parts, and dissection pull from his own life.

"We all feel cut up at times, whether it's by isolation or oppression," he says, adding that and ultimately the paintings are about "people's ability to reinvent themselves throughout their lives and how resilient we really are as humans to keep growing and changing."

All accolades aside, Stewart is serious about the future of art in Atlanta. He understands the mechanics at work in Atlanta's market and scene. "Being an artist is a challenge no matter where you live," he says. "The Atlanta art scene has been extremely supportive of my work and of me. I hope to see Atlanta continue to evolve into an arts community that fully embraces and supports the arts and look forward to being part of that."

Stewart says he also understands the importance of involving the youth in the culture and that it is a long-term investment, a pivotal move for the future of the city. He worked on free mural project with Salem Middle School, hoping his interactions with the kids could be a catalyst for a child to become a serious, professional artist. "The Salem Middle School project was me trying to get the youth involved more. And their parents too," Stewart says. "The reward is having a culture [in which] a kid my age in 20 years will be able to make a living being an artist."

But according to Mac, there's another piece to expanding the Atlanta art scene: respect and self-respect. Since the market is so small, artists and buyers undervalue artwork, he says. Atlanta has introspective, socially relevant art and this is a cultural service that needs to be valued higher than it is currently.

"I know countless artists in Atlanta who do amazing work and they can't sell it because Atlanta's market is so small ... We have a great community here but it's mostly a community of artists and less of people who are supporting the artists," Stewart muses. "If I lived in New York City, I could make a living — no doubt. I've sold more pieces in New York City than in Atlanta."

He's also on the fence about the crowdsourced social media movements — like Free Art Friday ATL (#fafatl) and other arts scavenger hunts — and sees the campaigns as a double-edge sword for Atlanta's creative community. On the one hand, this underground movement raises awareness of artists working in Atlanta but at the same time, it sets a certain value for local art. "I'm a fan and then again I'm not," Stewart says. "Atlanta already has a lot of trouble selling work; we don't need anyone else giving away free paintings ... It does get people aware but it seems almost disrespectful ... Artists want to give their stuff away constantly, and I'm even a victim of that, but I think we undervalue our stuff too much. I know that some people are not going to appreciate it as much because they got it for free."

At the end of the day, it's artists — young artists — such as Stewart, with the social media know-how, autodidact Internet knowledge, determination, and genuine, uninterrupted passion for art will usher in the new generation of culture creators Atlanta. Stewart says there's a train of thought among the new wave of artists who understand not only that art is cool, but also that selling art is cool because it stimulates the market, provides income, and makes people happy. He hopes that more conversations about working artists in the city happen in the future, but admits that it won't be easy if the local painter, muralist, or illustrator turns a blind eye to their community.

"No one is going to care about what your bank statement says ... Money gets me to where I want to be, but the impact you've made on the community comes first," Stewart says. "People will care about your impact on the community. Go out and meet people. Don't waste the time thinking, 'This is going to sell better,' because the work that is going to sell the best is the work that is true to yourself."

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