Darius Steward’s deeply personal art confronts society’s most pressing issues – and seeks to open an important dialogue
Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
Mixed with memories of playing dodgeball and kickball in courtyards tucked inside the apartment complexes that defined the neighborhood are memories of two of his best friends being shot when he was 8 years old and of authorities discovering a dead body in nearby weeds when he was 10. Between those extremes were the sorts of challenges some may only read about or see on TV but for Steward were a daily reality.
“Growing up, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of this area, but I ended up outliving this area,” he says. “It’s kind of a depressing feeling. … It seems like you have your history wiped away. I guess that’s why they say your memory is best kept with you. You could take a photo or something, but what you remember is what matters.”
Those memories remain with him now as he creates art at his home studio in Cleveland’s Union-Miles Park neighborhood. His art – primarily in watercolor, minimalist, evocative, approachable and personal – tackles issues of race, objectification, social placement and social mobility through the lens of Steward’s experiences and family. His paintings draw viewers into his world, and in the process, challenge them to confront their prejudices and burdens.
His work is represented in the collections of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and Cleveland Clinic, and his latest piece is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. They all trace back to Page Avenue.
“Being here,” he says as he walks around his old neighborhood, “made me realize the value of being able to try, the value of having something else to hold onto, and for me, art was everything.”
Making it to art
“This place is a total ghost town now,” he says. “This is like a street that doesn’t exist. It’s crazy. There were generations of people who used to live here, and now it’s gone.”
During Steward’s generation, the area was active. When he and his friends weren’t playing games, they’d walk along nearby railroad tracks and sometimes get into the sort of harmless trouble elementary-school-aged kids get into. However, his brother – eight years his senior and at a different stage in life – would get into more serious trouble.
“He was in here selling drugs and doing all types of things,” he says. “I think him doing his thing and me being such a visual person, I got to take it in and realize it wasn’t for me.”
Steward turned to art at an early age.
“When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I was drawing my own version of ‘(Teenage Mutant) Ninja Turtle’ comic books,” he says. “I actually had a friend named Leron who lived over here, too, and I used to go over to his house and we’d draw ‘Mortal Kombat’ stuff together.
“I knew right away that art had to be what I was doing,” he says, “but it took me a little longer to realize what I could say in art, and how I could talk and deal with some of the things I feel like I went through – or go through.”
Steadfastly fostering Steward’s creativity was his mother, Rhonda, who shouldered the responsibility of raising three kids (including Steward’s older sister) on her own. Over the years, when she wasn’t working one of her many jobs – cafeteria worker, bus driver, bartender, nurse’s aide – to make ends meet, she was driving her youngest back and forth to the Cleveland School of the Arts in University Circle to ensure he arrived safely.
The contrast between attending classes in the region’s well-manicured artistic hub and living in homes where the utilities were at times shut off wasn’t lost on Steward, but the juxtaposition prepared him for what was to come.
“Seeing how this side lives, seeing there are places like this, it was like we were by ourselves down here,” he says of Page Avenue. “There was a lot that went on that no one cared about, and then being able to go to another environment where people lived totally differently … I was kind of realizing I can do more, I can adapt and I can be in both (environments).”
Navigating new worlds
Straddling parallel existences would be a recurring theme for Steward.
It came up when he attended a summer program at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in Interlochen, Mich., where he was surrounded by third- and fourth-generation students he felt were more talented than he was before realizing his life experiences gave him a perspective and edge they lacked.
It came up as he earned his undergraduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where people would tell him Little Italy was a “safe zone” and suggest he not pass the bridge – except that he was from past the bridge, and in his experience, Little Italy was “a scary place for all types of reasons.”
And it would come up again in 2010 as Steward graduated with his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Delaware in Newark. At a time when he was exploring opportunities to be an artist or teacher on the East Coast, his close friend’s mom was discovered to be one of serial murderer Anthony Sowell’s victims, and not long after, that same friend’s sister died. He felt pulled back home.
“At that moment, I thought it probably wasn’t a great idea to go back to Cleveland, but there was so much going on,” he says. “I have such a closer tie to this place than I thought, so I came back home a week after I graduated. … When I came back here, it was the same stuff, but I had different eyes.”
Rhonda Steward won the battle against cancer but lost the war. She died this past December, four days before Steward’s birthday, but remained selfless and nurturing to the end.
“The drugs they give you in chemo actually ruined her heart,” Steward says. “So she got through breast cancer – she beat that – but then she had heart failure.
“One of the last things she did was take care of my son while I was having my daughter, Emily. She was dealing with a 5-year-old when she was sick and wasn’t really able to take care of herself properly.”
It’s difficult for Steward to talk about his mom without his voice wavering from emotion. He explains she had a mother who drank, tells of how she was living on her own by age 14 and describes how she never had anyone to look out for her best interests. Mostly, Steward recalls the sacrifices Rhonda made for her children.
“She wasn’t dealt a good hand from the start,” he says. “She was one of those people who were doomed to fail, so it was like, ‘Let me get my kids to not be in that situation.’
“She tried her best, and that’s a story you don’t hear about a lot. You hear about that rise to success. Right? They get this huge success. They go from living on the streets to being a multimillionaire. But what about those people who just try to pave a way for a future, or for someone else?
“Her whole life was looking out for our future,” he says. “Her life was never about her, and there’s something to be said about that.”
Opening up baggage
Steward is in fact saying something about that – through his art. He shelved work he’d completed shortly before his mother’s death and started a new series called “Baggage Claim.” The eponymous first public piece from that series – a larger-than-life two-part mural – is part of MOCA Cleveland’s regional group exhibition, “Constant as the Sun.”
Depicted are Steward’s wife and children – on one wall, Angela is carrying Emily along with three bags, and on another, Darius Jr. has a school backpack over his shoulder while extending a flashlight in front of him – but they’re meant to symbolize him and his mother.
“It’s this idea of him helping her get through this, him being me, watching his mom go through this and helping her,” he says. “We may have to see through and find our ways to that next spot. She’s carrying three bags on one arm, a bag behind her and she’s holding my daughter. It’s like this idea of this weight, but you still have to keep going. And the reason it’s purses is I feel like my mom did it with so much grace. It’s weight, but they’re different bags. These aren’t just trash bags.”
A. Will Brown, MOCA Cleveland assistant curator, was impressed with Steward’s work from the moment they met about a year ago.
“I was really taken by the use of repetition to talk about pressing social issues that are distinctly related to his life and his community’s life,” he says. “I thought it was really interesting that Darius was able to do that over and over and over again but with slightly different bodies of work, and that the issues never hit you over the head but are just below the surface in a way that’s effective.
“You don’t have to say much, you don’t have to read much, you don’t have to look much to know there’s something at play here that’s about searching and looking to the past and thinking about the future of Darius’ family, his community and some of the generational challenges they’ve faced,” Brown says. “It’s simple, in an elegant way, and a clear metaphor of baggage.”
“It was like being in here, using all of this force and this energy to end up in the same damn location,” he says. “All this stuff I used to see go on, and no one ever got away.”
Children, meant to represent a maturing process and explore intertwining themes of childhood and adulthood, also frequently appear in Steward’s work.
“I used to use kids to talk about a childhood that I never had, or to talk about how my adulthood feels similar in certain ways,” he says. “Now, I use primarily my son and daughter. Now, it’s literally me seeing moments and progressions in my (son) that mirror what I feel like or what I do.”
One of the most powerful artistic tools Steward employs is white space. The overwhelming whiteness that surrounds the African-American figures he depicts represents a form of dominance as well as the white space he lives in as a black artist. Regarding the latter, he often cites something novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I do not always feel colored. … I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
“It’s about placement,” he says. “That’s a firm place. You can talk about whiteness as this very understood place. We know it exists, but at the same time, we don’t know. We don’t know how it really is. We don’t know how it affects who’s there. It’s this idea that I’m displaced but placed. That’s part of another series I’m working on where I’m building that up more. It’s like our segregated selves.”
“Because I have this platform as an artist, I’m able to express things that I’d never be able to express if it was just me, which sucks,” he says, lamenting suppressive societal hierarchies. “But in that case, I feel like I have an obligation to help get people to at least think about this on their way home (from a gallery or museum) – to look at that black kid in that whiteness and think about what things they came up with while looking at that.
“And it’s the same thing with ‘Baggage Claim,’” he says. “Yeah, I have these people carrying bags, (but) I want them to see that, ‘Hey, I have baggage too. Maybe we’re not as different as we think. Maybe there are some common threads there.’”
In addition to starting a conversation about these matters, Steward is making a statement – about himself, his past, his struggles and Page Avenue.
“For me, it’s kind of a way to showcase my position as a black man who lives in America. I think it’s important to show my spots because we’re different. There are a lot of us, and quite honestly, I deal with things and I have different opinions and different outlooks.
“There are a ton of African-Americans doing artwork coming from all different types of backgrounds. Me, coming from my background, I feel like I need to represent that. I need to talk about that. I need to talk about what I dealt with. I need to talk about what I deal with,” he says. “I need to show my experiences, because at the end of the day, this is all going to be part of this greater narrative. I want to be associated with that narrative. I want people to look back at this and see that this is what a lot of people were dealing with. I don’t want this spot to not be represented.” CV
Darius Steward’s “Baggage Claim” is part of “Constant as the Sun,” on view through Sept. 17 at MOCA Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.
A body of Steward’s new work will be on view in an as-yet-unnamed show from Dec. 8 to Jan. 6, 2018, at Tregoning & Company in 78th Street Studios,
1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland.
Steward also will have an as-yet-unnamed solo show from Sept. 4, 2018, to Oct. 28, 2018 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton.
Lead image: Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.