Brian Stewart was one of the participants in the early Catalina Island wet-paint shows that played a huge role in launching the contemporary plein air movement. Now he has a book chronicling his times.
The painter, who now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, has a 25-year history of participating in the Catalina Island plein air show that is widely recognized as the key event that marks the beginning of today’s plein air scene. “It was the start of the wet-painting shows,” says Stewart. “If you were lucky, you sold all your paintings and no one ever saw them again. I wanted to chronicle that scene for my grandkids, my family, and friends.” The result is An Artist’s Journey…Via Catalina, a 136-page hardbound book with 95 color plates, text that’s full of recollections from Stewart, and a forward by key plein air painting collector Roy C. Rose.
Stewart seems to feel that it is a small project intended for his circle of friends, but it’s clear when talking to him about it that the book is more than that. “I never intended it to grow into what it has,” says the artist. “It was just for friends and family. Once a year, I would disappear to the West Coast and do a show that they vaguely knew about, in Catalina. Really, it’s just kind of a memoir for me. I give the history of the Catalina shows, but mostly it highlights my own art and the work I did there. I feel like my pieces were kind of different.”
Those early Catalina Island wet-paint shows are legendary, but what accounts for their fame and power? Stewart notes the quality of the artists and the devotion of the local collectors, but he hangs it mostly on fate. “I think it was just coincidence, a magical bringing together of the right people,” says Stewart. “It started with Denise Burns, who invited some of her friends to come over there and sell their still-wet paintings — a novel idea at the time. And it just kind of took off, with Roy Rose as collector and Kevin Macpherson joining it, and then Denise added other good artists who she thought would uplift the show. Another key: It was held in the casino, the most spectacular venue for an art show I’ve ever seen. It is a glamorous place. Collectors loved it when they got wind of it.”
This is also a book that provides some closure for Stewart. “I don’t think that I’ll paint in Catalina that much anymore,” he says. “I’m kind of burnt out on Catalina, but I wanted to say goodbye to it in a fun, respectful way. Things are changing there, it’s being developed, and the beach culture and the old historic stuff is being pushed aside. There’s always been wealth there, but it is becoming really upscale.”