The Power Of Homely Detail

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Especially in his paintings from the Depression years, Stewart achieved a bleak clarity of vision that has been compared to Hopper’s. The thirty-five miles between Ogden and Salt Lake City are densely populated and increasingly industrialized. Below the alluvial slopes where towns like Kaysville perch, both the Union Pacific Railroad and the main north-south highway go by. And along those routes, below the shaky sanctuary of Mormon villages whose communal solidarity was being tested by hard times and change, passed the homeless of the thirties, distinguished by misfortune, without even the frail support that home and community can give. Stewart painted them walking the ties past empty stations under bare telephone poles, or parked under the lights of an allnight truck stop. Best of all, he painted them huddled on the roofs and lounging in the doors of empty freight cars.

 
 
 
 

This last painting, entitled Private Car, is indeed Hopperesque, and it demonstrates how much power there still is in realism when realism is the expression of a passionate vision. All of Stewart’s characteristic touches are there—the muted colors, the homely detail, the bleak, ambiguous message. The desert light that gilds those uprooted ones seems also to threaten them. They are silhouettes before flames. It is probably the finest picture ever painted by a Utahn, or in Utah; and unlike most of its competition, it totally resists the temptation to sensationalize Utah scenery.

I suppose that nostalgia is part of my respect for what LeConte Stewart does. But the hard-mouthed integrity of the life-view is more important. There is something in his best paintings that does not depend on nostalgia but upon recognitions of a less parochial kind.

Once, in the 1920s, I was caught in a summer cloudburst at Farmington, a town just south of Stewart’s home in Kaysville. Dozens of us were marooned on the Union Pacific grade while a tenfoot wall of water, mud, and gravel, mixed with boulders as big as sheds and bearing trees, cattle, even whole houses on its surface, roared down out of the canyon. A train got us out before the tracks were submerged, and a couple of days later I went back to view the wreckage.

For perhaps two miles, the slope that had once been prime orchard and berry land was buried under sterile gravel. Many farms were gone entirely. One, a solid, brick, two-story farmhouse built to last until the great and terrible last days, was filled to the second-story windows with mud and rocks, a desolate, man-made iceberg in a mud sea. On that sunny morning, in what had been a lush, green countryside, next door to towns that their industrious creators had given names like Bountiful, neighbors were already out trying to restore what had been lost, while the steaming mud landscape told how vain and precarious that effort was. LeConte Stewart should have been there. That was a LeConte Stewart picture.