At a local gathering of The Explorers Club, Washington painter Betsy Stewart chatted with a group of scientists. When they asked how her work was going, she reached for her iPhone and pulled up a photo of her newest painting. Against a midnight-blue background, the image showed brilliant bursts of orange that appeared to drift forward and vanish back into dark obscurity.
“What do you think it is?” Stewart asked the scientists. “Exploding stars in the Andromeda Galaxy,” an astrophysicist imagined. “Cool viruses,” a pathologist suggested. A biologist and physicist also offered their own interpretations.
Stewart was delighted. “You’re all right,” she answered, beaming. Recalling the moment, she explains, “It went exactly as I hoped. It made me realize I was on the right track.”
The “right track” extends the themes that underpin Stewart’s art. Since the 1990s, she has explored nature’s fabric up close and, over the past two years, from an immense distance. On the smooth surface of her paintings, luminous colors and dynamic patterns fluidly converge, expressing nature’s captivating beauty. Yet her work dives deeper. A non-scientist, the artist is fascinated with the workings of the universe. For many years, her paintings have examined the interdependent, microscopic life found in pond water, and by extension our own fragile position—a view that may not be readily apparent.
“I hope when people look at my paintings, they realize that whatever they see represents what cannot be seen by the naked eye without a microscope or telescope,” says Stewart. Her paintings bridge what she calls micro and macro worlds, “exploring the connections in nature from a droplet of water to the vastness of the cosmos.”
The artist’s latest series, “Biocriticals,” considers the ambiguity between those worlds. Stewart started this series after hearing a lecture by NASA scientists. The space-imaging details they showed looked remarkably like the biomorphic forms in her pond paintings. “I began experimenting with the idea that many of the same shapes were out in the solar system as well as in my microscopic water samples,” she says. With her previous water series, “Bioverse,” as a base, Stewart deepened the color palette and set off on an imagined space odyssey. “I found myself thinking, ‘If this were in a different galaxy in outer space, how would it look?’” The success of her journey was confirmed by the Explorers Club experts.
A different kind of odyssey led her to that point. As an undergraduate at American University, Stewart was required to take a painting class. With a background in dance, she was also taking a master class with choreographer Merce Cunningham. “What Merce taught me was that you have to create your own voice,” she recalls.
Later, experimenting with mixed-media collages representing landscapes above and below ground, she suddenly realized, “That’s it! What we can’t see under the earth is what is really important.”
Today, in her combined Kalorama apartment and sunny corner studio, Stewart returns to her own earlier work for inspiration. “I find something in a piece that I really love, a detail that should be blown up and redone,” she says. After stapling a fresh canvas to the wall, she marks out the location of what she calls the main “characters.” As many as 20 transparent layers of acrylic paint are brushed on and smoothed out. When a different perspective is needed, Stewart moves the canvas to the floor. Working intuitively, she may paint over or add pen-and-ink lines and swirls that represent energy.
Stewart travels frequently in the U.S. and abroad. This summer, she will join other artists to exhibit a large collaborative piece at the World Trade Center in Montevideo, Uruguay. Artists in the group, called Take Me to the River, all depict water as a subject in order to bring attention to its critical global importance. Having participated in similar exhibits around the world, Stewart has coached high school students in South Africa and women immigrants in France to make their own art, which is exhibited in the same venue as the professionals’.
While Stewart’s trips may also involve hiking in the Amazon or kayaking in the Adirondacks, they never include sketching distant seas for the next painting. As she says with an impish grin, pointing to the source of her imagination, “It’s all just here.”
Tina Coplan is a freelance writer based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Greg R. Staley is a photographer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Betsy Stewart’s work is permanently exhibited at the Kreeger Museum and in the Washington Convention Center. The next Convention Center art tour is June 5. betsystewart.com