He’s got a reputation for in-your-face queer art. So it comes as a surprise to learn that Carl Stewart’s latest exhibit, remnant, explores relationships.
“It’s the boyfriend show,” says Stewart with an easy laugh. “Everything that’s left over when a relationship is over.”
It covers intense emotional territory. That’s something new for Stewart, perhaps Ottawa’s best-known out and proudly gay artist. His more recent work includes HomesweetHomo, which featured framed scribblings from bathroom walls such as “I love you” – which Stewart found written above the urinal in the bathroom of a 10th-floor office in Ottawa. In New York City, Stewart discovered “I § cum in my ass” in the west side YMCA on West 63rd Street. For remnant, Stewart has mined his own failed relationships.
“Some of the things will be the actual physical objects,” Stewart says, standing in front of a worktable in a corner of his cluttered but organized studio. “Some are more ethereal because they are things that were said, promises that were made that were never fulfilled.”
On an early summer evening, Stewart is the only artist working on the second floor of the Enriched Bread Artists’ (EBA) Factory on Gladstone Ave. He admits he often works late. A co-worker at the Council Of Canadians, where Stewart has been database administrator since 1998, recently asked the trim, bespectacled artist if he will get out of the studio over the weekend. His reply was a simple “Uh, no!”
Stewart’s eyes light up as he rushes to open the long, narrow cardboard box sitting on the floor near the center of the well-lit room. The box holds Fortuna, depicting a large, framed fortune cookie inscription reading “You have inexhaustible wisbom and power.” Stewart chuckles, remembering reading the misspelled fortune while dining with a boyfriend.
However, not all of remnant is humorous. Stewart was partly inspired by an idea in British author Michael Bywater’s book, Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost & Where Has It Gone?
“When we remember,” Stewart paraphrases, “are we actually remembering the event or are we remembering the last time we remembered it? I really like that: as you move farther from the actual event, there are layers of meaning and new interpretation as you remember.”
Stewart’s memory is pretty far-reaching. Outside his studio, at the end of the hall, hangs a long vertical sheet of numbers called The Code. Stewart explains that, in order to see a queer peep show at a downtown business, you punch in a three-digit code and turn the key in the doorknob.
“Each number corresponds to the date I was there, who I was with, who I saw. If anything, this is the piece that could get me killed.” He laughs playfully, the sound echoing off the walls.
While Stewart is now single, he has drawn most bits and pieces from his experiences since ending a 13-year-relationship, including a wool sweater he never knitted for someone. He intends to knit it finally. The sweater will have 13-foot-long arms – one for every year that the promise was not fulfilled.
Stewart reveals that he is lucky enough never to have had his heart broken. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate that any time these things have ended, it’s either been at my instigation or else it’s just sort of like, ‘You know what? Yeah, we do want different things.'”
While Stewart remains quiet about how the 13-year relationship ended, an observer can’t help but wonder if he is still carrying a torch.
“Maybe one,” Stewart admits. “It’s a very small torch – maybe a match, but it’s still burning.”
Sometimes Stewart’s work reveals more than he intends, such as the tapestry he made using an ex-boyfriend’s photograph he found on-line. The portrait, entitled “I can’t see me,” stems from a particularly tough break-up.
“I did that thing that we all do from time to time,” Stewart says. “We Google the names of exes – oh come on, like you’ve never done it – to see what they’re up to.”
Is this the torch Stewart is carrying?
“Yup,” Stewart says, laughing uproariously. “Okay, you just found out the match. When I found it, I felt like it was almost like a little reward, without sounding too trite.”
Remnant, arguably Stewart’s most personal work since he first set up shop in the EBA studio in 1997, is part of a larger progression. On the wall behind the artist are large prints of butterflies that rise to the ceiling. This is The Mother Project, a four-part exhibit honouring his mother who passed away from cancer two years ago. It will be his first show in Prince Edward Island, from where Stewart originally hails.
He is also working on a project to honour his father, who recently sold the potato farm where he grew up. The farm was in the family for 84 years and four generations. Stewart will create a 51-foot-long path (the distance from the back door of the house to the front door of the warehouse) with 37 ceramic cast potatoes.
These PEI works may mark new themes for Stewart, but he’s not about to abandon telling queer stories. And he’s grateful that those stories include successful chapters covering exhibits in Ottawa and Toronto.
“I’ve been really fortunate, had success with getting grants with work that’s been very queer, upfront, in-your-face stuff,” Stewart says.
Such in-your-face work includes Stewart’s controversial Blue For Boys series, which included tapestries of large, buff, nude male figures, sometimes explicitly performing fellatio. Looking ahead to remnant, Stewart is unconcerned about ex-boyfriends appearing.
“I have no fear that after this show opens, that it’s going to be tough for Carl to get a date in this town,” Stewart says cheerfully.
Stewart also found inspiration in WH Auden’s poem, Night Mail, which he quotes.
“And none will hear the postman’s knock/ Without a quickening of the heart./ For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”
“The work comes from a place of deep affection and fondness for all of these men,” Stewart says. “All of these men played an important part in my life. Certainly this is recognition. They are always there, and it’s the things that we have that we carry forward with us. They are not forgotten.”