Radio Maine Episode 11

Stew Henderson: Life After the Museum 

 Have you ever wondered about how priceless artwork gets moved from one location to another? Artist Stew Henderson has the answer. He recently retired after two decades working in Maine’s fine arts world: first with the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, and then as the senior preparator at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville. In this latest episode of Radio Maine, Stew talks to Dr. Lisa Belisle about this work, his experience acting as an art courier and his own unique artistic style. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. And today I am speaking with artist Stew Henderson, who is affiliated with the Portland Art Gallery, and he actually happens to be located in the Portland Art Gallery this morning. Thank you very much for having this conversation with me today, Stew, 

Stew Henderson: 

I'm happy to be here. Thank you. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You have some very interesting work and I love the fact that,  behind you,  you have your Green Tea work, which has geometric shapes but also a swirling line. And then behind me, we have the Bowling Composition, which similarly has shapes and then the swirling line with different colors. You tend to do things in a series. 

Stew Henderson: 

Absolutely. And I think a lot of artists work that way. In the studio, you work on ideas and then something that really resonates or something that you think you can go further with you then get involved more with a serious body of work. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So in this Bowling Composition behind me what was your inspiration? What got you started down that path? 

Stew Henderson: 

Well, this is from a series from about 18 years ago called linear collage. And I wanted to use collage a little differently. I didn't want to put pieces of imagery together to form something else. I wanted to use small bits of images to create a narrative in a way, a linear narrative that you would go around and around and read. And most of the imagery that I used from all different sources will just be fragments of something. So I'm really using these things for their color and their shape and then every once in a while I would drop in something that you recognize. So in the Bowling Composition, it would be the bowling pin. And in the piece behind me, it would be a bowl of green tea.  And then this swirling motion would be set on top of it as kind of a hard edge, geometric pattern. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

There's something very musical to me about these pieces, but it's not as musical as some of the other pieces that you've done.  That seems to be a theme that runs through a lot of your work is music. 

Stew Henderson: 

Well, music is important in our family and I listen to music in the studio. So, I think it's always there and actually some of the titles of this particular series were called compositions because of compositions in music. So,  that's a valid observation for sure. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 When you're in the studio ,and creating, what types of music do you listen to?

Stew Henderson: 

It depends upon what I'm working on. If I have to solve something that's really difficult or something that I'm having a hard time with, I don't have any sound, but most of the time I put on either classical or jazz, rarely the radio, and if I'm building something like panels or something that is just mechanical work, then I get a little louder with more rock type music.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it sounds like you try to influence your brain patterns with the music externally to keep you brain neurons engaged. 

Stew Henderson: 

Well, I think I'm very aware of how music affects how I think. If I'm really stuck on a particular section of a piece, I can't have loud blaring music. I just can’t.  it's a distraction. But other times, there's music that I think helps me get to that place where you just kind of forget everything else and focus on what's in front of you. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So this idea of flow, of being in the moment and going with whatever direction you need to be going in…

Stew Henderson: 

Exactly. Exactly. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I understand that your son, in particular, also has a musical background. I’ve heard him play before as part of his band. 

Stew Henderson: 

Yes, he's a musician and he’s here in Portland. Now he has a recording studio. He is with a band but like almost all other bands in the country, or in the world, there's no touring. So he also writes and records music for other projects. So,  yes, we have always had bands at the house growing up. It was good. It was fun. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you encourage him in his music? Did you play the type of music that you listened to in your studio for him when he was growing up? 

Stew Henderson: 

Oh, absolutely. My wife and I always encouraged his music. His band is called Bronze Radio Return. And the reason for that is when he was growing up, I had in my studio, a very old, Zenith tube radio and that's what we listened to. It was my grandfather's and my son thought it was a bronze radio. So when he started this band, that's what he called it. I was already surprised at that, but,  that's how he got the name for his band. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did your parents encourage you in your art path? I know that you've had a parallel path in your work with Colby College and their museum but in your work as an artist, did your parents in any way, suggest that this might be a good direction to go in? Or did they have art around the house for you to pay attention to? 

Stew Henderson: 

Yes.  My mother was very encouraging. She was an artist.  She studied art and my father was tolerant. I always considered him like a civilian in the art world but he was fine with it. My mother was more supportive. I was thinking about this the other day. When I was quite young, she took me and my brother to see the Mona Lisa. The one time it came to the U S,  when it came to the Met, I think it was in, I want to say ’64, ’65. I still can remember that…being there and all those people there to see this one painting. I thought it was amazing and then many years later when I was in Paris with my wife, we went and saw it again. It was great to bring that memory back.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

When you were in Paris, were you in that situation where you're standing in front of the Mona Lisa, and then in front of you, there's all these rows of people with their phones up in the air. And everybody's taking a picture of a picture of a picture. Did you have that experience when you were in Paris?

Stew Henderson: 

We got good advice from somebody who said to go get your tickets the day before, and then when the door opens go in. And so, our plan was to go in and hit the few pieces that we really had to see and then spend the rest of the time going through the whole museum. But I know exactly what you're talking about. It gets a little crazy with the amount of crowds that come through with all their cameras. We did get to stand actually in the front row,  in front of Mona Lisa. So it was great. And my wife said that's a really small painting.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

No, it's so true. I had the exact same thought when I went in there and you see this enormous crowd of people, and then you look at the wall and it’s really quite modest in size. And it's amazing that this is the thing that people, the world over ,have decided, okay, I need to see this because it's something that's been part of my understanding for so long, 

Stew Henderson: 

You know,  another thing that surprised me was that while studying art history a lot of the pieces that I learned about, Renaissance piece and so on, appear small in the books, but, you know, some of them were huge and it really took me back. I never really thought about scale when I was learning about them. So that was a real treat.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's really true when I was doing courses in humanities and art history. They put the slides out in front of everybody and everything  was exactly the same size. So until you're actually standing in front of it you can’s know what the size is in an abstract way. You don't really experience the size of it until you're right there. 

Stew Henderson: 

You know, that's true. And, you know,  another place that caught me like that was down in Sarasota at the Salvador Dali museum. And,  again, that's another artist that you see in books, or on posters and stuff. But some of his paintings are just massive. It was just great to see them in there in real life. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You spent some time, I believe, as an intern with a sculptor or two of some renown. Did that in any way shape the art that you do now? 

Stew Henderson: 

The first apprenticeship I did was with a teacher I had at Hartford Art School,  Wolfgang  Behl, Ted Behl. And I worked with him in his Berkshire studio working on sculpture. And that's mostly what I did through art school with sculpture. So that was all metal work.  and that was pretty interesting. And then, I worked for a woman named Lin Emery who just passed away actually in New Orleans. Lin Emery did huge kinetic sculptures and what I took away from that was work ethic. When I graduated from art school, I didn't want to stay in school. I wanted to go out and learn how it works. So that's what got me on the apprentice track. And, Ted Behl  hooked me up with Lin Emory down in New Orleans. And I went and lived down there. I was impressed on how they, how they did their work, how they did their careers,  using outside resources,  it was more like how an artist works, I think that is what I took away from it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Y

ou spent many years working for the Colby College Museum of Art and this was an important part of a parallel path for you. What types of experiences did you come away from that line of work with? 

Stew Henderson: 

Well,  that's a good question. You know,  people ask me if it influenced the things I make. I think the influence I got from working in a museum are more physical than,  conceptual. And by that, I mean, I learned how to handle art correctly. I learned how to work with art, a certain way. And so it taught me how to handle my own work and store my own work and that kind of thing. But, it was a great experience. I was there during a very transformative time for that museum when Sharon Corwin started as curator in 2006.  When I started, it was like four or five people who worked there. And when I left, there were 25 employees. It went from being a little museum at a college that the kids never went to, to having national recognition. 

Stew Henderson: 

So it was a very important time, a lot got done.  I learned.  I met a lot of different artists, which was great.  I got to travel quite a bit because I also worked as a courier and I would go to Spain or Germany or France or California or wherever to transport art. So it was a lot of good experiences and I learned a lot about it and how that part of the art world works, which was great. I was glad to do it, but I was also ready to retire and just get into my own thing full time. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So just logistically, I'm interested in this idea of an art courier. You’re the person who makes sure that the art is packaged appropriately, makes it onto the plane, makes it off of the plane, makes it over to its museum or other owner. Is that generally the approach?

Stew Henderson: 

Right. At the Colby College Museum of Art, I would crate a work, say it's a painting, and a truck would come pick it up and I would get on the truck and they would take me and the art down to the airport. I’d go to the warehouse, or where they load cargo, and then watch them put our crate on a special pallet. Then I’d go inside the terminal while a state trooper stayed with the art crate until it got loaded on the plane. AI would watch it on the tarmac. They used to let you on the tarmac, but not anymore. And I’d watch it go on the plane, then I’d get on the plane. When you have the art with you, you get to fly business or first class, which is lovely. And, then, when we land and the crate gets unloaded, it's the same thing in reverse. 

Stew Henderson: 

I’d watch it come off, get on the truck with the drivers, and then head to the destination - hopefully it's not too far. And, then I’d watch it unload. Some couriers, they’d get on the truck and go from Maine to Houston. I never had to do one that long. It’s interesting.  There's a lot of protocols to follow.  And then the couriers would have to look at the work and make sure that it didn't get damaged or that nothing fell off of it or something. And then we’d watch as they installed it on the wall. And once it's on the wall, the artwork can't move until somebody comes back from the Colby College Museum of Art to watch it being taken down. Colby exchanges art with museums all over the world. Some of our shows had 20 couriers and sometimes there were none. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Was that ever nerve wracking in any way that you had something so valuable that you had a state trooper out there watching this and that you could only touch things at a certain time. And, that there was a value ascribed to it that was probably more than most of the values of our homes. 

Stew Henderson: 

You know, when you’re a courier, you can't say that you're a courier. You can't say, hey, I have got a million dollar painting with me. It's an interesting thing when you mention  the value of art and handling it because every day you handle millions of dollars worth of art. And if you think about that a lot, you will get really nervous. I think you just have to be really careful and try not to think “I hope I don't wreck it.”  Hopefully what you've learned in your training allows you to handle the art without worrying about it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I'm picturing the guy with the suitcase, with the handcuff around his wrist and the suitcase. Obviously that's not what you're describing but….

Stew Henderson: 

Exactly, exactly. And sometimes, if you're sending a lot of art to a big show, then it goes on a cargo plane and not a passenger plane. It goes on a huge, freight carrying plane, where the courier sits up in an area right behind the pilots.  I haven't had to do that. I've always been on passenger planes. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

As you're creating your own art, are you thinking to yourself? “Hmm. Maybe someday somebody is going to be couriering my art and bringing my works of art somewhere and it's going to be that valuable. And I'm going to have somebody who's going to be treating my pieces with kids gloves. "

Stew Henderson: 

Well, you know, that's a rabbit hole you really don’t want to down about your work in the future. I do know that having a couple of pieces in a museum  will ensure that something left of you will go on and on because they will take care of the work forever. But as far as when you're making it, you're just thinking about how to make it good. I don't know if I want to think about where it's going to end up. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it would be too much in your head to be always considering that something that you're working on could be a legacy piece for you. 

Stew Henderson: 

Well, there are pieces that I've made that I consider more important than others, just by virtue of where they were relative to the series they're in. You know, maybe some paintings took a year to paint or on a larger scale.  So pieces like that have a little more weight than other pieces. A lot of these pieces behind me and behind you, they were in a show at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland and so they have some museum provenance so that they have a little more weight perhaps. But, I'm not one of those artists that thinks that everything I make is a masterpiece. I think some pieces are stronger than others. And, I don't hold on to things that I don't think are really successful because I just I don't want them left behind 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

A couple of the pieces that I've had the opportunity to look at are in a series called DBP, DBP #6 DPP #7.  You've told me that these had to do with some work that your daughter was doing at the time.  Describe these pieces for me and tell me what was important about those at that time in your trajectory? 

Stew Henderson: The DBP stands for dapping block print and a dapping block is a tool that jewelers use. My daughter at that time was a jeweler. And in fact, for a little while, she was sharing,  part of my studio to work in, which is how I got my hands on her dapping block, but it's essentially a metal cube, a six sided metal cube, maybe three inches on each side. And it has bowl shaped holes,  indentations in it that you could hammer thin metal into to make different shapes. So I used it to print with a rolled,  anchor, acrylic, paint on it and print it with it.  And some of them have collage with it too. And some of them are just the print, but, to me, they looked structural when I printed them, they looked like they could be,  as if you were overhead looking at,  some kind of building. So that's how I saw those. 

Stew Henderson: 

I still have it. I never gave her back the, the happy block.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So someday, maybe you could revisit if you want it to?

Stew Henderson: 

Well, yes, maybe. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Or not. It seems that, when I look at your series, it, they seem very discreet. You have this series and then you have the next series and you actually have a remarkably diverse,  set of works that you've done, which is not common to all artists. Some artists, they have a theme and they stick with it pretty much from beginning to end. 

Stew Henderson: 

No, that's true.  There are artists that have a signature look and stay with it but art for me is more of an opportunity to use my hands and my mind and be creative and to do different things. So I like to explore and I like to experiment with things and sometimes one series will lead directly into another and you'll see a tie but other times I'll just find another direction. For example, before COVID, I had this series of called the patent series and it was all worked on from my grandfather's.  He was a patent lawyer and I had all these old books that he had of patents and they were just gorgeous. So I did a whole series on that and then I retired and COVID hit and I was thinking do I want to continue this series or do I want to try something else? 

Stew Henderson: 

So I just started working with plaster, working with metal, working with stone, just different things. And then I ended up working with paint and the new series will be here at the Portland Art Gallery.  I started to experiment with pouring paint onto mylar, letting it dry, then cutting out those shapes and then taking those shapes and stenciling over them and painting on top of that. So in a sense, they're almost like these cut-out,  organic flowing shapes and I'm reassembling them onto panels. It's like collaging with paint and it's like painting on paint. So it's like trying to find something a little different and see how much I can get away with as far as different materials. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's interesting that you have been,  kind of had this ongoing curiosity with different types of methods and different types of materials,  knowing that some people will, as I said, some people will kind of mostly do. I dunno, let's say watercolors and acrylics, or, you know, they'll mostly be this or mostly be that, but for you, you don't seem to get too locked into, I have to do this because I've always done it this way. You kind of give yourself permission to explore and, have an open mind about things. 

Stew Henderson: 

You know, I have to say that my approach to art is that it shouldn't be dictated by a lot of rules or conventions where you have to do this or should do this. I have to do what interests me. If you asked me to paint the same painting over and over for years, I just can't do it. It's not the process that I want to pursue. So I can't tell you what I'm going to be making two years from now. I just don't know. It all depends what comes into my life, what will affect me, what materials I'll find, or maybe I'll be someplace and see something that I'd like to work off of.  I don't know. That's what keeps it interesting for me, if it's not interesting, I don't want to do it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You have a show coming up in June with the Portland Art Gallery.  Do you have any special plans and things you've been working on for that? 

Stew Henderson: Yes. For the last year and a half, I've been working on a series that I called Pandemic because here's where we are. But the series itself has evolved. I started painting with those little plastic syringes called dose syringes. I started painting with those to see what that would be like. And then it evolved to where I just got a container and started pouring paint. So the series ended up being called Aftermath. Feeling like we’ve been through it, we're still there, but I feel like we're on the other side of it. And I think the pieces have a positive look to them because there's a lot of color. And there's just a lot of involvement and I think people will be able to spend some time looking through these works. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You mentioned that you had retired from Colby College Museum of Art, so you're kind of in this next phase. I know that one of the things you've been doing is helping your daughter with the renovation of her new apartment. What else is going on? You mentioned your son. What about your daughter? What's going on with your daughter? 

Stew Henderson: 

Well, she lives in Portland too, which is great. And yes, she is moving into a new apartment. We found that finding an apartment in Portland is not an easy thing to do. So we got one and we're down here, my wife and I, and we're helping her paint and get ready to move in. She is a very creative person. She is a wine rep. She sells wine for Easterly Wine Company out of Belfast. She also has her own company called Juice Caboose Wine, where you order your wine early in the week and she delivers it to your house on Friday. She keeps really busy with that. And, she's been in Portland a number of years now. She loves it here. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, that sounds like there was an opportunity that maybe presented itself with regard to the pandemic, this Juice Caboose idea. And, you know, she just kind of was at the right place at the right time?

Stew Henderson: I think what happened was that Lucy’s friends said “Oh, you sell wine, can you get me some wine?” She was like, well, no, I can't because I'm not licensed for private sales. So then she had enough people ask her that she looked into it and thought, okay, I’ll do this. Lucy had to go through a process of getting a license and so on to do so. So, it's fun.  She sells some very nice wine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: And you have plans of your own in retirement, in addition to helping your daughter, Lucy, settle into her new apartment.  You plan to do some travel, I hear. 

Stew Henderson: Well, you know, like everybody else when COVID hit all those plans, went out the window. So now we're trying to organize a few trips. We actually, since we're both vaccinated, we were able to get down to Florida in April. And so, yes, we're going to plan some trips,  nothing too extravagant, but there's, you know, when you retire, you say, you're gonna do this, you're gonna do that. And I think it's,  at some point you actually prioritize and say, where do you want to go first? And second and third. So that's where we're at. Also, last year I bought some used golf clubs online. So I thought I'd give that a whirl. And it's actually quite funny.  I'm really no good, but I play with this guy who is pretty good and he's very patient. So, we'll see, we'll get out a couple more times this year and see what that's like. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So continuing on your lifelong theme of always being willing to try something new and different and keeping yourself interested and just enjoying things.

Stew Henderson: 

And getting outside. I love to be outside, too. So we'll see what happens. I can't imagine ever hitting the pro circuit, but it's just a nice way to spend an afternoon. If you’re with people that don't keep score too close. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Right, you have to set your expectations. 

Stew Henderson: That’s right. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, Stew, I really enjoyed my conversation with you today. I've been speaking with artist Stew Henderson and I encourage people to go see his show in June at the Portland Art Gallery and to take some time on the Portland Art Gallery website to learn more about Stew and his work. It's really been a pleasure to have this conversation with you today. 

Stew Henderson: 

Well, thank you. It was great talking with you.