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Joel STEWART (b. 1959)

One of the pleasures of collaborating with living artists is the opportunity to visit them at work. Every time I return to Japan, I make a schedule that incorporates many studio visits.  Many of our artists live in and around Tokyo, so those can be arranged fairly easily, but some live in Kyoto, which means a ride on the bullet train and a possible sighting of elusive Mount Fuji.


One such artist is Joel Stewart, who has made Kyoto his home for the past several decades. Even though I have been to Kyoto many times, and my family lived there for a year, I always have to meet Joel at an appointed spot (usually the local supermarket) near his studio, since I am never sure of finding my way. We thread our way through various streets until we arrive at the destination, where there are always paintings and prints in various stages of completion to admire. The first few times I met with Joel, it seemed funny to be conversing with an artist in English, but we are both Americans, so this in fact makes total sense.


Foreigners who settle in Japan often find themselves drawn to one particular aspect of the culture, and in Joel’s case it is the clay tradition.  Various ceramics and their respective glazes appear in his work, looming from the paper in a most imposing way, not least because he tends to make rather large work (most of his aquatints measure at least 32 x 28 inches.) He may work intensely, seeking to achieve just the right smooth texture of porcelain or gleam of lacquer on the lid of a container featured in his work, but in conversation Joel has the  relaxed laid-back quality of a true West Coast person.


Born in Danville, California in 1959, Joel Stewart has been fascinated with Japan since the 4th grade; his teacher was a Nisei (person born in the US whose parents immigrated from Japan) who taught the class about Japanese culture. A few years later, Joel’s father traveled to Japan for business, and brought back sumi-e and woodblock prints. A young Joel was further hooked.


Joel attended Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art and Anthropology. After continuing his study of painting and having various exhibits in California and Washington, Joel moved to Kyoto in 1986 to teach English. There, he continued to pursue his artistic career, delving into the creation of  original color etchings, as well as painting. A 1999 stint as visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome allowed him to spend time developing his skills in watercolor.


Clearly a versatile artist, Joel’s works play with light and shadow, imbuing his prints with subtle movement and bringing his landscapes, still lifes, and ethereal flowers to life. His use of different printmaking processes allows Joel to create subtle textural changes on the flat surface of a piece of paper.


Joel considers himself first a painter, and then a printer who has a natural kinship with etching, out of all the methods he has practiced.  He feels that his lifelong artistic goal has been devoted to finding ways to bring all of the seemingly disparate techniques that he enjoys working in together.

Techniques aside, Japan remains his first love. “Here in Japan”, he says, “I have really found a visual language and a set of tools with which to approach image making.”

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