My Cultural Journey/Identity and Belonging

Hi I’m Rachel Stewart. This is my first blog and I’m excited about all the possibilities available to me as one of the recipients of the Professional Artists 2022 grant.

Live Oak Tree drawing

I am a visual artist and have lived in St. Petersburg for over 20 years. Like so many of the people in this area I am a transplant. Born and raised in Boston Massachusetts I completed my BFA in Sculpture and a few years later migrated to the island of Jamaica. I call it ‘crossing over’ because most Jamaicans migrate to the United States. but I went over there and settled into their culture, married and had a beautiful Jamaican daughter. I was in love with the island, the people, the mountains and the seascape. I was a young  artist living in the mountains in a thatched roof house, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The source of my inspiration was all around me. I was away from civilization and the academic demands of my former life.  The new inspiration was reflected through carving biomorphic forms using the natural wood of Mahoe, Spanish Elm and Mahogany. I was refreshed by simple  living and cultivating food off the land.

Subsequently I moved into the capital city of Kingston where my professional career as a visual artist took on a whole new life. I taught sculpture and drawing at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, one of the largest performing arts school in the Caribbean. I worked with artists from all over the world who came to Jamaica to connect with the rich vibrant culture of the island.

Although my roots and formal training as an artist are in New England, spending twenty years on the island of Jamaica established a more vibrant cross-cultural focus for my work. It is in Jamaica that my creativity and spirituality began to flourish.  There I found my voice; integrating into the Jamaican culture, the land and the people resonated in my art. Belonging, racial identity and culture became an awareness that caused me to think differently about life.

1995 I returned to the US and moved to St. Petersburg. The landscape and the people were different but my focus turned to the abundance of the amazing majestic Live Oak trees.  I was drawn to their crevassed, gnarled bark, and sprawling limbs covered with small smooth leaves. I began to reference them in my drawings and wood sculptures. These trees contain silent stories of conflict, growth and renewal. Live Oak trees  are symbols of life and contain specific spiritual connections. The internal rings of the trees bear important markings. Each ring records secrets of weather patterns, time, seasons and spiritual data. Their history informs our history.

Testimony is a mixed media triptych based on road maps from three significant places of my life. Multiply layers of color, lines and markings identify circumstances, movements and memories. They embody the myriad dimensions of my journey from birth in Boston to life in Jamaica and permanency in St. Petersburg.  Testimony connects movements, times, and seasons. The process of mapping and marking familiar and unfamiliar routes reconstruct and recreate memories in a tangible way. It brings order out of chaos and explores concepts of faith, identity, cultural routes and destiny.

My artwork serves as a way to visually reconstruct my life, threading together familiar and unfamiliar circumstances and places.  They help chart the order of things ordained by the Creator. Mapping is a method to track cross cultural influences, trace religious connections and settle uncomfortable experiences.

Currently I work on paper experimenting with multiple printmaking techniques. Unique to my creative process is incorporating the surface impressions of previous wood relief sculptures as a matrix for my prints. My sculptures became a bridge to printmaking. It connects collective memories of old experiences and discovery of new ones. Similar to the subtractive method of wood carving, cutting away linoleum was not unfamiliar to me.

I want my art to reach a diverse and international audience.  I want viewers to consider our unique global connections with nature; life’s realities, its pain, and its promise. I would like my art to act as a catalyst to see the world in a different way, to transform the ugly parts of life, the discarded remnants of hopelessness and restore the viewer to hope and beauty.



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