woman seated on dock watching the moon rise downriver

Patrick Stewart: A Madonna House Artist

by Lucia del Pilar Diaz

The first time I met Patrick Stewart was through his landscape paintings, which I saw in the Madonna House Gift Shop. I was impressed by their beauty and profundity, the subtle contrast of tones, the careful treatment of light, and the harmonious blend of lines and colors.

I felt drawn to a silent state of peace and contemplation, and I wanted to meet this artist.

He was, however, in a mission house at the time, and it wasn’t until some years later, during another visit, that I finally met him and visited with him in his studio. Then, this past Christmas when I again visited Madonna House, he agreed to an interview.

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When did you discover that you could draw?

In grade 8, when I had to do a poster for a science report on dinosaurs. I took a piece of white poster paper and a pencil, I opened up an encyclopaedia, and I looked up “dinosaurs.” Then I just drew what I saw. I looked at those pictures and marvelled. I could draw what I saw!

I think I did one more drawing in the next year of school, and that second time, I said to myself: one day I will study art. But I didn’t do it until my senior year in high school when an art class was offered.

What kind of art class was it?

It was a general class, drawing and painting. The teacher was a fairly gifted artist himself. I was the only one who stuck out the class until the end, and so I ended up being mentored, almost like an apprentice.

Did you enjoy it?

Oh yeah. It was fun, and I loved it.

The teacher had a commission to copy a portrait, an oil painting from the 1800s, and he asked me to do it. He showed me how to mix and use oil paints, and I just did it. It wasn’t perfect, but if you put the two paintings side by side, many people wouldn’t see the difference. The beard was a little stiff—I didn’t know how to do beards—but it was a very good representation.

When I graduated from high school, I was given the art award, and when my teacher presented it, he said, “I think Patrick will be a very good art restorer.”

That means you fix damaged paintings. He didn’t say I would be a good artist.

That was very disappointing for me, to be put in a box that didn’t include me being an artist. I wasn’t interested in being a restorer. I still painted after that, but, probably because of that, I did not consider myself an artist.

I was planning to join the U.S. Navy, and so in university, I mainly took courses to prepare me for that.

I took art courses, too, but that particular university had a very mediocre art program. It was just kind of play. They didn’t teach technique or theory. They just kind of let you do what you wanted, and as long as you produced something, it was okay.

So I didn’t learn very much. But it did keep me painting, and I learned that my life would always include art—though maybe not as the main thing.

One winter when I was in the navy, I was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, where there is a very good art school. I took a course one night a week, drawing with wax crayons. At the end of that course, the teacher took me aside and asked me, “What are you going to do with your life?”

So I said that I would probably continue with my military career and some day get out and maybe teach.

He said, “Get out tomorrow! You are an artist! You have the gift.”

I didn’t believe him, and I didn’t do it. But I believe my own “no” and other people’s “no’s” all along the line were moving me in a direction so that I would finally come to my vocation, which is Madonna House. It’s the roadblocks that finally got me here.

Did you paint when you went to Madonna House?

Not at first. When I was a guest, I didn’t paint, but I did lots of drawings, lots of portraits, pencil portraits of staff.

There was no spiritual connection for me at the time, but I was drawing people who were living a spiritual life, and I was able to capture their expressions.

What subjects do you prefer to paint?

These days, I love painting landscapes where there is lots of sky. My landscape painting developed in Madonna House.

I was stationed at Marian Centre Edmonton in Alberta for thirteen years. There on the prairies outside the city, there are huge fields of very yellow canola flowers. I painted a lot of those right on location.

On the prairies, the land is flat and the sky is big. The sky is the landscape. I started to discover more and more how a sky looks, and I learned how to paint skies.

When you are painting a landscape on site instead of from pictures, you have to draw quickly, especially the sky, before the light changes. So I developed a fast way of drawing.

In Edmonton, too, my days were very full with working in the soup kitchen; often the only time I could paint was at night. So I took photographs and painted from those.

One reason it took me a long time to really believe I was an artist is that I can’t paint from my mind or my memory.

How do you choose the topic you want to paint?

I follow my eye, my eye follows my mind, and my mind follows my heart. I remember about ten years ago in Edmonton I was painting a lot. One day, I suddenly thought, “I can paint a mud pile and make it beautiful!” I realized that I can find beauty in everything.

For a long time, I painted what other people wanted me to paint. In Edmonton, I took a lot of commissions to paint someone’s child or friend.

I did that for a long time until my director, Mark Schlingerman, about 8 or 10 years ago, told me to stop.

Then he said, “Take a year without commissions. Just paint what you want to paint.”

So I did, and from then on, everything started to change. I did a series of paintings, taking the same subject and painting it from one angle and then another, and in this light and that light. I did three series exploring in this way.

I did the fields and skies of Alberta, but the real breakthrough series was one I did the year before I left Edmonton of the light of various sunsets coming through a crystal vase which Marian Centre had received in donation.

Tell me about your painting life united to God here in Madonna House.

When I first came back to Combermere from Edmonton and started to paint here, I was attracted to landscapes, especially with a person sitting in them, such as a person sitting on the river bank looking at the river. So I did a series of those.

In most of them, I was not thinking spiritually or feeling contemplative while I was painting, but with three of the paintings where the person had his or her back to me, I was looking at the person and at the landscape, and it’s like the Lord kind of took me through the person to their prayer, and then their prayer became my prayer.

I don’t know if they were praying or not, but it was like I went inside them and saw what they saw. It became contemplative prayer in me, and then emotionally it went out of me, mostly into the paintings.

The two most consistent things in my life have been art and God—being attracted to him and moving towards him and sometimes moving away from him.

When do you see your painting united to God?

Not when I first start a painting; it happens somewhere during the process. When I start to paint, I am very physical and very fast; I paint all over the canvas.

But then when I start to slow down, I see how the painting is starting to come together. Then I step back and step forward and at some point an image starts to call and then I spend more time looking at that image, looking and painting.

Do you ever receive a word from God linked to your paintings?

It does not happen when I am painting, but mostly when I am ready to put a title on the painting.

For example, God inspired me to call one series “Radiant Light,” and the painting of Father Zach praying in the island chapel, “Encounter.”

What artists especially influenced you?

Tom Thomson, John Singer Sargent, and Caravaggio.

Do you follow a specific technique or do you consider your paintings to be more realist or impressionist or classic?

I was never taught a specific technique. In my first art course in high school, I was given materials and told to start.

I call my paintings “representational art.” What I mean is that I paint that landscape, this face, that person, that tree.

I basically trust my eye; I trust my hand and somehow my mind and my heart get connected. I sometimes get overwhelmed by it all.

What message would you like to give the readers?

Trust the deepest intuitions of your heart and trust God. He is with you.

As a member of Madonna House, Patrick Stewart has done a variety of work other than art over the years, both in Combermere and in our field houses. He has never worked fulltime as an artist.

Currently, he is the men’s local director of the Main House in Combermere. He is given two afternoons a week to paint and squeezes in more time as he can. His work is exhibited in the art gallery of the Madonna House Gift Shop.