Tales of LeConte Stewart
by Tom Alder
LeConte Stewart is one of my favorite early Utah artists and regrettably I never met him, even though he only passed away in 1990. I do have a couple of close friends who knew him quite well and between them, regular meetings with the Art Nurdz and conversations with family members I have formed a charming portrait of an artist swept up in his craft.
The Inspection Sticker
My favorite LeConte Stewart story was given at a retrospective at Clayton Williams’ Gallery. One of LeConte’s sons, Birge, was giving a talk about his father and related the story of the inspection sticker. One day, Birge noticed his father painting a small, but familiar painting. Upon closer examination, he realized that it was a copy of a Utah safety inspection sticker that years ago was required on everyone’s cars. LeConte’s explanation was that he wanted to save the money for the permit, didn’t think that his old car would pass inspection, and besides, he could do a better job than the state at replicating a decal anyway. He had done it several times before and propped it up against his windshield with an old glove so that he could change it from car to car. Birge pointed out that what he was doing was illegal, and after some discussion, I believe LeConte’s son prevailed and the car had to have some repairs done in order to pass inspection.
Dick Stewart, a former BYU and Santa Clara professor of art, recalled that his father once filled his car at a Kaysville gas station that was adjacent to a convenience store. As he drove away, LeConte evidently hit the wrong pedal and crashed his car through the front window of the store. No one was injured but the story circulated around town that Mr. Stewart had driven through the store to pick up a Slurpee. Dick said that his father got away with quite a few things, but the townspeople seemed to understand his nature and didn’t worry about him. “My father was an eccentric,” Dick recounted, “but he was absolutely dedicated to his art. He put it firstsometimes before his family.” Sometimes there would be extended family parties and LeConte would promise to be there but would often return from a painting excursion, hours late or after the party was over. “My mom would be disappointed,” Dick said.
Dick was an accomplished artist in his own right and said that his father was his pal. “We talked about art all the time. He loved nature and would observe various areas up the canyon, the leaves on the trees, and the different colors and would take notes about them, reviewing those notes a year later to see how nature had changed the surroundings. I believe it helped him to be the great landscape painter that he was.”
LeConte’s dedication to his craft is reinforced by a story related by a friend of mine, Tom Frost, of Kaysville extraction and whose parents assembled a rather extensive collection of Stewart works. Some years back he told me about a time when he was at his folks’ home when LeConte walked into their living room, took down a painting from the wall and left without explanation. He returned it some months later after he had made some corrections to it that had been bothering him for years.
That wasn’t the only time he retrieved a painting. Alice Telford, my good friend and LeConte’s niece, related a story about someone at BYU many years ago who persistently asked LeConte to donate a painting, presumably to be hung in the museum. LeConte finally did so, only to learn from someone else that the painting was listed for sale. LeConte felt somewhat betrayed and retrieved the painting.
Maynard Dixon Connection
Alice has told me a number of stories about “Uncle Conte,” some of which I had heard from the Art Nurdz (Seifrit, Poulton, Ericson, Swensen, Williams, et al.) and other reliable sources, and some that are brand new to me. Alice said that as a child she remembered several visits that Maynard Dixon made to the Stewart home. She played with the two Dixon sons who were much younger than she while her Uncle Conte and Maynard “went off painting.” On one occasion, Dixon parked his trailer in their cow pasture and that is where he and his two boys slept. During another visit, Dixon slept upstairs in the house where the three Stewart boys slept. The boys had to sleep outside during that visit. While upstairs, Dixon lit up a cigarette one night and set the bed on fire. “Aunt Zip was ready to kill him!” Alice related.
During another visit, Dixon plunked down a fifth of whiskey on the dinner table and poured himself a drink. “My aunt quickly removed it,” said Alice. This story was also repeated over the pulpit by Nancy Greene, who along with Joe Prokop recently produced a stunning documentary about Dixon for PBS. In another version, though, Dick (Maynard Dixon Stewart) Stewart, recalled the whiskey story but added that when Dixon produced the whiskey at the family dinner table, his mother, without hesitation, blessed the mealand the whiskey.
Many Utah art collectors either possess or have seen copies of the elaborate Santa that LeConte painted, in what Alice believes was the 1920s. She asked him how come he painted himself in a 19th century Santa suit and LeConte’s response was that he was thumbing through a holiday catalog and saw an antique image of a Santa and decided to “paint the old bugger.” I saw the original once when it was for sale and instead of purchasing the five-figure artwork, I commissioned LeConte’s grandson, Monte Stewart, to copy the painting [see image]. The original painting (on panel board) had many small holes around the perimeter of the image where, as LeConte’s daughter, Mary, explained to me once, her mother pinned boughs of holly each Christmas season before hanging the painting in their home. The spectacular image of Santa includes a slight crooked smile that Mary said was proof that it was a self portrait of her father. Alice’s recollection is that others have been told that it was not a self portrait. That’s what I love about oral historiesthe explanations change or are interpreted differently. No matter, the painting (or copy, rather) presides over the Alder mantle each Christmas to our full enjoymentwithout holly pinned to the canvas.
Among Alice’s fine collection of works by her uncle are a number of old Stewart wood cut Christmas cards that LeConte’s wife, Zippora (“Aunt Zip”) used to send to friends and family [see images]. Alice recalls that some of the cards were produced while LeConte was living in Magrath, Canada during the time that he painted murals in the Cardston, Alberta Temple, some years before he became the long-time Art Department Chair at the University of Utah and influenced thousands of students.
Dick Stewart’s concluding remarks about his uncle, quoting the inscription on LeConte’s headstone in the Kaysville Cemetery, are a fitting epilogue for this inspired artist, teacher and legend: “He Knew Nature and Dearly Loved Painting.”