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IN THE FLOW: Niki Stewart has drifted around the world, finds her inspiration in India and paints in Wenatchee

By on September 24, 2018 in Arts with 0 Comments

Niki’s light-filled upstairs studio suits her perfectly — she generally stands to paint on big four-foot square canvases but keeps her myriad tools, colors and several completed artworks close by.

By Susan Lagsdin

Being in the flow is an essential state of being for Wenatchee oil painter Niki Stewart.

“When I have a preconceived concept in my mind, my ego gets in the way. It breaks the flow and makes me doubt my art piece. But when I’m totally focused ….” Niki smiled and indicated on a big canvas the rough circular shapes, or “chakras,” she’d made — in the flow — with the tip of a broom brought back from India. “When I’m totally absorbed I feel closest to God.”

Niki has melded years of guided meditation at an ashram in India with her need to create. Even when she bases her work on the crags and valleys of the Cascades, the teachings pervade the art: her oil paints come from art supplier Daniel Smith, but she also applies imported coconut husk ash (“vibhuti”) and turmeric powder (used for the “bindi” forehead marks seen on the Hindu faithful).

Her recent paintings recall the “rangoli,” sacred designs reverently chalked on the sidewalks and doorsteps of shops in India each morning. Traditional visual prayers, they’re intended to be admired and then naturally scuffed and even obliterated. “Some are spontaneous, some are centuries old family icons, but walking on them is OK — it releases the power,” said Niki.

Besides Indian religion, Niki is strongly influenced by painters from the past, like Masaccio (The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden), and the more recent Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Samples, snippets and prints by favorite artists fill one wall of her tiny studio.

The soft pastels of this painting, entitled Nepal and part of her ongoing Countries series, evokes not only familiar colors but the love and generosity she’s always experienced among the people there.

In Wenatchee, Niki was initially inspired by painter Larry Schmidt, at the time one of few abstractionists in the area, and eagerly started art classes at Wenatchee Valley College. Now, an admired mentor here is painter Robert Wilson, and she’s in the cadre of artists calling themselves 220, after Scott Bailey’s advanced art class at WVC.

Her college degrees are a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Education, which enabled her early on to work in Japan and in her current English teaching position at WVC. But in heart and practice Niki is a lifelong visual artist. Her British grandfather painted prolifically and even documented, because cameras were prohibited, the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Her relatives also painted and were serious observers of art, and Niki found their candid criticism of her earliest work more helpful than flattery.

While her father discouraged a college major in art, when she was 16 she won a prestigious prize and a place in the National Gallery in London with her conte drawing, and her high school teacher in Scotland guided her into advanced classes.

Confidently packing up her charcoals and watercolor supplies, at 20 Niki embarked, solo, on what would become a decade-long odyssey reaching several countries around the world.

She slept on benches and beaches, hitchhiked and sometimes went hungry, bartering portrait and sketches to stay solvent. She discovered her Indian ashram and spent time in Nepal. “I picked grapes in the south of France, taught in Japan, worked the fields in Israel.” Niki said.

She often depended on the kindness of strangers, “and invariably I found that the poorest people were the most generous.”

This recent work, with its high-contrast superimposed circles, was inspired by Indian sacred art. Niki pointed out upper-right spiral, indicting a flow of energy breaking out into the universe.

In Alaska she met her husband to be (now former) whose family ties lead them both to Wenatchee. There, running an organic juice bar and teaching yoga, her creativity went almost dormant for a few years. Niki also capitalized on her athleticism and trained continuously for triathlon events. “I was stuck in a state of contraction and self-absorption,” she said.

But in her college classes, she regained and retained her love of painting. She moved from realism and watercolor to oil painting in large, gestural abstraction, a style she’s been honing continuously.

Niki’s become part of Wenatchee’s arts community, serving on the Robert Graves Gallery board, with several pieces acclaimed locally at Mela, the MAC Gallery and the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center Regional Art Show (People’s Choice Award 2014) the Robert Graves Gallery (Best of Show 2016).

A few years ago, during a difficult personal crisis, Niki returned to her ashram and rediscovered its strength and peace. That moved her to organize her teaching and art-making around long, twice-yearly pilgrimages to India, where she meditates regularly and also does “seva”  (volunteer service).

Those sojourns help her see good, and God, all around her, and she strives to imbue her paintings with that clarity.

Niki will continue chanting the “vedas” (sacred songs) when she works in her home studio, using her colorful powders, surrounding herself with Indian artifacts, prayer flags and photos of her guru.

Then, If she lets the art lead the way and lets go, she will stay in the flow.      

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