Nancy Lee Stewart finds inspiration in her surroundings


Nancy Lee Stewart in 1997. (Chronicle file photo)

Editor’s note: The following article by Ellen Miller-Goins first appeared in The Chronicle’s 1997 Summer Enchantment magazine. Nancy Lee Stewart passed away April 14, 2017. A link to her obituary appears below.

If one’s setting contributes to creativity, it’s no wonder Nancy Lee Stewart produces so many exceptional paintings. She and her husband Charles live just off Blueberry Hill in a magnificent, fully-restored hacienda-style adobe adjacent to black volcanic outcropping (some with petroglyphs) and surrounded by sweeping views and ancient silver-leafed cottonwoods.

Nancy Lee Stewart has always had an affinity for New Mexico ever since she began coming to Red River in 1940 with her parents. “They built a cabin on National Forest Land with no running water. This was when a lot of miners were still coming down from the mountains. We spent part of every summer in Red River and we square danced, fished, climbed mountains. I learned my socialization skills up there. I had my first romance… my first job…. It was more family oriented then. You just got to know the people in the area on a more natural level. You still can — it just takes longer.”

Born in Pharr, Texas, in 1935, Stewart says she attended public school in Odessa, Texas and college at the University of Colorado. She married her junior year and moved “at least every six months” with her husband, James Davis, who was in the U.S. Air Force. They had three small sons and were living in Japan when Stewart’s husband was killed in a plane crash.

She moved to Lubbock and attended Texas Tech University where she earned a B.S. and M.A.E. in Art Education, and a Ph.D. in Fine Arts.

She was teaching high school art during the 1960s and early ’70s when she took masters painting and life drawing classes in Taos.

“A lot of our models were from the (hippy) communes,” Stewart says, adding she used to worry about the models because “they were controlled by substances and groups. Since coming back to Taos, I’ve met a lot of people who have made it out. It’s kind of fun to see them now. quite a few of them are very good capitalists. They like making that money. They also value family. They know where to draw the line on keeping up with the Jones!”

Stewart says she met Charlie at one of those summer classes, but they were friends for a number of years before they married and moved to Midland, Texas, where Charlie worked as an administrator for Midland College.

“We lived there during the oil boom. It was just kind of unbelievable. If we wanted to go to an opening somewhere out of town, someone would fly us there.”

After the oil bust, the Stewarts moved to Taos in 1986.

“I told Charlie I would only stay in Midland four years,” Stewart says. “It was always my plan to come to Northern New Mexico.”

Both Stewarts are full-time artists and Charlie is also researching and writing a historical novel set during the Civil War era.

Stewart’s own work varies from “objective to nonobjective” — splashes of color that evoke an emotional response. She prefers watercolor painting and is actively involved with the Taos Society of Watercolorists. She is working on developing a web page for the group and is assisting with the organization of the Taos National Exhibition of Watercolor II, to be held at the Van Vechten-Lineberry Taos Art Museum, Oct. 4– 31. Last year the show had 500 entries.

“We have many of the top artists in the nation,” Stewart says of the show.

In addition to her painting, Nancy does consulting, workshops and publishes articles about the creative process using methods she developed while teaching and earning her Ph.D.

She is interested in the creative process and teaching others to see in new ways. She says she has researched the use of instructional motivations to encourage creative responses in high school and college art students.

“Jean Piaget wrote that you only change a view if you’re made comfortable or if you’re afraid for your life,” Stewart says, adding she has done a lot of reading about creative people and they have a few characteristics in common.

“Creative people have the ability to not feel uncomfortable with ambiguity. They want to solve problems for themselves instead of having solutions delegated. They don’t feel like they have to do things the way others do. And they have a different value system that is their own and is on a higher level.”

Of her home and its magnificent setting, Stewart says of course it is a factor in her work — she can bask in the beauty of her surroundings and work up the creative steam for her next project.

“Creativity is the ability to gather information… and letting it stew.”

Obituary: Nancy Lee Stewart