Stewart Daniels has been doing art for more than 30 years, both as a hobby and commercially.
He has done it all: from realistic painting and album artwork to billboard ads and movie posters. He’s a painter, a photographer, an illustrator, a digital artist since the days before Photoshop had layers.
But another man stands behind all the stacks of prints and dusty portfolios of commercial art. Today, his paintings look little like the work of his past and yet they reflect Daniels becoming the man he always was.
“I want to say I’m re-emerging, but it’s not the correct word,” said Daniels. “I’m emerging as an artist.”
A fine artist, that is. And an artist that is no longer committed to the constraints of an art director.
“This is me loosening up and being me,” said Daniels. “This set me free.”
Traumatic life events drew Daniels to the island, to a new kind of art, to an imagination that sprawls to life in the faces of colorful cats he calls his muse.
Up until about 2008, Daniels lived with his wife, Chitmarie, in Orange County, Calif. and made art on a freelance basis. They were comfortable. Their daughter grew up taking trips to Laguna Beach with her parents, and with their support, blossomed as an artist of her own in theater, paint and music.
Through ad agencies, Daniels was contracted to do album art for Motown Records, Warner Brothers and Jet Records, as well as greeting cards and movie posters. He worked on art for Myst (the video game), and for musicians such as Prince, Bob Dylan and Russell Crowe (for his debut EP released in Australia and New Zealand). He did the screen graphics for the 1995 sci-fi movie “Virtuosity,” a futuristic film that featured Crowe and Denzel Washington.
Later, he did work with publishing companies, doing book cover illustrations.
“It was really fun going to work with all these creative people,” Daniels said.
He won numerous awards for photography and illustrations all the way up until 2008.
But one by one, tragedy fell on his shoulders.
First his mother, who encouraged his art from the beginning, passed away. The following year, his father passed away, who was the one who pushed him to go to the party where he met his future wife.
Then the next year, his wife suffered a sudden heart attack. The love of his life, Chitmarie, who had worked many years in health clinics and led a healthy life, was taken from him by what the doctors called, “the silent killer.”
While heart attacks suffered by men are like an elephant stomping on your chest, the doctors told Daniels, heart attacks for women often sneak in and take life under the cover of symptoms that can pass for other ailments.
“She called me from work and said, ‘Honey, I don’t feel good. Can you pick me up?’” Daniels recalled.
She suffered for two days, thinking her light-headedness and nausea would pass. Daniels could not get her to eat or drink anything. On the second day, she finally agreed to let him make her a cup of tea. But she was soon overtaken with nausea.
She mumbled something about needing to throw up and beelined it to the restroom. Their two cats, Rusty and Franky, perked up to watch her. Then came a thud.
Alert, Franky and Rusty, at the same time, looked from the restroom to Daniels in the kitchen. He ran to the bathroom to find her collapsed beside the toilet.
Still conscious, he helped her up only to have her black out mere moments later. He called 911, and in minutes, medics were there to take her to the nearest hospital. There, the doctors told Daniels to leave the room.
“I’m a river of tears,” Daniels said. “I was madly in love with my wife until the bitter end.”
He had just enough time to tell her he loved her before they pushed him out of the room. Five minutes later, the doctors came in to tell him she was gone.
Daniels met his wife as a 20-year-old when he found himself at a party where he knew no one but the acquaintance that invited him.
“Then this girl walks in, big beautiful eyes,” said Daniels. It was Chitmarie. “I had a flash in my head that this girl is going to be my wife.”
A year later, they married.
“It was like I started a conversation with her and it was this long-running arch,” Daniels said of their love and relationship. “She allowed me to be creative and play, to live a Wall Street lifestyle of ups and downs, but she was my foundation, my rock beneath me.”
After his wife passed away, Daniels spent a year traveling around the country visiting friends and family. Then almost two years ago, he took his two cats and moved to Bainbridge Island to be closer to his brother Scott, who has lived here for about 26 years. Shortly after moving he started to paint.
At first he did it just to decorate his new home. But then his imagination became a life of its own and a type of art show he had never quite experimented with before - color and lots of it.
If three years of loss weren’t enough, Daniels’ close friend passed away shortly after his wife.
And in the past couple years, both of his aging cats passed along also. Franky, the girl, had a brain tumor. Rusty, the boy, died two weeks ago at the age of 14.
“So I’m just standing on the ashes here,” Daniels said.
But, he added, “I’m walking forward from here.”
Or, in some ways, it may seem, back, to the lofty creativity of his imagination.
Before his art was detailed to reflect reality then shrunk down to fit various print sizes. Now he does the opposite, starting first with a simple doodle about the size of a playing card and after various renderings in slightly larger sizes ends with a final oil painting on a canvas about four feet tall. Cats are depicted in almost every one of the paintings as the main characters. And vibrant colors glow with a nurturing happiness.
“This is so easy because this is me being myself,” said Daniels.
The collection has started to overflow his small home in the almost two years he has lived on the island. And at the urging of friends, his art will be featured for the first time on Bainbridge at the Bainbridge Performing Arts Gallery for the upcoming First Fridays Art Walk on Feb. 1.