BIG Art with Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart’s nature-inspired murals are large as life.

The average child does a lot of doodling and drawing in elementary school. But not every child grows up to continue drawing, let alone drawing murals 30 feet long. Tom Stewart, however, did just that.

He doesn’t remember exactly when it happened, but he’s been drawing “forever,” he says. “I used to draw a lot of birds and bird nests, probably from looking at Audubon books.” His parents supported him by buying him paint, and in fifth grade, they had him take classes at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “As a little kid you’d go through all these paintings and sculptures … that was just an eye-opener,” he says.

As Stewart grew, he continued to paint, but other studies took precedence. After graduating with a degree in forestry, he started traveling around the country, first working in Montana, then in northern Minnesota, and then on to Alaska. And in all of those places, he would take art classes at high schools and community colleges. When he’d come home, he’d take extension courses in Minneapolis, where he first caught the bug for big paintings.

“What really introduced me to larger paintings was [at the University of Minnesota], they have the Bell Museum, and I would go there and eat lunch and look at those dioramas,” he says. “I thought, Geez, I like that. Because you’re painting an environment.”

So it was a few years later, when he was 32 years old, up in Alaska working in forestry, that he made the decision to become an artist. “Ooh, that’s scary,” he remembers thinking. So he went back to school, at the University of Anchorage in Alaska, to get a degree in painting. “Then I was deciding to make it a career.”

With his background and interest in forestry, he was perfect for painting dioramas. His first mural painting was for a children’s museum in Alaska, depicting different water environments. And he loved it. “I loved the research, I loved going out in the woods,” he says. Because when he draws scenes, he’s not making things up; he’s either painting from memory, or from sketches and photos of an actual place. “I can’t stand to make stuff up,” he says.

The forestry comes into play for him “because I’ve learned how to look at stuff and examine things. … [It’s] more of a scientific approach.” This is why he’s done so much work with history museums and schools, along with projects for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency. “I’ve got stuff all over the country,” he says, in state and national park visitors’ centers, everywhere from South Carolina and Alaska to Louisiana and Illinois.

When he moved back to Minnesota, and the White Bear Lake area, he started working with Split Rock Studios in Arden Hills, which is where he did a lot of the visitor center work. But being in Minnesota gave him other opportunities as well, like creating the paintings for a local restaurant, and a mural for a White Bear Lake home.

The local couple, whose newly built home is of an older style, had a two-story foyer with a curved wall and thought a mural would fit perfectly. They were familiar with Stewart’s work from seeing it at the White Bear Center for the Arts.

The mural is a composite nature scene of White Bear Lake. Not taking one particular view, it depicts the lake with a stretching sky and egrets, turtles and other wildlife. And a sailboat, a request from the homeowners, who also wanted it to contain quite a bit of sky, which they say “is so indicative of being a Midwesterner.”

Each mural takes about four to 12 weeks for Stewart to complete. He paints in a warehouse, using ladders, scaffolds and lifts to reach every corner, and uses acrylic paint because it dries faster and has less mess. For smaller paintings he uses oil.

And why does he paint? “ ’Cause I don’t know what else I’d do, to tell you the truth,” he says. “It comes to a point where people go, ‘Oh, when are you going to retire?’ And I go, ‘Why? Why would I do that?’ ”

(Tom Stewart adds some elements to a mural at the White Bear Lake Library.)