Kevin Stewart-Magee's Ubiquitous California Murals

Mural by Kevin Stewart-Magee
Commission for Bristol Farms, Palm Desert. By Kevin Stewart-Magee. Store designer: Debi English. Assistants: Melanie Stimmel and Lyndsey Morel.

Over the past twenty years, artist Kevin Stewart-Magee has created over 100 corporately, publicly and privately-sponsored murals in six states since the early 1990s. His attention to detail and his fondness of the California color palette make his signature style recognizable. His impeccable understanding of natural light and his skill for realism help his created scenes come to life. Born in Iran and raised in Ohio, Stewart-Magee is now living and working in Orange County. During his graduate education at California State University, Fullerton, he was diagnosed with non-metastatic/basel cell skin cancer as a result of his expansive career as a muralist. Through a handful of invasive treatments and his passion for paint, he was compelled to study, learn and teach safer practices for artists, and finding sustainability in art. Now, he spends most of his time painting on a smaller scale, researching how to inform and educate others on green studio practices, and scouting abandoned government facilities for new paintings.

Raised in rural America and finding peace and comfort in the notion of community within the working class, his MFA exhibit, "Work" approached the gallery and studio space for artists as workspaces, and considering what an artist's "work" is. "It's just the reality that this is a job and the life of an art-worker shares many of the same concerns and joys as other engaging, rewarding work," Stewart-Magee explains. "Bringing light to the mysterious studio and gallery can benefit both the artist and the viewer by facilitating new conversations about what part of this is art and what the process between ideation and creating involves."

Mowing for Godot by Kevin Stewart-Magee.
"Mowing for Godot" by Kevin Stewart-Magee.

A "workday," to Stewart-Magee, is also a macro version of the bigger life and the final product, idea, investigation and creation, in some form. A workday in itself is the same for many people. Cyclical in nature, at the end of the day, you pack up and come back another time to do it all over again. The remnants of the day become mere artifacts or ruins of the past, much like the abandoned buildings and storefronts he is obsessed with in his current series of paintings. "The old, forgotten art is haunted and that may be one of the best things about it," he says.

Having been a part of the Pomona, downtown Los Angeles scene, Fullerton art scenes, the evolution of industry has fascinated him for years. His current series deals with what's left over after a place, a person or a business has its heyday. Abandoned homes, empty storefronts, decrepit and empty air bases, forgotten encampments, deserted technology -- whole lives have lived, devoted to an industry, a job, a purpose, and when it's done, it's just left there to sit as a reminder, a marker, a grave. Stewart-Magee's palette is classic California colors, where you can almost feel the time of day, the temperature of the shade and the sun. Combining such powerful color techniques with his fascinating concepts, he creates a sensitive scene, evoking a deeper understanding of the ebbs and flows of humanity and time.

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Stewart-Magee's murals are alluring. His talent in painting is not limited a gigantic spread of a wall however, his smaller paintings also evoke immense emotion as the quality and style carry over. His murals, much like his smaller canvas paintings, involves months or research. One of his murals in Pomona, "Pomona Envisions the Future" depicts the goddess Pomona looking into a fertile future, and was the only lasting piece of the 2003 community project, "Envisioning the Future," and the mural has now become a landmark to represent the area. Stewart-Magee finds solace in community engagement, and helping others. "I have to say, with the murals and the community engagement projects in the past, I really miss that," Stewart-Magee says. "I miss being able to go out and do six months of painting, and it seems like today the work needs to be not just invested in execution but invested in its conceptual ideation. It needs to be well thought out and deeply researched for it to resonate."

"Envisioning the Future" mural in Pomona by Kevin Stewart-Magee and "Envisioning the Future" artists/participants Lief Frederick, Sandra Gallegos, Cori Griffin-Ruiz, Rupert Hernandez, Lynne Kumra, Yolanda Londono, Amy Runyen, Chris Toovey, Mary Kay Wilson, community artists Erin Campbell, Athena Hahn, Joy McAllister and Fred Stewart-Magee. Artists Magu (Gilbert Luján) and Judy Baca consulted on the project. Cheryl Bookout was the Envisioning the Future project coordinator.

Stewart-Magee hasn't completely turned off the mural-making part of his brain, he has upcoming mural projects in Lancaster and in Paris, France in the future. After chemotherapy and surgery to remove the cancer on his face and arm, he says he just needs to figure out how to protect his already damaged skin while creating those projects. But, it was his own personal experience that propelled his soon-to-be book project on toxicology and how to have a green studio practice. "For a 'sin' that I committed 25 years ago, with a process that everybody thought was super cool -- turns out it was destroying my skin, and now I have to put chemo on my arm every year," Stewart-Magee says. "No one told me that was going to happen. I just want to be able to tell people that these are really great processes. So that when artists don't follow the rules -- which they don't -- they know how to mitigate that."

LAX Flight Series by Kevin Stewart-Magee.
"LAX Flight Series" by Kevin Stewart-Magee.

Now, his studio is safe and clean, and his work is a bit smaller. The size difference wasn't a big concern for Stewart-Magee though; he was more concerned with creating something meaningful and epic, regardless of the size. "Part of the reason I wanted to move into studio work -- and go to graduate school -- is the question 'can you do something epic that isn't 65 feet long?'" he says. "I was attracted to murals because they were great big paintings, not because they were on the street. I was attracted to them because they involved the community, they had big ideas, and they had depth and investment."

His latest obsession is helping others create green studio practices through education and implementation. He has traveled around to many local universities to teach his green ideas and techniques, to the students and the faculty. He is in process of publishing a book on the subject, aiming to educate people on the ever-changing rules, regulations, hazards and precautions artists should know. Stemming from his own personal experience with over exposure and chronic use of hazardous materials simply through his art practice, Stewart-Magee saw firsthand how important it was to simply know the right information. "It's not the acute care I'm worried about, most artists know that stuff," Stewart-Magee explains, "but all the stuff regarding long term, chronic care, and specific concerns for women's health, prenatal care, young men's health -- and finding out what materials are in everything and how that can affect you."

Kevin Stewart-Magee in front of one of his murals.
Kevin Stewart-Magee in front of one of his murals.

Artists very rarely do what they're supposed to, especially with their art materials, it's just the nature of creativity, but there aren't enough people dealing with the irregular behaviors and reactions with these materials, and Stewart-Magee has taken it upon himself to do it, at least for some local schools, artists, and teachers. "... It's kind of just us suddenly catching up with the fact that no one has been informing all these people about safety," he says. "I'm really interested in teaching people how to take care of themselves and their community."

Stewart-Magee's drive in his teaching, his research and his art all come from a similar interest in service to others and passion for community -- this is clear right when you meet him. A charismatic, always smiling, jolly and adventurous person, he always finds the positive spin on things, and wants to help anyone who needs it. Coming from a small town he feels very strongly about creating a supportive community, and hanging on to it. This aspect of his personality -- paired with his successful career as a professional painter and muralist -- makes him brave in his art, taking conceptual leaps of faith and visually engaging connections with people and places in his artistic creations. "You don't run away from it, you run toward it," he says.

Mural by Kevin Stewart-Magee and Christine Wiseman.
Mural by Kevin Stewart-Magee and Christine Wiseman.
Common Treads large scale painting by Kevin Stewart-Magee.
"Common Treads" large scale painting by Kevin Stewart-Magee.


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