Amar Stewart knew Asheville was an art-centric town, but when he relocated from Brooklyn in 2019, he quickly learned a couple of things.
“I first lived in Biltmore Village, which wasn’t really me,” he recalls. “I went downtown and walked around South Slope and saw all the breweries and thought, ‘I want to live here!’ So, I have lived and worked in South Slope since.”
He also explored the River Arts District, but didn’t see art quite like his in the studios and galleries. “But all the murals and graffiti art on the buildings showed me a scene here I could relate to — I just had to find it.”
Stewart, raised in the small English town of Leamington Spa, skipped college and went to work as a buyer for the chain of extreme-sports-gear stores his family owned. When he was 19, he moved to London to run their street-wear shop DEMO, where his artistic curiosity was piqued. “I started buying underground brands from New York and LA, a lot of it designed by artists. I was immersed in it and began dabbling in it myself.”
Dabbling segued to dedication when he quit his job and devoted himself full time to learning techniques and developing his bold style through murals and canvas. “Social media was just emerging then, and young artists were expressing themselves in ways I hadn’t seen before. That drove me.”
A more unexpected influence came from the 16th- and 17th-century painters of the Dutch Golden Age he studied in London art museums. “I loved the work of the Dutch Masters, but I saw a lack of people of color — it was all white royalty and nobles. I decided to combine my passion for hip-hop and my passion for those paintings.”
The juxtaposition of subject matters resulted in his first major body of work: Hip Hop Royalty. The debut subjects were the late, much-loved ’90s rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, and their portraits were his ticket from London to New York. He brought them to his month-long residency in Brooklyn’s Cotton Candy Machine.
While there, Stewart painted nearly 20 more canvases. “I didn’t sleep,” he says.
He also didn’t leave, remaining in New York until he was diagnosed with tongue cancer in late 2016. He went back to England for surgery, staying with his parents through a very difficult recovery. “One day my mother took me to the art store and told me I had to start painting again, because painting made me happy.”
The resultant series, Let’s Battle, was a vulnerable, dark reflection of his mental and emotional state, but the only way he could communicate at the time.
Since moving to Asheville, he added three more self-portraits to the first one he did in New York, including one marking the first time he had a coffee in public since surgery.
Stewart began this year in London filming an episode of the BBC documentary series Extraordinary Portraits, in which he painted an extraordinary — but still under wraps — subject.
Currently working on a project with New York hip-hop artist Cormega, as well as abstract portraits in his studio in South Slope’s Refinery, he is seeking space to open his own studio/gallery.
He plans to name it Work in Progress. “I am always moving and changing, so that reflects me and my career.”
Amar Stewart, Asheville. Stewart’s work is carried by Refinery AVL (207 Coxe Ave., South Slope, therefineryavl.com); Citizen Vinyl (14 O’Henry Ave., downtown, citizenvinyl.com); Horse + Hero (14 Patton Ave., downtown, horseandhero.com); Marquee Asheville (36 Foundy St. in the River Arts District, marqueeasheville.com); and Burial Beer South Slope (40 Collier Ave., burialbeer.com). For more information, see amarstewart.com (on Instagram @amarstewartpaints, on Facebook and Twitter @amarstewartart).