Unpacked bags: Darius Steward paints city with messages of love, family, acceptance

Darius Steward has known his entire life that creating art was his calling and his way to speak his messages without saying a word. He uses his watercolor paintings to express his views on social issues—primarily on race, equity, culture, and childhood wonder.

In the last six years, the husband and father of two children has used his talents for his own emotional therapy, as a teacher, and as a mentor.

This past summer, Steward’s art exploded over Cleveland, as he expanded his repertoire to include murals and sculptures that play on his ongoing “Baggage Claim” series, which he started in 2016 with a watercolor series after the death of his mother, Rhonda V.

“The idea came to me with the passing of my mom because I was stuck with all her stuff—literally bags of her stuff,” Steward recalls. “And I started to think about all the weight she had to carry, that journey, and the weight that I carry. So, it’s kind of a way of having my children be guides as they help me navigate through this new patch and find a new place to relieve some of the baggage I’ve been carrying.”

As Part of Cleveland Public Library’s public art program with LAND studio, Steward created a sculpture exhibit in the CPL Eastman Reading Garden, “Baggage Claim, in Search of New Beginnings.” Six life-sized sculptures are modeled after his nine-year-old son, Darius, and four-year-old daughter, Emily. The children carry backpacks and flashlights to represent releasing the baggage.

“‘Baggage Claim’ was me asking the question, if we carried all of our baggage, our social and emotional baggage, with us every day what would it look like?,” Steward explains. “How would it be? This group of sculptures is about letting go of that baggage so we can come to terms with it and move on.”

But Steward says the sculptures also have to do with identity—both to visitors to the garden and to his own children.

I’ve been getting photos from kids with my kids within this space,” he explains. “So, people are getting to see people like themselves in a public space is a real fulfilling moment for me. It’s something I really wanted to do and I’m happy it’s done. And I don’t think we have anything like that in Cleveland. For me, it was just a huge moment.”

Steward explains that he likes that the sculptures represent everyday children who others can identify with, rather than a celebrity or other icon.

To be able to say my son is a sculpture and he's sitting somewhere with people who are interacting with him every day—it's something really great about that—to have an average normal every day kid become something that’s worth being a part of, worth looking at,” he says. “Sculptures are usually these larger-than-life characters, and to have a Black child in a public space with exposure, it’s kind of a huge thing.”

And the creation was a family project, with his wife and children all involved in the installation. “My daughter helped me with the colors and my son sprayed some of the stuff and helped me with decisions on how to make it look,” Steward says of the assistance. “And my wife painted my [sculpture] daughter's nails and helped with the electrical stuff.”

Steward also got help from Toledo-based Graphite Design+Build in fabricating the sculptures, which will be at the Eastman garden through early 2022.

In addition to the sculptures, Steward in July created a “Baggage Claim” mural at the Harvard-Lee Branch of the CPL, which features Darius, Emily, and Steward’s nephew Isaiah, 12, with flashlights pointing the way forward.

<span class="content-image-text">Darius Steward's Cleveland Walls! mural.</span>Darius Steward's Cleveland Walls! mural.

Steward had a busy summer. In addition to the “Baggage Claim” installations, he also participated in the CLEVELAND WALLS! International Mural Program hosted by MidTown ClevelandLAND Studio, and Pow! Wow! Worldwide.

While Steward says he is proud of his recent works, he also focuses on real-life mentorship. He is an art teacher at Laurel School and has taught art a St. Ignatius. He is program manager for the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Currently under Curation program, where he mentors inner city youth in art and professional skills to increase college application rates and school attendance.

But perhaps his next step is to open his own mentorship studio and give back to the young people of his native East Cleveland. As a graduate of Cleveland School of the Arts (with an undergraduate degree from Cleveland Institute of Art and an MFA from the University of Delaware), Steward says he dreams of giving aspiring artists hands-on experience and guidance in their own projects and visions, rather than simply giving them experiences helping established artists finish their own works.

The “creation hub” Steward envisions will give his students a chance to pursue their own visions. “I want an experience that’s meaningful to them,” he says. “It could be an ongoing experience instead of being a one-off—rather than them coming in to help me with something specific. I want them to have something that’s meaningful to them, that has some sort of impact.”