Stuart Loten had never been one for art.
The woods, yes. Science? Sure. But art? Art wasn’t his thing.
Except it was.
“For all those people out there who say they’re sure they have no artistic talent: you should listen to this story,” Stuart says matter-of-factly into my audio recorder while seated at his kitchen table in Montville. He raps the wood of the tabletop to stress his point.
You know that super cliche saying about how you don’t know what you have until it’s gone? This isn’t that. This is the opposite. This is a story where you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s yours.
Stuart went almost 20 years without art in his life, saying that he had never — NEVER — been exposed to it as a child. And if it weren’t for a leftover college elective he needed to fill while getting his wildlife biology degree, he probably would have gone on for the next 20 years without art. But as luck would have it, there were open spots in a pottery class.
Stuart says the course “just opened up a completely different world to me.” He immediately connected with the clay and realized he had a love, an affinity for it. To the complete horror of his parents, Stuart changed his major to fine arts and left biology behind.
He says he was young, and he didn’t think too hard about how he’d make a living at it. He didn’t care that his parents thought he might starve. He had been starving all along and had never really known it until then.
After graduating, Stuart opened his own little potter’s studio and got to work. And, happily, he didn’t starve; he evolved. Over the years he tried his hand at many different forms of art, taught himself skills — like hand painting silk neckties — and then promptly forgot about them. It went on and on like this, until finally he settled on making lamps out of clay and suddenly had a doozy of a problem.
Lamp shades can be really, really boring.
Stuart struggled with the Lamp Shade Problem for a long time. He hated the flat, lifeless, mass-produced shades he popped on his lovely clay lamps. His first attempt to spice things up was pressing leaves and flowers between two clear sheets of mylar. It was better, but not exactly what he wanted.
Finally he “put two and two together” — he had painted silk neckties once. Why not silk shades? It was the mid-80s, and Stuart says that nobody in the commercial lighting industry was doing anything like it at the time. (And this eventually led a large company to hire him as a lighting designer.)
The ah-ha moment was huge. Life changing, even — because nowadays, Stuart believes that what truly distinguishes him from everyone else is the silk painting. And as his designs evolved he stepped away from pottery entirely. Silk painting, custom lighting, became his craft of choice.
Thirty years later he’s still loving every minute of it.
Silk painting isn’t the most common craft — the way Stuart explains it, if you think of an artist stretching canvas, Stuart stretches silk. And instead of brushes of paint, he uses brushes of dye. The technique is very similar to watercolor in that when you touch the silk with the brush it pulls the dye into itself.
“Silk is magic in that way, it does a lot of the hard work for me,” he says with an almost quiet reverence. He works quickly, while the silk is still wet, so that the design blends consistently. He says he can’t stop for any reason. “If the phone rings I have to ignore it.”
There is no erasing. No re-dos. This is dark dye on white silk. This plus the relative unpredictability of the silk pulling adds excitement to the painting process. Stuart says with every new batch (which he does about once a month, 30 shades at a time) he gets to a “new level” with his painting.
In the end he admits — nay, declares — that it’s hard being a craftsman. It’s hard to make a living, and there’s lots of travel, lots of shows. Lots of work. It’s something you only do if you love it.
And he does. He wouldn’t have it any other way.