Artist's airbrush brings his dreams to life Key grad turns entrepreneur NORTHWEST -- Taneytown * Union Bridge * New Windsor * Uniontown

December 10, 1992|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

At a time in his life when things weren't going the way h intended, John Stewart, like the poet Langston Hughes, wondered "what happens to a dream deferred."

Mr. Stewart's dream neither sagged nor dried up, but it did explode -- into a dazzling array of colorful pictures, T-shirts, jackets, panel trucks and carnival rides.

"It seemed like something was holding me back from doing what I really wanted to do," said Mr. Stewart, 31. He overcame the obstacles and used his airbrush-painting talents to start a business, Stewart Enterprises, two years ago in Taneytown. "This is something I've wanted to do all my life."

Although art was always in his heart, the Taneytown resident said he got sidetracked a few times. After pitching for Francis Scott Key High School in 1980, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"Yes, it was a chance to play baseball professionally, but I decided it wasn't for me," Mr. Stewart said. "It just wasn't what I really wanted to do."

He also decided against college that year, he said, because, "You always think you know everything already when you are in high school."

Two years later, while employed by Lehigh Portland Cement Co., he said, he had a feeling he wanted to do something artistic.

"I looked at my car and decided I would put a design on the hood," said Mr. Stewart, whose nickname is "Cobra" because his tongue darts in and out of his mouth as he concentrates. "It was the first time I ever picked up an airbrush."

The result was a multicolored American eagle, talons gaping open as it spread its wings across the hood of his Pontiac Trans Am.

After that, Mr. Stewart's dream took flight -- and he hasn't come down since.

"Some people go through their entire lives without finding the one thing that makes them happy. I am lucky I found it early," he said. "Now I eat and sleep it."

Mr. Stewart said his art career started at an early age, but came to fruition in high school.

During that time, he indulged his love for art by decorating the walls of Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary School's library with nursery rhyme characters.

In the ninth grade, he made school banners for Key High and its rival schools showing names and mascots.

Those banners still hang in the school gym.

got an incomplete [grade] in that class until they were all done," said Mr. Stewart of his high school art course.

"I did banners for all the schools we competed against at that time. There are more now," he said.

He has traveled with various carnivals around the state, setting up booths to decorate an assortment of clothing. He has also decorated the trailers of carnival rides as a visualization of the ride's name.

"I'm on the road from about April until October with the carnivals," Mr. Stewart said.

"I also do vehicles, jackets and biker helmets," he said, adding that he is the only artist on the East Coast who airbrushes onto satin items, such as jackets.

Traveling gives him a chance do work for all kinds of people -- including celebrities.

"I did a T-shirt for Chubby Checker while I was in Upper Marlboro," Mr. Stewart recalled. "His band got it for him as a memento of the tour. It was a twister [cyclone] with musical instruments like a guitar and a drum set and things in it."

He also made a shirt for former Washington Redskin George Starke bearing a portrait of the sports star on the front and the words "Head Hog" on the back.

One of his most intriguing pieces is on display at Andrews Air Force Base.

Mr. Stewart was given a photograph of a fighter pilot parachuting from his plane during the Persian Gulf War and asked to reproduce it on a T-shirt.

The artist didn't miss a detail of the picture, even catching a mirror image of another fighter plane reflected in the parachuting pilot's helmet shield.

"I try to be as exact as possible, with some projects taking 30 to 40 hours to complete," Mr. Stewart said.

"I am meticulous, too. If you start and don't like what you are doing, you will probably mess up," he said.

Mr. Stewart also teaches classes and creates original pieces, and also copies pictures onto fabric at his studio and shop on Route 194.

"I don't give you a textbook to read. I start you working right away, with something not so difficult, like an ocean background, to build up confidence," Mr. Stewart said of his classes, which cost about $45 an hour. "That is the way I learned, although I guess I didn't start that small."

He also visits schools to discuss his career and give advice to students who don't know how to pursue their goals.

"If you are not happy in what you are doing, you can change it. Why be miserable?" Mr. Stewart said. "If you are willing to work at it, to pay the price, you can succeed."

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