On a February afternoon in 1985, teenaged skateboarding enthusiast Sean Stewart sat in the cafeteria at Grape Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Va., as he would on any other weekday. On this particular day, however, his friend Kenny Pegram approached him at the cafeteria table with a copy of Thrasher magazine in hand.
The magazine, which San Francisco natives Eric Swenson and Fausto Vitello established in 1981, often featured prominent skateboarders and the latest boards on the cover. When Stewart took the latest issue from Pegram, his eyes fell upon a photo of Whittier, Calif., native Neil Blender. Stewart recognized the work of the professional skateboarder and artist, having seen it decorating boards in skate shops and in magazines like Thrasher and Transworld.
On this particular cover, though, Blender was not displaying a skateboard graphic, but rather a handmade felt doll with features drawn in marker. Stewart had already been a fan of Blender’s graphics, but the Thrasher cover led him to discovering that Blender created other kinds of artwork as well, with articles dedicated to it.
“What stood out most about Neil Blender back then was that he was one of the first professional skateboarders who designed and drew his own graphics for his boards,” Stewart says. “While that practice may be common now, in the ’80s Blender was a major pioneer for it. What really drew me to his work was how accessible it was. It didn’t look like the kind of thing designed by some in-house graphic designer, but more like something your older brother might make.”
After seeing that Thrasher issue, Stewart also discovered another artist who worked with Blender named Chris Miller and learned about woodcut graphics, a skill at which Miller specialized.
Fascinated, Stewart began researching woodcut art, a process that involves using knives and other tools to carve a design into the surface of a wooden block before covering it in ink and pressing it down onto paper to leave the carved image behind. Within the next few years he had produced his own woodcut block for the first time, and by the time he began attending Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., he had decided to major in fine arts and study printmaking to make a career out of it.
Stewart, who now lives in Laurel, Miss., is today better known by the moniker Sean Starwars, a name that dates back to 1989, when he and his brother, Ian Stewart, and cousin, Erik Stewart, visited a toy expo in Richmond, Va. A vendor at the expo claimed to have Star Wars toys for sale, but he instead showed the trio what turned out to be products from other franchises such as “Star Trek” and “Buck Rogers.”
“I remember I got mad and told the guy he wasn’t going to get stuff that wasn’t actually ‘Star Wars’ past me,” Starwars said. “I was like, I don’t think you know who I am, I’m Sean Starwars, so whenever you actually have ‘Star Wars’ merchandise you can give me a call. My brother and cousin loved it and started calling me that, and the nickname stuck ever since then.”
On Thursday, Jan. 26, Starwars will be bringing nearly 200 woodcut graphics he has made over the past three decades to Mississippi State University in Starkville for a month-long exhibition titled “Sean Star Wars: American Dream / Mississippi Nightmare.”
Living in Mississippi: ‘A Mixed Blessing’
The title of the exhibition, Starwars says, draws upon his own experiences in becoming a professional artist and from what he has witnessed in his time living in Mississippi for roughly 20 years. Having a degree in printmaking left Starwars looking to pursue a job with a university after college, which proved to be a highly competitive field with hundreds of qualified artists seeking any given position.
“When I first got out of college it didn’t seem like a possibility that I could have a job like I do now, or that I might even be able to own a house rather than rent,” Starwars says. “Owning a home is what’s often called the ‘American Dream,’ and here I am living it. However, living in Mississippi has proved to be a mixed blessing, and I’ve been reminded on an almost daily basis how different it is from any other place I’ve ever been.”
Starwars, who spent 15 years teaching art in public high schools in Mississippi, says he is disheartened by decisions Mississippi officials make about education, along with poor performance statistics for many schools. He has also observed a dichotomy between how friendly Mississippians can act in their day-to-day lives, from his personal experience, and the darker aspects of the state’s past, particularly its racial history.
“The kinds of things that happened in Mississippi’s past, the kinds of things you see in the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, they involved the grandparents of people you might run into in the grocery store now,” Starwars says.
“You’ll also meet plenty of kindhearted people who embrace you and are willing to help you,” he adds. “I’ve had neighbors willing to help me unload a moving truck for my in-laws and come back with some beers.”
These observations contributed to the title of his exhibit, “American Dream / Mississippi Nightmare,” though he notes that the display itself is not politically focused, nor is the vast majority of his artworks. Many of Starwars’ woodcuts depict figures such as robots, dragons, monsters, animals, “Star Wars” characters and anything else that comes to mind.
“The recent past has seen a lot of turmoil, but I feel like I wouldn’t likely express anything about it that thousands of others before me haven’t,” Starwars says. “I don’t do overtly political work because I don’t see good ground for my art there. I’d rather stay away from that and focus on any number of random things about life instead.”
Starwars owns two hand-cranked printing presses. He keeps the smaller one in his home in Laurel and the larger one in a dedicated studio in Franklinton, La. After carving an image into a block of wood, Starwars loads it onto a roller on a table with a moving platform. The crank moves under a press bed that squeezes an inked wood block onto a piece of paper beneath it, which then emerges from the other side of the roller.
To create multicolored images, Starwars runs the same piece of paper through the roller multiple times with different ink colors on the block each time. This practice allows primary colors such as red, blue and yellow to combine into secondary colors such as purple, green and orange on the paper depending on which colors touched on subsequent runs.
‘Plenty Right Here in Mississippi’
“American Dream / Mississippi Nightmare” will launch Thursday, Jan. 26, in the Visual Arts Center Gallery with an opening reception from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Prior to the reception, Starwars will partner with MSU printmaking professor Jacob Crook to host a public talk at 1 p.m. and subsequently host and a workshop on woodcut block and coloring techniques.
“I’ve known Sean ever since we met at a print conference 10 years ago, and since then I’ve worked to make the university and Starkville aware of his importance to our state,” Crook says. “My hopes for this workshop are to give the public a look into his studio practices and have some fun with no need for experience, just interest. Guests will be able to choose any design they want and print it on T-shirts, tote bags or pretty much anything we can safely get through the press.”
Both the reception and the gallery will be free and open to the public. The exhibit will remain on display at MSU until Saturday, Feb. 25. Gallery hours are 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
MSU also plans to host a skateboard-deck-painting workshop centered on Starwars’ art on Thursday, Feb. 16, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Idea Shop (114 E. Main St., Starkville), as well as a pop-up skate park on Feb. 25 at the corner of Lampkin and Jackson streets in downtown Starkville.
Starwars has previously served as an artist-in-residence at Eton College in Eton in the United Kingdom, and is a member of the international printmaking collective Outlaw Printmakers. He has produced artwork for television shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Workaholics.” Starwars and his wife, Julie Stewart, have been married for 24 years and have five children: Sophie, Wes, Vivian, Ian and Evan.
“Sean Starwars’ art has a real counterculture and punk-rock aesthetic to it, as well as a sort of DIY feel,” MSU exhibition coordinator Dixie Boswell says.
“The saturated colors and raw images he creates have an earthy touch to them as well,” she continues. “He’s an artist who has made his way on his own, and I think having him here will show our students that you don’t have to go to places like Paris, New York or Tokyo to find amazing artists. We have plenty right here in Mississippi.”