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UA Little Rock Graduate Rediscovers Passion for Community Art

Nicole Stewart with samples of her ceramic work of various vampire phases from the Bram Stokers Dracula movie. Photo by Ben Krain.
Nicole Stewart with samples of her ceramic work of various vampire phases from the Bram Stoker's "Dracula" movie. Photo by Ben Krain.

A second chance to finish college has led UA Little Rock graduate Nicole Stewart to rediscover her passion for community art.

The East End resident graduated this semester with a bachelor’s degree in studio art focusing on sculpture and a minor in applied design focusing on ceramics.

Her new plans to share her love of art with the public include everything from teaching painting classes to the elderly to joining the board of a nonprofit dedicated to creating an art district in Little Rock.

“I want to keep my doors open and stay committed to the art I’m currently involved in,” Stewart said. “One of the things I’m doing is joining the board of directors for the Little Rock Arts District. We are trying to establish an art district in downtown Little Rock through the Arkansas Arts Council. We want to support all of the artists, businesses, and residents and work with artists to develop mentorships and create community events to grow the arts in the community.”

When Stewart joined UA Little Rock in 2018, she saw it as a second chance to complete her college education. After graduating from high school in 1999, Stewart attended community college for a short time before beginning a career in event planning and catering. While she had previously given art up for 15 years before going back to college, Stewart was more dedicated than ever to having art in her life and making her second go at college a success.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be here,” Stewart said. “I’m a single mom, and I had to sell my home to stay in school. I’m living with my mom to save money. College has been the one thing that has pulled me through all of that. It’s the one thing I’ve held on to keep me going. I learned so much that I feel like a chained animal right now and I’m waiting to be cut loose.”

Among her many post-graduation plans, Stewart will work on murals as part of the 7th Street Mural Project, complete private commissions, and host private art parties. She will also work as the creative director on a music video this summer for the band, the Diamond States.

“I’m doing a little bit of everything, but I’m geared toward community-based work that involves art,” she said.

When COVID-19 started, Stewart joined a group of artists who became dedicated to the 7th Street Mural Project. Stewart got involved in the project when it was originally an annual event to create a mural on 7th Street as part of Peace Week.

UA Little Rock students Talia Winkler, center, and Nicole Stewart, right, are contributing their artistic talent to paintings on the 7th Street Peace Mural in Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.

“Fast forward to 2020 and some of the artists decided to paint a mural of George Floyd as a memorial,” Stewart said. “That was a chain reaction for an explosion of art. There were over 20 artists banding together to paint 7th Street murals. We could do something to speak out against injustice, and it gave us an outlet during COVID.”

The 7th Street Mural Project is also where Steward met UA Little Rock alumnus and artist Kevin Kresse, which led to a unique internship. During summer 2022, Stewart had the rare opportunity to work with Kresse on the Johnny Cash sculpture he created that will be placed in the U.S. Capitol Building this year. At the time, Stewart said that interning with Kresse was like “learning karate from Mr. Miyagi,” a reference to the wise karate teacher from “The Karate Kid” movie franchise.

Stewart credits art faculty members like Michael Warrick, Floyd Martin, Peter Scheidt, and Kensuke Yamada for giving her a great educational experience.

“I can say with 100% certainty that I never had a negative experience with any teacher in my five years here,” she said. “Every teacher here is truly a win.”

During college, Stewart’s 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter served as her homework buddies and constant source of motivation.

“My son is going to be a senior in high school. My goal was to graduate college before he graduated high school, so I am doing it by the skin of my teeth,” Stewart said. “We spent many nights where we were all working on homework together. I told my kids they don’t have to go to college right away. It’s alright to wait until you are sure what you want to do. It’s also never too late to go. I’m 42. It took me a while to figure it out, and now I’m graduating.”