Happy Birthday, Michael Stewart

Today, May 9th, is Michael Stewart’s 59th birthday. He was born at 8:33 PM on this day, in 1958, in Brooklyn, where he grew up, and lived all of his life.  I thought it was important to celebrate his life, as so much of the work and research around Defacement is centered on Stewart’s death. I’d like to think that Michael is more than the two weeks that led up to his death. His family certainly hasn’t forgotten him. Here’s a baby picture of Stewart, less than a year old.

Michael Jerome Stewart, as a baby. Courtesy of the Stewart family. 

Michael Jerome Stewart, as a baby. Courtesy of the Stewart family

Gorgeous baby, right? He looks very much like his mother, especially in his baby photo. As a historian, one of the hardest parts of your job is to bring to life people and events that have long since passed. You have to find a way to bring memory to life and making that connection, that "a-ha moment" is crucial. It's not only inspiration, but it keeps your humanity connected to what you're doing, that for all of the intellectual precedents that research can make, you must remember that you're researching human lives that were completely and totally lived. Connecting the physical resemblance between Michael Stewart and literally the body that he came from, was one of those moments for me.  It’s certainly important to remember that Michael Stewart was a baby, a young boy, a member of a family that loved him – and still loves him.

In acknowledging his birthday, it’s also acknowledging the unique thread of coincidence that has run through this entire project. Keith Haring’s birthday is a mere five days before Michael’s. His grandmother, whom he was very close to, and spent many childhood summers with in Kentucky, was born May 6, the day after one of my grandmothers.  Whatever you might call these parallels of Fate, they run rampant throughout this story and history.  

One of the challenges of The Project is to make sure that Michael Stewart is more than his death, and that he is not relegated to consideration only when Basquiat is mentioned. It's also about finding those pieces of his short life, putting them together, and making them as nuanced and clear as possible. Of all of the key players in this history, though he is the center of it, he is perhaps the least known. 

The hope is that over the next two years, we can get a closer look at who he was, and how important he was to the East Village art scene of the early 80s. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many artists, publicly and privately, have created commentary on his death. 

And yet, it's also important that the public know who he was. I was not even alive when he was born, but in the process of speaking with his family and friends about his personality, the outlines of a picture emerges. A warm, yet shy person. Someone who was not of many words, but let it be known what he thought. Someone who had the ability to compartmentalize his Brooklyn home life, and his Manhattan downtown life, not so much out of secrecy, but in an attempt to find himself. He seems to have been a private person, intensified by the mid twenty-something pressure to figure it out. Growing into yourself is always such a messy process, for everyone. It's so hard and important to remember that. All of these kids, Michael, Jean-Michel, Keith – no one was older than 25 years old. They were all babies. And in that context, it's easier to see Michael Stewart as a Pratt student (he was taking classes there, but not fully matriculated), figuring out his life, and not as the martyr that he later became. On one hand, Stewart resolutely wanted to become a photographer and artist, while also working as a dancer and a model. The latter is an obvious point, as he had the kind of big eyes that are too often typecast as melancholy, but the right photographer would have known what to do with them. I would like to think that he would have figured out what to do with those big, thinking eyes. I am still looking for his art work, so that we can see that side of him as well.

michael stewart public photo.jpg

Basquiat's Defacement: The Project is not the first to remember Michael Stewart. There have been many before me that carried his torch while I was (literally) still teething. Franck Goldberg made a mini-documentary, Who Killed Michael Stewart? it seems in the late 80s/early 90s. It's worth a look, if only to what the case and story looked like at that time. (It's on Vimeo.)

I hope that at the conclusion of this project and its collaborations, that we have a fuller idea of who Michael Stewart is. That his Wikipedia page doesn't just have his death date in full, but his birth date as well. It would be a significant symbolism, that our history and memory are doing a better job of remembering this pivotal life.  

Happy Birthday Michael Stewart.