The Violinist Who Draws More Than Her Bow

Doubly-gifted violinist Lisa Stewart is bubbling with excitement. After a weekend of recording in Sydney with the Acacia Quartet in which she plays first violin, she and her family will move to Canowindra where, for the first time, she will have her own special work space. She will convert this into a studio where she can create her unique pieces of visual art. In contrast to the meticulous demands of being a performing violinist, the studio offers her the freedom to create and to make as much mess as she pleases.

Established a decade ago, Acacia Quartet has developed a busy performing schedule in Australia and overseas along with building up an impressive discography and fan base. Simultaneously, Lisa has built a firm career as a recognised illustrator, beginning also in 2010, illustrating Can I Cuddle the Moon? by Kerry Brown and published by Scholastic Press. Lisa’s illustrations have also been featured on ABC TV’s Play School, and there are more projects in the pipeline.

So which came first – the brush or the bow? Speaking to SoundsLikeSydney from Orange, NSW, where she is presently based, Lisa says she began playing the violin when she was 5, but was equally inspired by her sister who is a wonderful artist, by her mother and by one of her best friends at school. “I did art for my HSC,” she recounts, “and my art teacher said ‘You and your violin! You should be doing art!’ But I was very attached to the violin and went overseas to study and work professionally.” In Germany, she was asked what she would do if she ever returned to Australia. “I replied that my dream was to go to art school which is what I did – I attended the National Art School as a mature-age student in my 30s and majored in sculpture. But I was always drawn to illustration.”

That first job illustrating Can I Cuddle the Moon? won her a place on the shortlist for the Crichton New Illustrator Award. “I didn’t win, but to be on the shortlist was a great honour.” Lisa now has around a dozen publications to her name including several books by Sally Odgers, Libby Hathorn’s Butterfly We’re Expecting You and most recently, Dugong Magic by Deborah Kelly.

Lisa’s irrepressible joie de vivre is evident, referring to Australian illustrator Ann James who says “As an illustrator you have to make people happy and work with everyone.” Team work is important in the publishing world. The first contacts are with the book editor and the illustrator’s agent. The illustrator receives a copy of the text, but to maintain a fresh and original perspective, never meets the author to exchange ideas. “Although the words are so important,” says Lisa, “the illustrator can bring something that the words don’t even mention.”

It’s hard to escape the tactile nature of being both a violinist and an illustrator. Her favourite materials are paper and a glue stick. “The fun thing about starting a project is doing everything in rough pencil sketches and often that is even before you get to the colour. I also like lithograph pencil which is a sticky, waxy pencil that is used to draw on stone. It gives a softness and a distinctive style to the bears that I draw.”

“I’ve looked at digital methods but I much prefer drawing by hand. I’m amazed at what can be achieved with digital techniques, but it’s not for me. I much refer the touch and the smell of paper, which I love. I enjoy collage and using very, very thin Japanese tissue papers. Even when these have a solid form, they are fragile with a sense of the vulnerable. I also enjoy water colours and would love to try oils.”

Lisa’s balance between music and drawing fluctuates according to her concert and recording schedules. The weekend’s recording was of a collection of works by Moya Henderson with Roland Peelman at the piano. Along with the ensemble items, Lisa recorded the three Wilderness Pieces for violin and piano, inspired by the photographs of the great Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis. After that. she has to prepare for the Orange Chamber Music Festival and the Bowral Autumn Music Festival. “But I do enjoy the teaching,” she adds. Lisa has students of all ages “I love the younger ones, but I also have students who are in their 70s and we have started an adult string group. For me, it’s a really nice mix of performing and recording with Acacia, teaching and art.”

Stefan Duwe, who plays the viola in Acacia Quartet is Lisa’s husband. They met and married in Germany.  “He is the love of my life, yay! He encouraged me to do art. Without his support it would never have happened. He bought me my first ever watercolour set when I was 28!!”

“Our daughter Claire is the one I show my roughs to and go to for advice about how my pictures are looking. She is doing her Masters in Clinical Psychology but she is a natural editor! She inspires me she is soooo smart! As we speak, Stefan is setting up the room in Canowindra which will be my Studio. Support in life is so important!”

It’s going to be a busy time because Lisa is one of 16 female artists around Central Western NSW who has been invited to contribute to an exhibition at the Peisley Street Gallery in Orange in April.  “That’s a real treat and I’m thrilled to be asked. There will be sculptures, ceramics and pieces by the super heroes like Freya Blackwood and I feel very honoured to be a part of  it.”

Lisa has taken inspiration from many illustrators. She mentions Blackwood who also lives in Orange. “For me it’s like living around the corner from David Oistrakh; there’s E H Shepard who illustrated Winnie the Pooh – the guy’s a genius. I love Jane Ray’s artwork. I got to meet her and play at her birthday party! I sent her a recording of me playing and wrote to her publisher to say ‘Thank you’ because I found her artwork uplifting and we became friends so when I was playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra I even stayed at her house!”

Lisa hopes to get a few more book contracts – which will be an opportunity to experiment with different styles. “Maybe some oils and a return to sculpture. I think I’ll do some storyboards of my own – that’s what people encourage me to do. I’ve got stories of my own and my dream is to be able to have a book published that I’ve written and illustrated because books are classified under the author’s name not the illustrator’s. I’m inspired by Gus Gordon. He first illustrated books for others and then started writing his own. You can see the freedom there which is a lot of fun. I have a lot of characters who play instruments. We’ll see if I’m lucky enough. Because you have to go through so much to get published.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

All images courtesy Lisa Stewart©



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