Historically, portrait painting has been used for everything from describing a religious subject to depicting the rich and powerful.

In more recent times, portraits have been used more broadly and in a way that highlights historical moments like the Great Depression, or captures friends and family members at a particular spot in the trajectory of their lives.

Darius Steward is an artist who lives in Cleveland. His work, made with watercolor, focuses on expressing “social issues of identity, commodity, race, and the placement of African-Americans within Western culture.” Darius Steward: Our Separated Selves, on view at the Canton Museum of Art, is a thoughtful exploration using color and meaning to express a special viewpoint on the world through the eyes of an artist who is working to better understand it.

Steward’s portraits have a certain ineffable quality that immediately touches you. Bright strokes of color on large, sometimes oversized or disproportional white backgrounds help to capture the artist’s subjects in time and space. The effect of this technique brings your eyes and your mind to focus on what is being related.

If you wonder about special talent in the community and the artists who live near you, Steward makes the type of work that steps out from the crowd and refuses to be ignored. He touches on beauty and grace with a storyteller’s voice, and the paintings express empathy, emotion and deep meaning in a way that is ultimately relatable.

My Inheritance is a gouache and watercolor on Yupo paper that depicts the artist as he was gathering bags of belongings of his recently deceased mother. This painting expresses the physical reality of the loss of a loved one by showing Steward himself, looking up from what might be his mother’s yard or a sidewalk near her home. He is surrounded by the bags that are wonderfully painted with a rainbow of colors as well as grays that range from dark to light.

Steward writes that while he does not physically carry around his mother’s belongings, the act of sorting through her things and then bagging up those objects and memories has stayed with him, and that he thinks about her and those memories constantly. In this particular painting, Steward shares his personal vulnerability in a significant moment, and this act highlights some of his special qualities.

Bac #6, a watercolor also on Yupo paper, depicts a young boy on a swing set. The child is not sitting on the swing; rather he is lying face down across it as if he were pretending to fly. Steward uses swings as a way to symbolize people in the neighborhood he was raised in “going through the motions of life while staying in the same spot.” To Steward, swings represent “wasted motion and going nowhere.”

While the artist’s feelings are clearly spelled out in the label accompanying the work, there is a level of hope depicted as well. Perhaps potential or realizable dreams still permeate through this painting because the subject is a child, or because the painting uses a limited palette to describe the young boy and the swing seat. The two chains that tether the seat to the swing set itself are shown not attached to that familiar framework, but floating in space and reaching forever up.

Steward’s ability to share his personal narrative is perhaps most clearly displayed in a series of five works that when you inspect the labels, spells out MORE?. The MORE? series depicts the artist’s children: son Darius Jr., daughter Emily and a new addition to their family portrayed by a little boy holding a blank sign.

These works show the children in different moments of self-expression. Pictured in scenes of laughter, confusion and perhaps even anger or frustration, Steward has captured and celebrated his children as only he can. MORE? is yet another way this artist shares his experiences in a deeply vulnerable way, openly pondering how this new addition will change the dynamic of his family.

Steward states “As a Black artist I am obligated to present my thoughts and emotions on issues I face. Often times, we must ask: Do we have an identity? Do we even have a voice? Are we grounded or are we unstable? I must create work that attempts to ask questions that will ignite conversations centered on these issues.”

Importantly, the artist’s personal thoughts and feelings are enhanced by his talent. Steward’s work is so well painted that sometimes you forget they’re paintings and the fact that you’re in a museum or gallery, and you just commune with what is presented, freeing your mind to work to understand.

The pieces in this exhibit create an important dialogue and a road map to empathy for the viewer, while shining a bright light on one of Northeast Ohio’s valuable and talented people.

Contact Anderson Turner at haturner3@gmail.com.