Baggage Claim: Reading Garden Installation Celebrates New Beginnings

I often think of my kids when I think of progress. The idea of the future, of the possibility of something new happening, is what fascinates me about youth. I can see myself in them—I can see whole alternative ways of living.

Artist Darius Steward
Artist Darius Steward and Family

Darius Steward’s Baggage Claim, in Search of New Beginnings, an installation embracing themes of identity, progress, and perseverance, is now on display in Cleveland Public Library’s Eastman Reading Garden as part of See Also, the public art program presented every year in partnership with LAND studio.

Baggage Claim features six stylized, life-sized sculptures of children modeled after Steward’s son, Darius (age 9), and daughter, Emily (age 4), who carry backpacks and flashlights to represent releasing past baggage in favor of new pursuits. Steward began developing this concept in 2016, after his mother, Rhonda Steward, passed away.

“I physically had all her stuff when she passed, so I thought of baggage, a weight being carried,” he explains. “I thought, what if I could physically see what everyone else carries with them? If I could see your baggage, what does that look like? I’m letting go of that baggage to seek new beginnings, and I’m coming to terms with it so I can move forward.”

Aaron Mason, Director of Community Engagement at Cleveland Public Library, describes Steward as a world-class artist whose installation offers a universal theme.

“Steward gave us a wonderful story with his kids as the subjects with a broad theme that applies to everyone,” Mason says. “This is a dynamic individual who created a piece that tells so much more about the human condition than headline news.”

Erin Guido, Project Manager at LAND studio, the arts organization that tapped Steward for the See Also program, praises the installation for being both accessible and profound.

“Any kid walking into that garden space is going to relate to those sculptures in some way, and you don’t have to know the overall concept to appreciate Steward’s work,” Guido says. “But this deeper concept—this really amazing idea of how we all hold on to baggage—really makes you think and works on so many levels.”

An Artist of Multidimensional Abilities

two sculptures, one of a young girl in a jacket and boots holding a flash light, the other of a young boy in a jacket and jeans holder her hand.

Steward, a renowned artist in Cleveland whose work has been featured in various galleries and exhibitions, including the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial, holds a BA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and an MFA from the University of Delaware. He is particularly known for his watercolor work, including watercolor paintings surrounding the baggage claim concept. This exhibit, meanwhile, presented the opportunity to transform his vision into the three-dimensional.

“As an artist who uses watercolor, it’s very easy to get trapped in the watercolorist world. But I want to be known as the kind of person who can do everything,” he says. “My ideas, subject matter, and concepts are what’s important, and what medium I choose is second to that.”

To help make this dream a reality, LAND studio paired Steward with Graphite Design + Build, the Toledo-based fabricators who transformed Steward’s artistic vision into sculptures. Under Steward’s direction Graphite Design + Build first created small clay models before carving the sculptures out of Styrofoam and coating them with fiberglass. To bring the sculptures to life, Steward painted the fabricated sculptures in the style of his watercolor art.

Jeremy Link and Douglas Kampfer, owners and designers of Graphite Design + Build, worked closely with Steward throughout this process. As artists themselves, this collaboration was ideal.

“As an artist, the more you branch out and try new things, the more you’ll grow. Artists are tested every single time we try something new—that makes us stronger,” explains Link. “Here, we’re basically making these two-dimensional watercolors become three-dimensional. I think people will find this intriguing. Each sculpture has its own story, and all the sculptures also tell an overarching story together.”

“We personally have fallen in love with the sculptures ourselves,” adds Kampfer. “When they left our shop, they were pure white, so we were making sculpture canvases. Then, it’s all in [Steward’s] hands.”

Cutting through the Dark

This year, for the first time in the history of the See Also program, the installation in the Eastman Reading Garden is complemented by a related mural at a branch library. In July, Steward unveiled his new mural at the Harvard-Lee Branch as part of the Baggage Claim series. The mural features his son, daughter, and nephew (Isaiah, 12), looking ahead with the guiding light of a flashlight—which Steward says depicts how the children are trying to get his attention and show him where he needs to go next.

“I often think of my kids when I think of progress,” Steward says. “The idea of the future, of the possibility of something new happening, is what fascinates me about youth. I can see myself in them—I can see whole alternative ways of living.”

Photo of the mural at Harvard-Lee, three, three children huddled together with a single flash light looking into the distance.

The mural at Harvard-Lee speaks to the Library’s larger commitment to create additional art walls through the city to provide more public art and to inspire artists and residents alike.

“Cleveland Public Library is invested in the arts and in public art, and we want to see it in every neighborhood in the city,” Mason says. “We strive to give people a voice, and this is just another way we’re doing it.”

Baggage Claim, in Search of New Beginnings is made possible through Cleveland Public Library’s partnership with LAND studio and See Also, which is supported by the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation through the LANDFORM program. The sculpture installation will be on display through early 2022 in the Eastman Reading Garden, located between Main Library and Louis Stokes Wing on Superior Avenue downtown. The mural can be viewed at the Harvard-Lee Branch at 16918 Harvard Avenue in Cleveland.