It’s a sad time for the Encinitas 101 Artists’ Colony. We have lost one of our brightest and best. After a weeklong search by concerned friends, Billy Stewart was found deceased in his van at the Encinitas Library, which he considered his second home.
Last Friday evening a tearful group of friends and admirers gathered outside the Library to honor, share memories, and express their love for the incomparable Billy Stewart.
He was described as a modern day renaissance man — a brilliant painter, sculptor, craftsman, carpenter, architect, and jack-of-all-trades, a witty, satirical (but never sarcastic) writer of poetry and prose, voracious reader, and avid collector of rare books.
However, this barely begins to suggest the individual that Billy Stewart was to those who knew him.
Julie Ann Stricklin says, “He had a brain filled with random knowledge mixed with skills and an eclectic array of talents.”
Dody Crawford adds, “Billy was a devilishly witty guy… He and his work always made me smile.”
Diane Carey writes, “His intelligence combined with his irreverent sense of humor gave us art that was discernible on multiple levels, many times with humor directed back at the work, the art community, society and the artist himself.”
Carolyn Cope comments, “I can not look in any direction in any room or yard area where I don’t see ‘something’ of Billy. He was a true artist and always added his unique style to all that he created.”
Linda Bergen adds, “If you presented him with a problem, Billy would find a solution. While many homes along the coast are filled with ‘Billy-mades’ including wood sculptures, water fountains, stained glass, kaleidoscopes, mosaicked surfboards, paintings, and birdhouses from LP records, you can’t go far along Coast Highway 101 without encountering his artwork.”
Examples of Billy’s mural work can be seen at the Java Hut in Encinitas, embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Lomas Santa Fe and Highway 101 in Solana Beach, and in the Encinitas Café.
Longtime friends Mike Romero and Olivia Wheeler shared the story of Billy’s colorful history. Raised in a small rural town in Texas, Billy’s first job as a young boy was passing the hat in honky-tonks as his father performed with a country western band. He learned to hunt and fish to help provide food for the family. In high school he played football and was a top performer on the debate team.
Billy was among the first surfers on the Gulf Coast of Texas, which became his passion. In Billy’s words, “Somehow the surfboard dream seemed possible. Even though it meant I needed to dream up a way to teleport my young self 3000 miles to grasp the reality…. and strangely, decisively, that only took me another couple of years. So dreaming is merely prelude to doing. Close your eyes and do it.”
Billy later reminisced in his journal, “When you really find a place you love and fit in, you stick around. I first hit Encinitas the summer of ’66 and knew it would be home.”
He proceeded to capture the hearts of many friends in our community.
Bob Hord remembers Billy as “maybe not the most social guy at the event since he didn’t have much patience for small talk and such, but he was there to help build the stage for the band before it started and he was there to help fold up the chairs when it was over.”
Vital to the success of the 101 Artist Colony in its locations at both East E Street and A Street in Encinitas, Danny Salzhandler says, “Billy was there to keep the place going. We could have not done it without him.”
Billy was an independent spirit who took life on his own terms, and liked living off the grid. Louise Marie Portal observes, “He lived life according to Billy and lived it as a creative soul.”
According to Sheila Cameron, “Billy Stewart will be so missed in the fabric of art in Encinitas. I think of him as the Van Gogh of Encinitas and the song ‘Starry, Starry Night’ comes to mind. Although Billy had many patrons and friends, he chose to live a sparse existence. His life was his art and his friends.”
Anita Strine adds, “Billy was an example of what makes Encinitas such a unique and wonderful spot in this world. He will be missed, but his presence will live on in his work throughout our community and the stories and memories of his many friends.”
In a tribute erected to Billy in the Java Hut in Encinitas, owner Dave Kaplan writes: “Our Encinitas community just lost one of our treasures. Billy was one of my favorite people on the planet. A true original. Feisty, nutty, unpredictable, elusive, brilliant, loving and… the most talented artist I have ever met.”
At age 32, Billy wrote a poem that began:
“I cried that night John Lennon died
It shook me that he’s left this earth
I wondered, when I die will I
Leave anything of any worth”
Considering the outpouring of love and appreciation for his immeasurable contributions to his friends and to the Encinitas community, Billy Stewart succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Kay Colvin is director of the L Street Fine Art Gallery in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, serves as an arts commissioner for the City of Encinitas, and specializes in promoting emerging and mid-career artists. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.