Eat & Drink

Bartender adds art to the mix, turning bottles, labels and more into unique works

Travis Stewart carefully places a piece of metal from a whiskey barrel onto a piece of artwork he is creating in his Crossroads studio. When he is not tending bar, Stewart creates distinctive multi-dimensional pieces of art that reflect his love of bartending and craft cocktails.
Travis Stewart carefully places a piece of metal from a whiskey barrel onto a piece of artwork he is creating in his Crossroads studio. When he is not tending bar, Stewart creates distinctive multi-dimensional pieces of art that reflect his love of bartending and craft cocktails. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Listening to Travis Stewart talk about his artistic process, it’s easy to think he’s referring to cocktails. He begins with a base idea, then incorporates other ingredients, considers brightness and texture, and finally strikes a balance — familiar phrasing to anyone who has crafted as many drinks as Stewart has while working behind some of Kansas City’s best bars.

Our conversation in Stewart’s Crossroads Arts District studio this month wasn’t about cocktails, though. It was about his paintings. “It all translates for me,” Stewart says of how bartending and art intersect. “I build paintings the same way I build cocktails.”

Stewart’s artistic interpretations of favorite drinks have long incorporated labels painstakingly soaked off empty bottles, broken glassware, bits of the handwoven baskets used to package Del Maguey mezcal bottles and other detritus happily donated by industry colleagues. Recent works encapsulate three-dimensional elements in epoxy resin, which dries to a glossy surface that can be painted. Stewart is now gravitating toward even more sculptural pieces using resin and discarded whiskey barrel staves and irons.

The results are as layered and complex as anything Stewart might serve in a glass, says Brandon Cummins, director of marketing and education for spirits distributor Altamar Brands and Stewart’s longtime friend.

“He has a very unique perspective on the industry because he is so deeply entrenched in it, and he takes great care to integrate that into his art,” says Cummins, who this year commissioned eight paintings featuring Armagnac maker Château Arton from Stewart.

“There’s no one else like him doing what he’s doing right now,” Cummins says.

Hospitality and art are deeply intertwined for Stewart. He began bartending at the now-closed 4 Olives Restaurant in Manhattan, Kan., while studying at Kansas State University. He moved to Kansas City in 2010 after graduating with a fine arts degree.

The Olathe native worked at Manifesto, The Raphael, Port Fonda and the Kill Devil Club. He was a three-time finalist in the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition (precursor to the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival’s contest) and earned a best bartender nod from the Pitch.

Along the way, Stewart came to deeply appreciate the artistry of his ingredients and what he calls the heart and soul of the bottle. “I saw art all around me in other forms,” he says. “I basically started collaging in the glass.”

Finding time to translate that onto the wood panels Stewart uses in lieu of canvas proved difficult, so in 2013 he began bartending less. He now works two shifts a week, plus special events, at Extra Virgin and Michael Smith. The more time he spent in the studio, the more he realized what he had to offer.

“Everything I was throwing on the canvas was purely me,” Stewart says. “It’s the culmination of everything I’ve learned.”

One of Stewart’s early collages was the “Manhattan Project,” a painting whose proportions mirrored those of the iconic cocktail. Look long enough at the print of it that Stewart installed on his studio bar, and you realize two-thirds of the background is layered with rye and bourbon labels; vermouth labels paper the remaining third. A mist of Angostura bitters-acrylic polymer stain leaves the outlines of invisible bottles and tints the wooden bar top.

“It took such a greater depth of understanding of the culture he was immersed in to create that painting,” Cummins says.

Stewart soon began experimenting with resin, and its potential spurred him to rework an earlier collage of a bartender straining a California gimlet into a cocktail glass. Now dubbed “Maestro #3,” this version (still in progress) captures gold Champagne foils, flattened Carpano Antica Formula tins and other materials under resin to more clearly evoke Stewart’s original inspiration, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.”

“I get a whole other push and pull between texture and surface” by using resin, he says, because it creates layers of light and dark, and patterns and movement that he considers a conversation within each piece.

Like Stewart’s “Maestro #1” and “Maestro #2,” which are showing in Extra Virgin’s event space, the piece focuses on the bartender’s hands (he’s shown only from the shoulders down), capturing the fluid motion of straining a cocktail or twisting an orange garnish.

“Art from afar, you know what it is,” Stewart says. “But getting up close to it, it resonates with everybody who’s had a memory like that. It’s like a time capsule.”

That’s what appealed to Jackie and Hal Jones of Lake Quivira, who met Stewart while he was tending bar at Extra Virgin and have since purchased several pieces, including the original “Manhattan Project.”

“He has so much talent in the arena of art that it just amazes me,” Jackie Jones says. “Every time I look at (“The Manhattan Project”), I see something different.”

They’ve also acquired two of his Manifesto series, a group of smaller format mixed-media paintings, some of which are on display at The Rieger. In these, menus from Manifesto and textured papers, sometimes misted with an Angostura bitters stain to delineate bar tools, are encased in resin to create a backdrop for drinks like the Daughter of Westport or Matcha Pisco Rosa. Candles and dark swaths of paint suggest the basement bar’s intimate atmosphere.

In them, Stewart isn’t so much painting a cocktail as he is a story, and that same narrative imagery drives his new wine-focused works as well. He begins each of those by breaking down wooden wine boxes and making a flat “canvas” with them. For the first of the series, patterned papers block out the basic shapes of a wine bottle, an oversize glass, the green of a vineyard. Stewart sealed that bottom layer and embedded lengths of rusted barrel irons into the freshly poured resin. Once it’s dry, he’ll brush on the painting’s details, giving it color, light and flow.

Despite all that, the wood still shines through, injecting itself entirely into the art, Stewart says.

“Someone loaded those boxes,” Stewart says. “The wine in them was made and poured and aged. It’s just so intricate. There are fingerprints of artists underneath everything I put in my paintings.”

Every effort is a learning process, Stewart says. Which combination of fast- and slow-drying acrylic paint to use, how to remove labels when their papers and glues vary so widely, techniques that highlight a wood’s grain — each began as an experiment.

It’s all about solving problems, like what to do with the leaky whiskey barrel J. Rieger & Co. gave him a year and a half ago. It wasn’t until Stewart figured out how to pour solid resin blocks that he realized he could use that with the barrel’s staves to build abstract canvases from scratch. It will take in him a new direction, one that bridges painting and wall sculpture, he says.

That clearly excites Stewart, who spent hours arranging and re-arranging barrel staves on his studio’s concrete floor the morning he broke the barrel down. But he has been a working artist long enough now that he’s as pragmatic as he is enthusiastic.

“Where there’s no risk, there’s no faith,” Stewart says. “It does take a lot of faith to be an artist. You really have to believe this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”

To reach spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to blithespiritskc@kcstar.com.

The third in an ongoing series. Part 1 examined bartender creativity and how it shapes our drinking. Part 2 looked at the ways the hospitality industry tries to stay healthy. Coming: Meet entrepreneurs and artists and behind-the-scenes bar workers.

Stewart’s Manhattan

Mastering the Manhattan wasn’t so much a process as it was a project that inspired one of Travis Stewart’s early collages, “The Manhattan Project.” It may be a simple drink, but “the expertise of the bartender is what makes it a great cocktail,” he says. Stewart prefers his made with 90-proof rye whiskey, plus a bit of Scotch for its savory, smoky notes.

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces Sazerac Rye Whiskey

2 teaspoons smoky Scotch whisky, such as Laphroaig or Talisker

1 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

2 dashes Angostura bitters

1 orange swath, for the oils

1 orange twist, for garnish

Combine whiskeys, vermouth and bitters in a mixing glass with ice; stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Twist the orange swath over the surface to express the oils and then discard. Garnish with a fresh orange twist.

Per drink: 195 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 9 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

California Gimlet

Stewart created this cocktail while managing Port Fonda’s bar and features it in his “Maestro #3” collage. It’s a versatile drink, so change the base spirit or even how it’s served (it’s equally delicious up or on the rocks with a dash of soda water) depending on your mood. “It’s dealer’s choice,” Stewart says.

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces tequila, gin or vodka

1 ounce lavender simple syrup

1 ounce fresh lime juice

2 fresh cucumber slices

1 additional cucumber slice, for garnish

Combine spirit, syrup, juice and 2 cucumber slices in a shaker. Add ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with last cucumber slice.

For lavender simple syrup: Combine equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Add several sprigs of dried lavender, cover and steep until the flavor is as intense as you want it. Strain syrup into a clean glass jar and refrigerate until use.

Per drink: 171 calories (1 percent from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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