Remembering Sher Stewart, Beloved Artist & Activist

Beloved French Quarter artist and activist, Sher Stewart, passed away the morning of July 18th from injuries following a July 16th hit-and-run outside her home at the corner of Pauger and St. Claude. 

Stewart, 74, traveled via a yellow bicycle she had named Sunshine. On the 16th, she was returning home with her art supplies from Jackson Square. Longtime friend and fellow Jackson Square artist, Kenneth Cook, stated that she was struck by a speeding vehicle as she crossed St. Claude. The vehicle fled the scene and the New Orleans Police Department are still attempting to find the driver. According to Cook, Stewart was taken to a hospital for significant brain injuries and passed away July 18th at 6:09 a.m.

Stewart had been an artist at Jackson Square since 1967. She specialized in portraits, especially portraits of musicians, and was well-known in the French Quarter community. “Everyone is really heartbroken,” said Mattie Stilwell, fellow Jackson Square artist and friend of Stewart, “she was a staple at Jackson Square for many years. One of the originals.”

Friends of Stewart made clear that Stewart was more than just an artist, she was a committed activist. She had a longtime partner who had paraplegia from polio. She inspired Stewart to be an activist for various causes, namely disability and LGBT rights. Originally from Memphis (a big Elvis fan, according to Stilwell), Stewart was a member of ADAPT, a grassroots disability rights organization that uses nonviolent direct action to fight for disability justice. Cook recalls, “She was very proud of how many times she’d been arrested.” 

Stewart, a longtime member of ADAPT, was known within the organization as a “creative mind” who knew “how indispensable art is to social movements.” She was honored for her sepia pencil work made for the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Patriots of the ADA, which depicted important figures in the disability rights movement, such as Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann, Even Kemp, and Justin Dart. “I hope to create a pictorial history of ADAPT,” Stewart once said, “if you have a mental image of the heroes and leaders of ADAPT you can explain ‘I was with them when they did this.’”

The piece features an autobiographical homage to one of Sher’s own arrests in Washington DC. She was the only one arrested among hundreds of other ADAPT activists while blocking traffic for a nonviolent civil disobedient traffic violation. She later became a spotter at D.C. ADAPT protests for the officer who arrested her. 

Cook also stated that there’s a turn right before the intersection of Pauger and St. Claude that obscures visibility and makes it quite dangerous. Additionally, cars, like the one that struck Stewart, drive excessively fast in the area. Alexander Fleming, organizer with Ghost Bikes, a group that creates memorials for fallen cyclists, expressed that they intend to erect a memorial for Stewart at the intersection. Fleming lives in area and corroborated how dangerous the intersection, and St. Claude as a whole, is for cyclists.

Stilwell stated that, “this is the third Jackson Square artist hit in recent years.” Charlie Schully, former Big Easy Magazine writer and founder of Bike Uneasy, has found that the vast majority of fatal cycling accidents in the Greater New Orleans area are hit-and-runs. Both he and Fleming agree that this will continue until the NOPD effectively enforces existing traffic laws. 

“This is rippling across the country,” Cook stated in regards to Stewart’s death. Stilwell regarded Stewart as, “one of the most talented artists in Jackson Square.” New Orleans lost a valuable creative mind and brave advocate for marginalized people. ADAPT wrote that Stewart forwarded many ideas in terms of how they could use art to fundraise effectively. Following suit, there is to be a charitable auctioning of her work for ADAPT, date to be announced. Those interested in attending her memorial can follow the Official Artists of Jackson Square Facebook page for updates.

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