March 28, 2023
Her Heart Is in the Work
Alumna Renée Stout’s realist but abstract art exposes the world as she sees it
By Tina Tuminella
When Carnegie Mellon University alumna Renée Stout was a student studying art in the late 1970s, she bought a gold pendant at the campus bookstore.
It measures just under a half-inch and features an engraving that is so microscopic that the words are nearly invisible to the naked eye.
The pendant reads “My heart is in the work” — Carnegie Mellon’s motto and words that have inspired Renée’s art for more than four decades.
She’s held onto it all that time, considering it a talisman that looks over her and protects her long and expansive art career.
“Being an artist is scary and stressful,” Renée says. “But I’m a spiritual person, and once you lock onto a purpose, there’s something within you that, subconsciously or not, you figure out a way to stay on that path. I just know that I’m supposed to be an artist.”
“Carnegie Mellon helped me to understand that I must be highly disciplined and self-critical in a constructive way in order to hone my craft. Even today, I find myself using some of the ‘challenge exercises’ I learned in my art classes. I laugh when I recall how I often disliked and questioned some of those mandated exercises, only to have them suddenly ‘click’ for me 30 to 40 years later.”
Engineer or Artist?
Based in Washington, D.C., Renée, a Class of 1980 College of Fine Arts graduate with a bachelor’s degree in art, has exhibited her works all over the country.
Her career began with painting and branched out into sculpture, glass and mixed media. She describes herself as a “realist painter,” but her canvases often contain abstract qualities, too.
Her most recent exhibit of paintings and sculpture, “Navigating the Abyss” at MARC STRAUS gallery in New York City, explores her long-standing interest and research in African-based belief systems that have manifested throughout the African diaspora over centuries and continue today.
But at Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, where she was in the Scholars Program, she was on a very different path.
Recruited into a special program that aimed to increase diversity and representation in engineering, Renée spent half of her school day in U.S. Steel’s electrical engineering department.
She didn’t like it.
Art, however, was something she always loved.
She remembers vividly scribbling on the toe of her Mary Jane shoes, while walking down the street. Her mother, Sara, never got mad and instead encouraged her.
“She understood the impulse to create because her own brother was a self-taught artist who drew on anything he got his hands on,” Renée says. “She understood the creative mind and the need to make art. I was always doing art. I never not did art!”
When she began at Carnegie Mellon as an art student, her initial feelings of being "in over her head" were short-lived once she realized that exposure to new art, creativity and ideas heightened her awareness and curiosity.
“Carnegie Mellon helped me to understand that I must be highly disciplined and self-critical in a constructive way in order to hone my craft,” Renée says. “Even today, I find myself using some of the ‘challenge exercises’ I learned in my art classes. I laugh when I recall how I often disliked and questioned some of those mandated exercises, only to have them suddenly ‘click’ for me 30 to 40 years later.”
Her Self Is in the Work
Renée’s artistic creations possess both analytical and introspective characteristics, and she believes her introspection is a result of her particular outlook on life.
“I have this way of looking at the world where I see things in terms of past, present, future. I’ve realized that it’s an African philosophy,” she says. “You must deal with the present, which is influenced by the past, and whatever you’re doing in the present will influence your future. I automatically self-assess this way.”
Renée was the first American to exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
“I was so honored and still amazed that it happened,” she says. “It said to me that — in some way — the ancestors might be proud of me for choosing their traditions as a jumping off point to create art that’s influenced by their aesthetics and philosophy.”
Over the years, she’s also received numerous awards and accolades, and in 2018, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art.
“As a descendent of African Americans, I’m creating art that I think that’s important to do, especially in an era of erasure,” she says. “My art is always about exposing what I see.”
To help her do so, Renée invented an alter ego. Fatima, an African American storytelling healer, appears throughout Renée’s work. In her lifelong study of the African diaspora, she focused on the women who identified as healers — often midwives — who helped people in the community mentally, spiritually and physically.
“I did not want to be what society wanted me to be. Society imposes a ton of expectations on women, and we end up filling those expectations in various ways like marriage and motherhood. In time, I was able to see that Fatima was always the vehicle for me to project who she wanted to be — the person who gave me permission to be my authentic self.”
“When I created this character, I didn’t realize that she would become the protagonist of a story I was telling through my art,” Renée says. “Each body of work felt like a chapter that I was telling in a bigger story.”
Eventually, she perceived that Fatima wasn’t just the protagonist in her story, she was actually a way for Renée to help herself achieve what she wanted in life.
“I did not want to be what society wanted me to be,” she says. “Society imposes a ton of expectations on women, and we end up filling those expectations in various ways like marriage and motherhood. In time, I was able to see that Fatima was always the vehicle for me to project who she wanted to be — the person who gave me permission to be my authentic self.”
And as for that tiny little pendant she bought on campus? It floats around her house.
Sometimes she wears it to shows, sometimes it stays home.
“It’s a mantra. Even though it’s associated with Andrew Carnegie — and his whole life was drastically different from mine — it still has the same meaning. Your heart is in your work. You believe in what you’re doing.”