Spotlight: Mike Stewart (Mike)

By Nancy Polanski (nap) on May 30, 2011

As you read our Spotlight interview today, you will be moved by the beauty of Mike's gardens, and the quality of his nature photography. Don't let the expression on his face fool you! He earned that Tiara for his DIY garden project. He'll tell you all about it, as well as his passion for banjo playing and his other interesting hobbies. Come and meet Mike.

Someone who's photography I have admired for a very long time is Mike Stewart. He owns the Nature Photography cubit, with a focus on botanical "portraits" and wildlife. I invite you all to visit his cubit and see his work, and to meet him now in our Spotlight this week.

Nancy: I am very, very glad to have this opportunity to get to know you, Mike. I am a longtime fan of yours. Your photos are so inspiring to someone like myself, who admires great photography. Tell me, please, about your camera equipment, and how you manage to take such professional looking images.

Mike: I live in Peekskill, New York, a town on the eastern banks of the Hudson River, an hour north of New York City. I’m very fortunate that the Hudson River Valley provides me with an infinite source of photographic subjects, including scenic landscapes, woodland forests, wetland habitats, diverse wildlife, migrating birds, and a wide range of botanical subjects. Whether2011-05-25/nap/8a90c4 photographed in the early spring, the heat of summer, the cool of autumn, or the frozen depths of winter, the region is a nature photographer's paradise.

I shoot with a Canon 5D II digital SLR camera, with interchangeable lenses. For bird and wildlife photography I tend to use a Canon 400mm or Sigma 500mm telephoto zoom lens. But for close-ups I use Canon's 100mm macro lens, or the 28-70mm L lens with macro focusing. But you really don't need an expensive camera or fancy lens to take great pictures. The technical capabilities of even the smallest digital cameras are really remarkable these days, and are surprisingly well-suited for macro close-up photography. However, I like the flexibility and artistic capabilities provided by the interchangeable lenses of a digital SLR, so I tend to carry my equipment in a backpack when I go into the field. It can be heavy and cumbersome, so I sometimes like to stay close to home and simply photograph the flora and fauna in my own yard and gardens.


Nancy: I have said many times that with the right subject and a good camera, anyone can take good photos. But a true photographer has to have an eye for perfection. I think you have that. Especially considering the photos I'2011-05-25/nap/1e7725ve seen of your garden.


Mike: My home is surrounded on all sides by ornamental gardens that I’ve planted over the years. I think grass is over-rated, so I replaced most of it with beds and borders of perennials, bulbs, vines, shrubs, conifers, and ornamental grasses - but most of all, roses. Although I grow many species of plants, the focus of the garden is on roses. A gated arbor I built several years ago welcomes visitors into the garden. Just past the gate, stone steps lead down past trellises of climbing roses like 'New Dawn,' 'Red Eden' and 'Blaze of Glory.' The steps end at a brick path that meanders through the back of the garden and alongside a running fountain. The path is made from 1,100 bricks that I salvaged from the crumbling remn2011-05-25/nap/65050eants of a 150 year old iron stove factory on the banks of the Hudson River.

Better Homes & Gardens ran an article about my salvaging of the bricks on their Do It Yourself website, along with some photographs of the path after I completed it. The editors sent me a tiara in honor of being chosen as their website's 'Star of the Week'!

Although I don't show my roses in competitions, I do enjoy photographing them. I plan to submit several entries in the photography competition at the National Rose Society's Spring Convention this June, which - by sheer coincidence - is being held in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this year. My parents still live there, and last year I installed a rose bed in my mother’s garden, and we'll attend the Spring Rose Convention together. It's a great opportunity to come together with other rose growers, admire the exhibitions, and take in a variety of educational workshops and events.

My preoccupation with the "Queen of Flowe2011-05-25/nap/03c7a8rs" began when I was a small boy growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Every morning as I walked to school I passed by a neighbor’s split rail fence that was covered with climbing roses. In late spring, the mass of thorny canes came alive  with fragrant blossoms that captured my imagination. Day after day I bounded out of the house on my way to school, anticipating the roses that waited for me along the way. I knew at that young age that some day, when I grew up, I would grow my own roses. And now, some 40 years later, I grow 175 varieties of hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, Bourbons, hybrid bracteatas, Portlands, Damasks, hybrid musks, rugosas, hybrid hulthemias, and old garden varieties.

Although my parents no longer live in the same house where I grew up, they're not too far from the "old neighborhood," which I visited a couple of years ago. I was curious to see if the roses I admired 40 years earlier could still be found at the house where I used to stop and admire them. Sure enough, as I crested the hill along the route I used to walk to school, I was amazed to see an ancient split rail fence in the same yard I used to stop at. Next to the fence was an elderly gentleman tending some flowers. I pulled my car over to the side of the road, stepped out, and approached the man in his garden. He looked up from his flowers with a   friendly   but curious look as I introduced myself. 2011-05-25/nap/bf4d0b

“Good afternoon,” I said.

“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked me.

“I used to live in this neighborhood about 40 years ago. I was wondering, have you lived here long?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. We’ve been here for more than 45 years.”

“Well, then, I owe you a great debt of gratitude,” I said. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, so I explained. “You see, when I was a boy, I used to walk past your yard on the way to school, and would always stop to admire your roses. They made such a lasting impression on me that I vowed one day I would grow my own, and today I have 175 varieties in my garden in New York.”

“Is that so? My goodness!” he said. “Well, I can’t tell you how many children I’ve sent home after school with bouquets for their mothers over the years” he said. “But I don’t know of any of them who went on to grow thei
2011-05-25/nap/ee258fr own roses.”

“I see you still have the old fence,” I said with a smile.

“Yes, there are still a few climbers left on those rails,” he said. “But I’m afraid I’m too old to care for them like I used to. It’s tough to bend over and prune them anymore.”

“Well, at least those daffodils at your feet look pretty good,” I said.

“They should; they’re plastic!” he exclaimed.

I laughed, and asked if they held up well in the southern humidity.

“Yes,” he said, “but they still get mildew,” he told me with a sly grin.

We walked over to the old fence, and he explained how he had grown and cultivated many roses over the years. We spoke for a short while, talking about his favorite varieties, which ones did well and stood the test of time - much like him! I eventually took my leave, and as I climbed back into my car he smiled, and told me our encounter had "made his day."

Nancy: That's a tender story, Mike. I'll bet it's one he's told himself, many times over. Now, you have other hobbies as well. I grew up in East Aurora NY, home of the Roycroft and the Arts and Crafts movement, so I am particularly interested in your woodworking.


Mike: As much as I love roses, I have to admit there’s another type of plant that I like, and that’s trees. Well, actually, one tree in particular: the American white oak, which I’ve used to make period furniture reproductions, including this Stickley bookcase from the early 20th Century. The tree I used to make this 2011-05-25/nap/1662acbookcase was harvested and quarter-sawn for me by a mill in Pennsylvania, and the planks were shipped to my home in New York for me to use in my wood shop. Much of our home is furnished in the Arts and Crafts style, which often makes use of white oak, which is sometimes called “tiger oak” because of the grain pattern, as shown from this side view photo. I have a Roycroft bookcase in my living room, along with Roycroft pottery, Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys, and related materials. Unfortunately, I've never been to East Aurora, but have certainly checked out the website. You're fortunate to live near such a national 2011-05-25/nap/b02d89treasure!


Nancy: I'd also like to have you tell me about your bookbinding and restoration hobby.


Mike: Some of the books shown in the case above are volumes that I have rebound and restored in the small bookbinding studio above my wood shop. There’s something wonderful about old books, but it’s sad when a book’s binding has come apart, or pages have been torn, so that it can no longer be easily handled or read. So for me there is something very satisfying when I can rebind and repair a book of historical or sentimental value so that its owner can enjoy reading it again. Most of the books I have rebound have been for my own collection, but I’ve also rebound books for family members, friends, and even a local book dealer.

Whether it’s an old first edition, a family cookbook, or an heirloom children’s book of bed time stories, rebinding a book is an interesting process because of the skills, knowledge, tools, materials – and above all, patience – that it requires. I primarily work with cloth-bound and paper bound books, but not heavy leather-bound volumes
2011-05-25/nap/758238 that require the expertise of a professional to rebind. Just last week I restored an 1862 American Atlas for a family friend who gifted me several collectible books on roses. It was a nice way to show my appreciation and restore one of her family heirlooms which she plans to pass on to her son who is a bit of a history buff.

I have to admit that I don’t spend as much time on bookbinding and furniture making as I used to, in part because I have turned my attention to playing the banjo.


Nancy: You have some pretty serious hobbies! Banjo playing sounds interesting. How did you become involved with it?


Mike: Having grown up in North Carolina, I heard a lot of southern style music, but at that time none of those older music styles interested me much. As a teenager I was more tuned in to the Top 40, than the Carter family. But as I grew older something seemed to awaken inside me, and I took up the banjo as an adult. 

When I first started out I didn't really know much about the different types of banjos, or understand the distinctions between different genres of what might be associated with early rural music (bluegrass, old-time, Appalachian string band music, etc). The first banjo I bought was a five-string resonator banjo, the style that is played in bluegrass bands. The resonator is a2011-05-25/nap/c6ed53 metal plate that surrounds the banjo head, which is "closed" in the back. Resonator banjos are generally played with three finger picks on steel strings. All of this makes the instrument quite loud - it has to be to carry the rhythm and cut through the other instruments in a bluegrass band.

I had fun learning bluegrass "rolls," but the more I practiced and the more I listened to different recordings, the more I realized that there were big differences between the rapid (sometimes frenetic) banjo picking that musicians like Earl Scruggs made famous with songs like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," and the softer, more melodic, but still rhythmic sounds of the clawhammer style played on an open-back banjo, which has no resonator, and can be strung with nylon strings, and played without picks.

Open-backed banjos are often used to play "old time" music - the precursor to bluegrass. There are many songs that are common to both genres, but they are played very differently, and I found myself pulled in that direction. Since then I've acquired several different open-back banjos (including one that was custom made for my larger hands), and have studied with a teacher, and attended "banjo camps" for adult students. I'm still just an "advanced beginner," but am having fun playing traditional tunes like "Old Joe Clark," "I'll fly away" and "Banjo in the Hollow," to name a few. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll combine some of my hobbies and build my own banjo in my wood shop. But for now, I’ve literally got my hands full with three other banjos, and that’s enough!

Some days I feel like I have too many interests and not enough time, but I can say this much: I’m never bored!


Nancy: So, perhaps you should tell me a little something about yourself, outside of your hobbies. When you're not in the workshop, in the garden or behind the camera, where will we find you?


Mike: As for my age, I'm 47 years old, and I've worked at Standard & Poor's in lower Manhattan for the past 11 years. I was traveling in Pennsylvania on business on 9 /11, so I was not there when the Twin Towers were attacked. My office was closed for a week after the attack, and when I returned, I could still smell the fires burning at Ground Zero (they burned for 100 days).2011-05-25/nap/a3f127

We do take advantage of our proximity to New York City, for cultural offerings and entertainment. We've certainly attended our share of Broadway shows and concerts, and Cirque  du Soleil. I've been a crew driver for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and enjoy visiting the New York City Botanical Garden, as well as the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I've also taken bookbinding classes at the Center for Book Arts. My favorite Manhattan restaurant is the Renaissance Hotel's R Lounge, which features spectacular floor to ceiling window views overlooking the Times Square.

I've done an extensive amount of domestic travel. When I was young my parents piled me and my three siblings into the back of our family station wagon, pulling an Apache pop-up camper behind us, and we traveled to 29 different states over the years. I've also traveled a lot on business, both domestically and internationally (England a2011-05-25/nap/381a97nd Germany).

 We have a dog named Howard, and two cats named Zack and Topaz. They all get along reasonably well. We recently had to say good-bye to our 14 year old Siberian Husky, whose name was Nikko, and whose pictures have appeared on Cubits.

The most famous person I've ever met was at an event attended by Al Gore when he was running for president. I spoke with him briefly about public education policy. Natalie Cole sang at the event, and I ended up speaking with her after her performance. I've also spent a lot of time working with state governors and legislators as a part of my job.


Nancy: Mike you sound far too busy to be able to excel in so many different fields.  Yet I can see by the photographs you've provided and your extensive knowledge and expertise, that you absolutely do!  You have a passion for perfection that is humbling.  I'm grateful that you've allowed me the opportunity to learn so much about you!  Thank you!


Mike's cubit is Nature Photography.  Please take some time to view his work there, and say hello.  You can click on the photos in this article to enlarge them.  Let's all meet here again next week to see who Sharon will bring into our Spotlight.




Related articles:
banjo, biography, bluegrass, furniture, garden, interview, nature, photography, restoration, rose, spotlight

About Nancy Polanski
I live in Western New York. I'm retired, after working for 30 years in the Microbiology Labs at our county hospital. My time now is spent mostly with the Karen refugee population in Buffalo, advocating for them, teaching, helping and enjoying them. I've twice traveled to their camps in Thailand and experienced their culture. It seems they have taught me more about life than I have taught them.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Hi Mike... Sharon Jun 1, 2011 10:52 AM 9
Nice to meet you, Mike Aguane Jun 1, 2011 10:45 AM 0

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