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Landscape as language For half a century, artist Michael Lewis created an innovative body of art and inspired generations by Margaret Nagle | Photography by Adam Kuykendall
Michael Lewis

Professor of Art Michael Lewis and alumna Helena Bosse discuss a painting in progress.

It started with a tree and a couple kissing under it,” explains the man in the knit cap, a mix of pride and apprehension in his voice. “That’s when the idea ran away with me.”

“Is that a problem?” asks Michael Lewis, the University of Maine professor leading the directed study in studio art class. “I look forward to what is going to happen next.”

Lewis looks around the room at the loose circle of students sitting in the large studio. “How about some other reactions,” he says, then listens attentively to the ebb and flow of the feedback to their classmate.

“Your painting is beginning to develop an interesting and playful narrative — something you do really well,” Lewis says. “That’s the thrill of painting: Just trust your instinct. Let it unfold.”

The man nods and the next student props up three of her canvases for the group to critique. Peer reactions are mixed; they don’t all agree on what works and what doesn’t in the paintings.

Lewis listens. And waits.

“It’s not just about reproducing an image in a photo that you’re working from. You have to focus on the meaning and feeling you’re trying to convey,” he says. “When you make the image, it’s got to come from some deep part of your consciousness.”

 


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Each student in turn talks about the paintings he or she has started as part of the next class assignment. They talk about the impetus for their paintings, the elements in the landscape, the locations.

Lewis continues to prod: What is the painting going to be about?

“Get your experience — your feeling — onto the canvas. What are the expressive variables that you can use? What does the kind of light in the image convey? What mood does the weather evoke?

“What’s the scale of the figure against the landscape? What kind of space is depicted? How do you make the paint surface more sensual? You have to be sensitive to all those things.”

With the bar set, the high expectations enumerated, the huddle breaks and the students turn to their easels. The artists, ages 20 to 78, will spend the remainder of the five-hour weekly class attempting to move their oils or acrylics on canvas to the next level. Lewis circulates, engaging in one-on-one mentoring.

“I’m the provocateur, helping them stretch their imaginations,” Lewis says of his role in the classroom for the last 50 years.

Lewis came to Maine in 1966 to join the flagship university’s fledgling art department.

He was 25.

By his own admission, he had a lot to learn. And he had great teachers, starting with the legendary Vincent Hartgen, founder of the UMaine art department and the University of Maine Museum of Art.

People in art gallery

“Deep Roots/Old Strength,” an exhibition featuring a selection of paintings by Michael Lewis dating from 1967–2008, ran Feb. 5-March 25, 2016 in the Lord Hall Gallery at the University of Maine.

Lewis will say he also learned from his students, most of whom were only a few years younger. And he learned from Maine, where the nonstop intersections with the natural world helped him connect the dots with the artists, filmmakers and philosophers he was discovering — from Freud and Jung to Fellini and Bergman.

Lewis says he and his wife, May, and their children came to Maine never intending to stay.

They just never found a reason to leave.

The result is a legacy.

Mystic Garden #3CC

Mystic Garden #3, 2008

In his half-century at UMaine, and with strong support from May, Lewis created an innovative, continuously evolving body of paintings and drawings that were exhibited in galleries in Portland, Maine; New York City, Boston; and Baltimore. His paintings were acquired for private collections and museums alike.

The Fogg Museum at Harvard has 27 of his paintings, drawings and prints in its permanent collection. His work also is in the collections of the Albertina museum in Austria, the Portland Museum of Art, Colby College Museum of Art and the University of Maine Museum of Art.

The viewing public has the highest praise for what Lewis accomplishes in his work. He extends an invitation to explore both the beauty of the physical landscape and the personal, unseen inner realms of emotion and spirit.

For countless people, UMaine and art are synonymous with Michael Lewis.

Lewis is quiet, modest and deep, and people seek his counsel, fully aware that they won’t always like what they’ll hear in his honesty.

Colleagues describe him as a stabilizing force. He was instrumental in helping to set the foundation for the highly professional Department of Art it has become, making it a vigorous and ideal place to learn with creative and active artist-teachers and scholar-teachers.

Prayer for Peace (Edge of a Plowed Field) #9, 1998

Prayer for Peace (Edge of a Plowed Field) #9, 1998

“(Mike’s) effect on people goes beyond his art,” says UMaine art professor Laurie Hicks. “You can’t go around the state and not have his name brought up if you’re talking about art. I think it’s because of the thousands of students he’s taught, but also the way they left his class, better for having been there.”

From the start, Lewis found the UMaine Department of Art a rewarding work environment. In 1966, the native of Brooklyn, New York was one of three faculty members working with Hartgen, the department’s larger-than-life founder who championed the arts in Maine.

“Vincent’s greatest lesson was to keep busy and think big,” Lewis says. “He wanted everyone in the department to be having shows, to teach and to do lots of community service. He was tireless. He wanted the department at UMaine to be known all over the state.”

Lewis earned a master’s degree in painting from Michigan State University in 1964 and spent two years teaching art in Kingston, New York, to grades K­–6, where he says the students helped him more clearly understand the penetrating, undermining effects of racial discrimination. In addition, they underscored the pure joy of creating.

Jumping Towards the Light #9, 2007

Jumping Towards the Light #9, 2007

At UMaine, he also learned from his students, including one who called him out one day for his narrow critiques that left little room for “other ways of thinking.”

“I was growing as a person and an artist, as were my students,” Lewis remembers of those first three years of teaching. “Interactions like that were a godsend and made me start to realize that, as a teacher, I needed to be sensitive to a spectrum of possibilities.

“I also began to be open to intuition and the subconscious as important aspects of the creative process. It helped free up my thinking.”

Through the years, Lewis’ art reflected engaged enlightenment. Many of his earlier works were influenced by Freud’s ideas of the subconscious. He then explored Jung’s more expansive ideas of the “creative” subconscious and the collective unconscious. Lewis moved from carefully deliberate painting to more spontaneous, inventive methods.

He came to trust his instinct, feeling that it led to experience with deeper, more spiritual realities.

That confidence to innovate progressed with the development of the technique that has come to define him — the turpentine wash. Ironically, he discovered it in the heat of frustration.

The year was 1975, the start of the first of two six-year stints as chair of the Department of Art. It was the year he also completed an MFA in painting from the State University College, New Paltz.

Lewis had already struck a balance between the teaching he loved and his obsessive studio habits. But he worried that the addition of administrative duties would eat into his creative time.

Doubt, 2007

Doubt, 2007

One night in the studio, he wasn’t happy with a drawing he’d just started and, impulsively, wiped a turpentine-laced rag across the image. That eventually gave rise to the wash technique, bringing him exciting new expressive opportunities.

Lewis had been in Maine 17 years before his paintings took on the difficult challenge of using landscape as entry into hidden realities. In his personal and professional pursuit of greater understanding of mysticism and spirituality, he communed with nature on daily walks, often with trusted friend Kyriacos Markides, UMaine professor of sociology and a scholar of mystical reality.

In his studio, Lewis’ paintings reflected the effect of Maine on his subconscious. And the turpentine wash technique allowed him to let the new insights flow into his work.

“When I started working with the wash, it was really exciting because I had no idea beforehand what each painting was going to look like. It was like dreaming,” Lewis says.

“I would move the paint intuitively and spontaneously, and let it gravitate toward landscape, but the goal wasn’t to show you a particular place.”

Lewis doesn’t paint landscapes, says his colleague Hicks. He paints ideas. Thoughts. Possibilities. He uses the landscape as a medium; in many ways, the landscape is simply the language.

Mystic Garden #6, 2008

Mystic Garden #6, 2008

“Most of the landscapes he ever painted don’t (physically) exist. He doesn’t go out and paint in the world,” she says. “He has created concrete enough language so people see places with depth and beauty.

“He creates a language that bridges the real world and world of ideas.”

Painting and teaching are parallel passions, Lewis says.

“I enjoy being in an exchange with students who are just getting excited about what the possibilities are and that renews my excitement,” he says. “Some of the students have incredible facility. Others may not, but they have intense imaginations and feelings. Sometimes you see the aha moment in class and sometimes it happens 10 years later.”

Lewis says his bottom line: Keep making art.

“For some students, success is continuing to work; for others, it is New York recognition in a complex and varied art scene,” says Lewis. “Even if you’re in a small, rural town, what you do as an artist is rippling out into the surrounding environment. Do what you love. Believe that your work will inspire people. And support (creativity) where and when you can.”

Helena Bosse of Milford, Maine, came to UMaine as a first-generation college student in her 40s. Her first painting class was with Lewis.

“I had never painted with oils,” she says, “but I’ve been painting ever since.”

Bosse earned a degree in art education from UMaine in 1990 and went on to teach art in schools in Milford, Bradley and Alton. She also teaches painting courses in the Gateway Seniors Without Walls program.

The Opening Heart #3, 1990

The Opening Heart #3, 1990

Like so many of Lewis’ students, Bosse took every course she could from him as an undergraduate. When it came to his last class this past spring, before he retires in August, she and a handful of former students had to enroll.

“I’ve tried to be the kind of teacher he is, approaching students gently, being understanding of their feelings,” says Bosse. “He always picked out something good, but he didn’t accept it just to make you feel good. He would give you what you needed and asked you the hard questions. He didn’t make it easy.”

Charles Yoder was a student from Dedham, Maine, who studied art from 1966–69 at UMaine. In the early ’70s, he worked in the Leo Castelli Gallery that represented such artists as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Then, for nearly a dozen years, Yoder curated for Rauschenberg.

In 2002, Yoder’s exhibition at UMaine, Natural Resources, featured 23 oils on canvas. Two years later, he was in a group exhibition at Vose Galleries in Boston: Realism Now: Traditions & Departures, Mentors and Protégés.

His mentor featured in the show: Michael Lewis.

“I feel in his work what I hope to realize in my best work: for lack of a more exacting word, a Zen-like quality,” Yoder says. “There is a rhythm and cadence, like good music. They offer restoration.”

Today, in addition to being a sought-after artist, Yoder teaches silk screen and lithography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a gig he’s had for almost 40 years.

Mystic Garden #7, 2008

Mystic Garden #7, 2008

“I like the exchange between (me) and the students and the other instructors,” he says. “I feel at ease in my role and responsible to help wherever and whenever I can. I think I may have got these basic ideas from Mike. Also this thing that, by doing your art in a serious and continuous manner, you become a positive example to your students and to yourself.”

Leslie Bostrom was a UMaine first-year student from Poughkeepsie, New York when she took an evening painting class from Lewis in 1970 that changed her major — and her life.

“What has always resonated with me was his pure enthusiasm for the art-making process, his intellectual engagement with art theory and history, his unbending code about the importance of production (spending many hours in the studio) and his emphasis on the primacy of drawing and observation,” says Bostrom, who earned an MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, and is an artist and professor of art at Brown University.

Jumping Towards the Light #2, 2007

Jumping Towards the Light #2, 2007

She teaches painting, printmaking and drawing.

“Michael believed in craft, but also in stretching the rules and allowing for contingency. He had an essentially democratic attitude toward style and an eclectic curiosity about everything, encouraging a wonderful openness to experimentation.

“I’ll be forever grateful that Michael was my first teacher and mentor,” Bostrom says. “I was lucky to be able to absorb his wisdom, optimism, creativity and confidence, and carry those with me through my own career.”

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Spring-Summer-2016


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