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Landscapes of the Soul

 


Landscapes of the Soul
Michael H. Lewis explores the dichotomy between imagery and reality in his art

About the Photo: Michael Lewis has become "an impressionist of a mysteriously secret world of nature," says Vincent Hartgen. "When looking at his present work, I find myself trying to ‘listen' through imagination and dream. This is not easy to do with what Mike is exploring. It is like working with words as a poet, tones as a composer, or the stars as an astronomer."
 

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Finding the mystery in the obvious, the enigma in the identifiable, the spirituality in the common takes special perception. Capturing such transcendental moments to share them with others is an art.

Michael H. Lewis has been painting landscapes for the past quarter-century. But while he takes inspiration from the physical world, his themes cover a broad spectrum — from Maine's astonishing natural beauty to more inward-looking explorations of emotional and spiritual experience.

For Lewis, land, sea and sky have multiple levels of meaning. In his art, he engages the mysterious and gives shape to the unknown. Each work is "an invitation to move from recognition of the physical world to a more personal, emotional, mystical and spiritual space — the place where the most essential questions of our existence can be explored, where our familiar definition of what is real needs to be boldly reconsidered, and where magic in its truest, deepest sense is still alive."

"Something about the landscape reaches people," says Lewis, a University of Maine professor of art. "Painting the landscape seems to create an alchemy that transforms the recognition of the familiar world into a deeper and more personally profound experience."
 

Moonlight Path
Michael Lewis has become "an impressionist of a mysteriously secret world of nature," says Vincent Hartgen. "When looking at his present work, I find myself trying to ‘listen' through imagination and dream. This is not easy to do with what Mike is exploring. It is like working with words as a poet, tones as a composer, or the stars as an astronomer."

Moonlight Path (Winter) #2, 2001
 

Lewis, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., joined the UMaine faculty in 1966. In 1979, his excellence in the classroom earned him the University's highest academic honor, the Distinguished Maine Professor Award.

"I teach art as a language rather than just a set of skills or a particular style," he says. "The question is, ‘What do you want to say and what are the appropriate materials and techniques to say it most expressively?' It's about encouraging curiosity, imagination, experimentation, discipline and intellectual vigor. I don't separate teaching from any other creative process. It should be a response to all aspects of life, a way of asking questions and working to discover answers."

Lewis' early paintings reflected the emotions of an angry young man in a chaotic world, struggling to know himself better. It was a time of Jimi Hendrix and Ayn Rand, friends sent to Vietnam and race riots in Watts. When Lewis married and had the first of his three children, his works explored themes of intimacy and nurturing, set against the backdrop of the turbulent '60s.

Lewis took inspiration from those also "trying to understand the big questions of what life's about," such as film directors Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, singer Bob Dylan and author James Joyce.

But unlike those who had a largely nihilistic view of the world, Lewis had "a strong impulse toward affirmation and optimism." Painting daily became his way of "protecting and nurturing the human spirit"; he saw the explorations in his paintings as an opportunity to heighten awareness of the limited scope of our perceptions when living our daily lives.

Lewis also studied Skinner and Freud, but it was Jung who captured his imagination. "I was fascinated by Jung's discussion of the creative unconscious and archetypes. They gave me a growing awareness of myth, spirituality and how individuals could be connected to that kind of experience.

"What it did is throw wide open a sense of what is possible and what can be called real. It was the beginning of my sense that the scientific definition of reality is too limited."


It wasn't until Lewis moved to Maine that reflections of the natural landscape were seen in his paintings.

"Maine has the kind of environment that provokes awe, and awe for me provokes the big questions," says Lewis, whose work is represented by Uptown Gallery in New York City and has been shown regularly since the mid-'60s in New York, Boston, Baltimore and throughout Maine.

"However, it's not a big jump from awe to sentimental stereotypes. That's why I've always been wary of landscapes. Until I made progress with the turpentine wash technique, I felt I could not approach landscapes from a fresh perspective."

In 1975, Lewis began developing a technique for using small amounts of oil paint washed with turpentine on a paper surface. He discovered the technique quite by accident when, in frustration, he wiped a turpentine rag across a work in progress. Gradually, as he continued to experiment, he went from traditional oil painting to what has become his trademark turpentine wash. As a result, his art took on a wider, expressive vocabulary.

As with watercolors, the luminosity of these works comes from the white paper showing through thin veils of washed paint. The oil pigment contributes a distinct quality of sensuality and a subtle, expressive energy.

"The method keeps opening new possibilities by the way the paint behaves, the way I can and can't make corrections, the way it achieves a certain clarity of color. While my style may remain recognizable, subtle differences (in technique) and changes in content continue. That's what's so exciting about it."


Lewis engages landscapes literally as well as figuratively. Almost daily for the past eight years, no matter what the weather, he has walked the woods and meadows around Orono, Maine, and the state's coastlines, mostly in Acadia National Park and Lamoine, accompanied until her death last year by his dog, Sparky.

While Maine is a wellspring of natural beauty, Lewis says his favorite location, and the inspiration for a large number of his works, is Orono, where he is "intrigued by the incredible variation and subtlety."

Art historian Konrad Oberhuber, former director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, once noted that Lewis' landscapes are in keeping with the romantic tradition found in the works of such 19th-century landscape painters as Caspar David Friedrich of Germany and Britain's John Constable.

Longtime friend, artist Vincent Hartgen, says Lewis has become "an impressionist of a mysteriously secret world of nature."

"He has created a style akin to a blend of surrealism and mysticism reminiscent of the old masters, but he truly is modern in every sense of the word. When looking at his work, I find myself trying to ‘listen' through imagination and dream. This is not easy to do with what Mike is exploring. It is like working with words as a poet, tones as a composer, or the stars as an astronomer," Hartgen says.


The dichotomy between imagery and reality is deepened by Lewis' use of a solitary human figure dwarfed against the landscape. In a recent artist's statement, he addressed the role of such a figure by citing a passage from James Joyce's short story, The Dead, in which the character, Gabriel, views his wife standing at the top of a flight of stairs:

There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. . . . Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

"Joyce never answers the question of meaning directly, but I took the passage as a strong confirmation of the expressive potency of the enigmatic figure," says Lewis.

Today, it is just as common as not for Lewis' landscapes to include such figures, human or mythical, that add to the sense of scale and symbolism, the familiar and the unknown.

The figure could be a muse or love, or the will to keep dancing as darkness descends, says Lewis. It is imprecise and enigmatic, undefined and variable. Yet it is engaged, listening.

As are we.

by Margaret Nagle
December, 2001/January, 2002

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