A Life Lived Side by Side with Art

(Courtesy of Michelle Lewis)
Last month Michelle Lewis’ 16” x 20” piece,“Sacred Loons, was part of an exhibit entitled “Eight Women Artists” at the Piedmont Center for the Arts.

    Orinda’s Michelle Lewis was part of an exhibit entitled “Eight Women Artists” at the Piedmont Center for the Arts in October. Her 16” x 20” piece, Sacred Loons, was part of the presentation. The women are part of a group called Art Tag, also part of the Northern California Women’s Caucus for the Arts.
    The other seven participating artists in the show were Laura Abrams, Deborah Green, Laura McNall, Juliet Mevi, Jacqui Rubenstein, Ariella Seidenberg and Caskey Weston – who collectively displayed over 50 works of art.
    Lewis’ first exposure to art was in the Fine Arts Dance program at York University in Toronto. She focused on modern dance and dance therapy. “There is a freedom one feels using one’s body in space that is exhilarating. To choreograph works through this medium was most fulfilling. Spatial awareness is something all artists must contemplate when creating their art,” she said.
    She financed her way through school as a nature photographer. Her mother was a widow with four children, so Lewis had to be creative about funding her education. Selling photographs was one way she did that. Light, angles, proportion, foreground and background: all these elements were essential to her work as a photographer, as is for painters.
    In her mid-twenties, she studied weaving in rural Ontario and continued to study weaving in Mexico and Berkeley. She spent 23 years weaving scarves, pillows, clothing, wall hangings and prayer shawls.
    “Weaving was a challenging but meditative art form for me. I welcomed the quiet, rhythmic and mathematical challenges creating patterns on my loom. Textures and patterns all play an essential part of any artist’s ‘toolbox,’” she said.
    Lewis was exposed to First Nation art at an isolated Canadian reservation where she met wonderful artists who changed her interest in art. It was an awakening for her, and ever since, she has been a teacher in underserved communities.
    It wasn’t until 2009 that she began painting after seeing the movie Julie and Julia.
    “I walked out of the film and said to myself I was going to do something out of my comfort zone. So I picked up a paint brush for the first time. I took several classes at Berkeley City College and, privately and briefly, studied with Susan Matthews, a talented artist, in 2010,” she said.
    Because of the pandemic she was unable to go home to Canada where she usually spends several weeks. Missing being able to see and hear the loons on the lake, she painted loons three times.
    “I guess I’m drawn to loons,” she said, chuckling over the double meaning of her noun.
    She finds the loon to be a hauntingly beautiful bird.
    “I have always been awed by its intricate black and white markings, its red eye, call (wail) and grace,” said Lewis. “One of my fondest memories about going home is knowing that I will be graced by its presence as it dives and glides peacefully on the lake.”
    In contrast to her individual creations, she recently participated in work on murals. “From Incarceration to Liberation,” originated from a mural design class at Berkeley City College. It is now on permanent display at S.F. State University in the Student Union Building.
    “I loved being a part of something, quite frankly, much bigger than myself, because I was collaborating with other artists and working on this commissioned piece for Project Rebound. The college wanted to honor, by way of creating this mural, an ongoing program which offers higher education for formerly incarcerated adults,” she said.
    That mural provided Lewis a different level of connecting with other artists on a creative platform. Together, they had to find ways to integrate ideas and designs.
    She worked on several murals in San Francisco, including an anti-eviction mural on 17th and Valencia Streets and one at the Dolores Huerta Elementary School. She helped repaint other murals needing fixing in the Mission District.
    “Before I retired, I wanted to leave a mural for the school where I taught Art. A 7’ x 11’ mural was created by fourth and fifth grade students at Glenview Elementary School,” she said. “However, to date, no one knows where that mural, painted on canvas, was placed during reconstruction. Hopefully, one day it will be found and hung at the new school.”
    Lewis encourages all artists to embrace other art forms to influence and expand their aesthetics. A teacher for 30 years and a self-employed artist for the past 13 years, her creative work combines her talents from modern dance to photography, teaching to weaving and painting to collaborative murals.
    To learn more about Lewis’ artwork, visit www.michellelewisart.com.

Elana O’Loskey can be reached at business.orinda@gmail.com.

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