The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Michael Lewis drove up the hill to the University of Maine campus, a trip that had grown familiar since he began teaching at the university in 1966. The sky, ablaze with orange, stirred emotion in Lewis, a powerful reaction that has always served as a starting point for his paintings.
Instead of proceeding to his office, he headed directly to his studio in the attic of Fernald Hall and picked up a paintbrush.
Lewis’s enthusiasm to share this passion for art has affected countless students, colleagues and community members over the past 46 years he has lived and taught in Orono. And to honor that devotion to art and the community, the UMaine Patrons of the Arts board members have selected Lewis as the 2012 Vincent A. Hartgen Award Recipient.
Hartgen, a famous Maine artist who died in 2002, was a founding member of the UMaine art department and what is now the UMaine Museum of Art in Bangor. The Hartgen award is given each year in recognition of outstanding contributions to the advancement of the arts at the university.
“[Hartgen] brought this attitude to the department to be committed not just to the students but the Maine community. That resonated with me,” said Lewis, 70, sitting on a paint-splattered chair in his studio.
Lewis, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., inherited his love for art from his father, Abraham. After earning a master’s degree in fine arts from Michigan State University in 1964, he faced the grueling task of finding a job.
“I applied for probably 100 jobs, and Vincent Hartgen responded,” said Lewis about his move north in 1966 to become one of the first professors to teach in the UMaine art department. “I liked it so much here, I’ve never decided to move.”
Today, Lewis has a national reputation as a landscape artist, and most of his paintings are inspired by the Orono-Old Town landscape. Four of his works were selected for the U.S. Department of State’s Art in the Embassies Program and were on display in the American Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, from 2005-2007.
His paintings are exhibited on a regular basis at Aucocisco Gallery in Portland, and 27 of his works are in the permanent collection of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University in Boston. His work is also in the collections of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria; the Portland Museum of Art; and Colby College Museum of Art.
Over the years, Lewis has moved from teaching art education to studio painting and drawing. An integral member of the UMaine art department, he has served as department chair and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
These days, he prefers working one-on-one with students, encouraging them to work with their materials and experiment.
“Teaching keeps me close to people who are discovering the exciting process of creativity and self expression, and it renews my own excitement,” Lewis said.
Owen Smith, director of UMaine’s Intermedia Master of Fine Arts program, nominated Lewis for the Hartgen award. He describes his colleague as “the soul of our department.”
When working on his own art, Lewis typically begins by walking outdoors. Most of his walks start near the UMaine Field House and lead past University Park in Old Town. Though sometimes he opts to saunter along Stillwater River for the reflection and movement of the water.
“The process is to walk and immerse myself in the landscape,” he said. “Not observe the land. I try to participate in the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the weather.”
He then returns to his attic studio, pops a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez album into his stereo and tries to empty his mind as he begins to paint.
“It all comes from intuition and the subconscious,” he said. “I use the landscape as a metaphor. If my mood is emotional, the landscape is emotional. If the mood is serene … for a long time, painting is a lot like meditation, discovering what’s in the subconscious. But as the painting develops, I have less and less freedom of choice. It has to have structure and I have to finish it.”
Sometimes Lewis’s landscapes will include tiny figures, usually resembling his wife, May, but sometimes resembling the artist himself.
Lewis discovered his unusual painting process by accident and developed it over a long period of time.
Rather than paint on canvas or paper, he works on tough rag board, a material that is typically used for matting artwork. He then dilutes his oil paint with turpentine and works with a wide palette of colors to bring a scene to life. The luminosity of the white rag board shining through the diluted paint gives the shimmering effect of light, one of the most important elements in Lewis’s landscapes. And the spontaneous nature of working with turpentine wash coincides with his desire to create through intuition and emotion.
“I’m not into depicting Stillwater River,” he said. “What I’m interested in is the psychological, spiritual and emotional. It’s about color and brushstroke.”
“To get inside somebody’s head, that’s the goal,” he said. “If you ask my students, ‘What is he always harping about?’ They’ll say, ‘It’s the poetry of the painting.’”
Pointing to a recent painting hung on his studio wall, Lewis said, “In that one, the light is squeezed by the dark.” A sliver of light seemed to be fighting for a foothold on the horizon, a gray sky pressing down from above.
“But I’ve always felt that the darkness isn’t going to take over,” he continued after a pause. “That even if it covers the light, the light is still going to come back out.”