In memory of Kay Lewis, mentor and muse
Richmond Lewis was born in Tokyo and spent her early years in Japan. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and graduated with the top painting honor, the Florence Lief Prize.
Soon after that she spent nine months living in Europe, studying the masterpieces of art history firsthand, and making paintings on paper. She lived in Hoboken NJ for the next twenty-two years, where her work was greatly influenced by the fading industrial environment. In the 1980s and ’90s she exhibited her oil paintings and ink drawings in galleries in Soho and the East Village, and received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in 1992.
In the late 1990s, Ms. Lewis stopped exhibiting in order to refocus her approach to painting. For the next several years she studied traditional water-based techniques, including Japanese woodblock printing, Russian icon-writing, and Tibetan thangka painting. Since 2006 she has been working in egg tempera, using ground pigments suspended in egg yolk, painted on a support of plaster-gesso on linen, mounted on panel.
Richmond Lewis’s recent egg tempera paintings evoke a sense of animation through interwoven shapes, delicate line, and richly complex color.
Questions by Dan Rossi
The time I spent in Italy was soon after I got out of college, and it was amazing to experience many of my favorite works of art at that time in person, mostly because their physical presence was so different from images in books or slides. I’ll never forget the chills I felt looking at the marble-like surface of the frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii, or turning the corner going up the stairs at the San Marco monastery and seeing how Fra Angelico’s “annunciation” sparkled (literally), or marveling at the subtle perfection and exquisite detail of Botticelli’s “Primavera.”
Many different things that I saw or discovered during my time in Europe had a strong influence on my own work, from the stylized mosaics found in Ostia Antica and Ravenna to the twisting, contorted compositions of artists like Tiepolo and El Greco; the noble Greek kouroi; the sublime frescoes of Giotto and Piero Della Francesca; the haunting clay sarcophagi and stacked bronze cauldrons of the Etruscans; the cave paintings in Dordogne and Perigord; the Bayeuex tapestry; and the urgent and imaginative objects in Lausanne’s Art Brut Museum. The discovery of that last museum sparked my ongoing love of self-taught and outsider art. One particular clay sculpture in the Art Brut Museum later inspired a series of paintings.
India was full of surprises. Of course I was familiar from my education with some Indian art, especially miniature painting, but it was a thrill to discover archeological sites like Mahabalipuram and Hampi. The sinuous rhythms and repetitions of the figures and animals carved into the rock almost made it feel alive. The artists had taken stone — already beautiful — and made it more beautiful! And the monuments and structures felt like extensions of the landscape.
In addition to that, I was surrounded by people dressed in richly patterned and colorful material. Color was also on display in the marketplace, in patchwork arrangements of goods, spices, and food. Everywhere around me, from coiled fishing rope on the seashore to funnels made from used tin cans, I saw beautiful, inventive, surprising objects.
The biggest surprise for me, though, were the painted advertisements on the sides of buildings. At that time I was living in Hoboken, and the imagery in my work was heavily influenced by the remnants of its industrial history. The drawings and paintings I was making of forms derived from leftover industrial objects were almost stripped of color.
To see a hand-painted advertisement, sometimes four stories high, of a drill press or a motor or a lightbulb or a new line of toilets, depicted in a matter-of-fact style and in resplendent color, was both hilarious and eye-opening. They were beautiful and they were everywhere! All of these things, in one way or another, affected the work I did after that trip.
My family left Japan five years after I was born there, but I grew up surrounded by the many objects my mother had brought with us to the U.S., so I’ve had an appreciation for Japanese art and crafts for a long time. When I returned in 2000 for the first time since I was a child I was able to put a lot of the things I knew in context, and to seek out masterful examples of various art forms, for example, the “Red and White Plum Blossoms” folding screen by Ogata Korin. I had loved this piece from reproductions, but to experience its physical presence was breathtaking.
Woodblock prints are widely collected throughout the world, so I was pretty familiar with many of the most famous ones, as most people are, but in Tokyo I discovered another aspect of these prints. In a shop that sold beautifully hand-printed decorative papers, I came upon some toy diorama prints from the early twentieth century — prints of different pieces to be cut out and assembled. Because they were mass-produced, the hand-printing was quick and casual, the ink a little sloppy outside the edges of the shapes to be cut out.
I wondered if the original ukiyo-e prints looked more like this, and less like the carefully crafted reprintings produced to this day.) The vigorous ink application and the jumble of drawn items, placed at different angles in order to all fit on a single sheet, made these prints wonderful pieces just as they were.
I gained even further appreciation of the woodblock printer’s art when I took a continuing education class at a Tokyo cultural center. As one of the few “fine artists” in attendance, I was humbled by the skill and sensitivity of my classmates, mostly retirees, who were amateurs in the true sense of the word.
I was also struck by the mixing of materials, whether in ancient Buddhist sculpture or the exquisite packaging of consumer items, that found its contemporary — and most exuberant — expression in Harajuku street fashions. These were manic combinations of stuff — irrational mishmashes of materials that pushed the boundaries of taste in all directions.
But for all my stories of far-away discovery, there is still so much to see and experience here in New York. I visit the Metropolitan Museum regularly, often wandering into an area I haven’t seen in a while, and am always newly invigorated. Also, the Japan Society and the Rubin Museum have been great resources. And I was able to take classes in the techniques of both Russian icon-writing and Tibetan thangka painting with master artists in Manhattan.
Once I began using egg tempera, I quickly learned it was difficult to be indecisive — every mark stays with you till the end.
In oil I was never a big planner, and let the process and paint lead the way. I’d start with the barest of sketches as a direction, and the process would take over. Oil is very forgiving — you can push the paint around, scrape it, paint over paint, or rework entire areas quickly. Also, the body of the paint itself has a strong physical presence.
Egg tempera doesn’t have the body of oil paint, but brushed down in translucent layers, the color can achieve a sense of depth. Most of my application of the paint is in large areas, not the cross-hatching of small strokes that people are familiar with. Layering can be difficult, because oftentimes the colors will blend in unexpected ways. I’ve learned to enjoy the surprises (mostly), and sometimes find myself going in a different direction from what I had planned. The occasional unpredictability of color adds spontaneity to the process. I’ve also learned that I can wash out areas I’m not happy with and find alternative solutions. This method adds flexibility and allows me to redirect a painting at any time, which is more in line with my improvisational temperament.
Another challenge is getting the pigment-to-egg-yolk ratio correct. It’s tricky because different pigments require different amounts of egg. I use powdered pigments that I mix with a fresh yolk each time I paint.
There are many beautiful pigments that are made from hazardous metals or minerals.
Because I stay away from pigments marked with a cautionary label there are certain colors I avoid, but I’ve managed to create a good range of hues from the pigments I do use. Even many of the “safe” pigments contain stuff you don’t want to inhale or ingest.
When I’m mixing the pigments I wear a dust mask and rubber gloves, and try not to disturb the powder so it doesn’t become airborne. All paint has its health concerns; this one is just a little different.
Despite these challenges, what I love about egg tempera is its range and the softness, subtlety, and depth of color that’s possible. It can be transparent, translucent, opalescent, or opaque, and you can quickly alter the quality with another layer.
Unlike her, I went on to art school, where a number of new influences took center stage, and guided my work in different directions. Still, I would constantly get mail from her stuffed with newspaper clippings and magazine articles about some artist or exhibit she wanted to make sure I knew about.
Even after I graduated, she continued suggesting things to see. She took me to the newly opened Isamu Noguchi Museum, and we discovered other things together, such as outsider art and the Gees Bend quilts. She was also an amateur potter, with a natural flair for using glazes sensitively, playing their different properties off each other. Her affinity for simple, honest form was evident in her excitement about things as varied as children’s art, folk art, raw silk, or a hornet’s nest.
I continue to recognize her influence through my own artistic journey. My current interests in textiles and Buddhist paintings, for example, stem directly from my mother.
Recently, I became very excited about an exhibition of the Japanese stencil art of the Mingei movement, remembering that my mother had a mid-century example of Mingei printing stored among her things. She was always a step ahead of me.