Art Matters Featuring Helen Lewis


by Susan Sherrill Axelrod




View Helen Lewis' latest work





Appreciating Helen Lewis’ artwork reminds me of one of my favorite childhood pastimes—staring into a tidepool. At first, all appears quiet, but the longer I look more layers of life are revealed. Working in both encaustic and oil and cold wax, Lewis builds her abstracts layer upon layer, sometimes embedding pieces of ephemera—a page from an old book, a handwritten letter, or an envelope—that can only be seen when sections are carved into or sanded away. “Even if it ends up covered with many, many layers there’s that little hint,” says Lewis. “I’m about the quiet conversations in my work; the hints that are there and when you’re pulled in and look more closely it peeks out at you a bit.” 


The pieces without embedded material still invite closer study to appreciate their complexity. When Lewis works in encaustic, she prepares her panel by applying layers of gesso and sanding the surface if necessary. “Then I start with several layers of clear encaustic medium and lay in some color or whatever elements I’m adding in and build up from there,” she says. “If I see a bit of texture happening naturally, I’ll really work on that and keep building that.” The oil and cold wax combination is a newer medium for her. Unlike encaustic, a mix of beeswax and resin that needs to be heated before it can be used, cold wax—which is mixed with oil paint on the artist’s palette—contains a solvent that keeps it soft while it’s being worked with. “As it dries and cures that solvent evaporates,” says Lewis. It has a much more matte appearance, which I like. It’s a fun medium, and I feel like there are infinite possibilities for what I can do with it.”


The art Lewis creates often involves removing layers as much as it does adding them. “I do a lot of scraping back, and I use solvents and tools to excavate and pull things off,” she says. “As I get to those more surface layers with the oil and cold wax, I’ll will often use more transparent colors because I like to being able to see through to those underlayers and I just love the luminosity and quality of light that can come through with both mediums. Her tools include old dental implements given to her by the family dentist, which are ideal for creating fine textures and patterns “I might be working on a big, 40”x40” panel but I’ll use a fine dental tool to do some delicate carving. Then I go back in with oil pigment and highlight some of those areas I’ve carved into.”


Lewis describes herself as “a contemplative at heart,” but also someone who likes structure, which can sometimes present a challenge. “I’m always after trying to loosen up in my work. I don’t want my hand too prevalent in there,” she says. “I work very intuitively. I may have a general idea in mind when I start but I try to follow those inner nudges and what’s happening with the wax and where is the texture building and I try to go step-by-step with what I’m sensing, and with what I’m seeing take place on the canvas or the panel. I want to continue that evolution of more and more being able to rely on that.”






Learn more about this artist:



Available artwork



Art Matters blog article