Radio Maine Episode 10: Helen Lewis

A Story Worth Telling

Artist Helen Lewis creates her pieces, in part, by adding layer upon layer of molten beeswax to a panel, and scraping it away. This process creates great depth and luminosity. This practice reflects her life’s work of finding meaning from what remains after loss. Helen’s mother died suddenly when she was five-years-old. Soon after, her father brought Helen and her brothers on a trip to New Orleans that was meant to be restorative. Things did not go as planned, nor did the remainder of Helen’s childhood years. Helen’s art is clearly informed by her early heartbreaking experience and dedication to her own emotional healing. Prepare to be impacted by Helen’s compelling story, as described to Dr. Lisa Belisle, in this episode of Radio Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you're listening to Radio Maine. Today we are speaking with artist, Helen Lewis, who is joining us from the Portland Art Gallery in Portland, Maine. You have a lovely showing of your work behind you. Thank you so much for being here today, Helen.

Helen Lewis: Thank you, Lisa, for having me. I’m thrilled to have my work hanging this month. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, this has been an interesting time to have a showing as an artist.  You were used to having showings, and people come in, and there's a nice art opening, and people walk around and they have a glass of wine. And now we're doing this a little bit differently during the times of COVID. How has this impacted you? 

Helen Lewis: Well, it is certainly different. We're in the midst of some different times, but I feel as though he Portland Art Gallery has done a wonderful job of really making some great adjustments. I hate to use the word pivot. It seems like you hear pivot all the time. Everywhere you go, you hear about people pivoting these days, but they, the Portland Art Gallery, have truly have done an exemplary job of doing so 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: When you're getting ready for an opening, how much time does it take to get all of the pieces that you would like together so that they're ready to be put up on the walls and available for people to look at?

Helen Lewis: In terms of painting time? I would have to really think about that. Some of these paintings  I started many, many months ago. And then just deciding how it's all going to go together, whether I could use more in a particular size or something to help blend the show overall.  Almost as you might think of words, I try to think of transitional pieces that will help pull things together for the gallery rather than abrupt changes and color palette or style.  So, many months and then lots of time packing and loading our vehicle to get it here. We were very relieved that we had just a few inches to spare in our Subaru to get the work here. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: And when you say we, this would be … ?

Helen Lewis: My husband, Brad. He’s has been great about helping me haul artwork around the country, as well as just helping me get it wrapped and packed and so forth. Thank you, Brad. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Yes, thank you, Brad. I also agree it's very important to have a supportive person in your life and you two have been, supporting each other in many different ways for a long time. Not only do you have twins,  but you now have four grandchildren and you've worked together on a business designing and providing books for hospitals for new babies. Is that all true?

Helen Lewis: That is all true. Yes. For many, many years that's been Brad's main business. Many years ago I designed the baby record book that is used as the cornerstone for that business. And I believe, at this point, over a million copies of the book have been given out to new parents to-date. So that's kind of shocking for us when we tallied it up.  it means we've printed a lot of baby books.  It's been fun. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: So you and Brad actually occupy an important space in a family’s new young life. You’re essentially entering into these people's homes at a really important time. 

Helen Lewis: Yes. And the book is designed so that it is a place to record key events and to journal about different events in your child's life from birth through age seven. So it's something that gets used and, hopefully, passed along when that child reaches adulthood or begins to have children of their own. it’s been falling out of fashion with some of the new moms. They’re wanting to do everything online but I think that they'll find that they'll be glad to have something in their own handwriting, something that is a tangible object that they can pass along at some point, rather than just one more website or app that someone needs to log into in order to get to see some of those really important memories. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Your life professionally has actually been interwoven with the importance of story and healing. Not only were you involved with communications in the medical field,  but you also have this baby book. You've also been working on your art as a reflection of your own personal story. When did you first understand that story was important? 

Helen Lewis: I'm not certain when I first really grasped that on a deep level. I think it's something that I've always known, but for much of my life struggled with because some of the circumstances of my life are rather unusual and, painful.  There was a tendency  on my part to just kind of slough things off or not answer directly or give very many details. I guess I wasn't ready to  fully embrace and acknowledge how much the details of my life have really impacted who I am.  I saw it as a negative but I've reached a place where I now know that although it was difficult ,and that there was a darkness, that a lot of light comes out of darkness and that all of those stages were very, very important  in helping me to reach the place where I am today. 

Helen Lewis: I feel as though that, as I'm working even now, I have that lesson driven home for me. Even through the nature of my work, as I'm layering, I work in a very layered way in both the cold wax and oil and the encaustic. As I'm working on those layers,  there are many of those layers that are maybe not the most attractive, maybe not a color that I would necessarily want to end up as strongly visible on the surface, but they are all necessary. And,  particularly with the cold wax, as I'm applying pressure as I’m adding additional layers and going back in with tools to scrape and carve and excavate,  it actually causes some of those colors to blend and meld together or a color that maybe wouldn't have been something that I would want as a key in a particular painting really will pop and make a huge difference to the overall composition when I've done that excavating. And so I really often see parallels between my work and my life.  I see the amount of loss in my life and yet ,out of that, I really appreciate the people that are around me now. I just can see the overall story, as you said, and realize the importance that every chapter matters 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: In your case, part of your story was losing your parents at a relatively young age and that may not have been something that you could have processed at that point.  But you were able to start drawing, and you were able to start engaging in your art, even back then. Do you think that was an attempt,  with your young mind, to understand the story,  before you could actually intellectually understand it? 

Helen Lewis: It may very well have been. I do have very distinct memories as a very young child of sitting and drawing and painting and being able to feel very focused on what I was doing and to feel more secure and more content.  As a result of my circumstances,  I tend to overthink things.  I was about five and a half years old when I lost my parents. I lost my mother first.  She passed away at home.  Three weeks later, my father took my two brothers and me, we lived in Frederick, Maryland at the time, he took us to New Orleans. That was his favorite city. I think that just he wanted to get away.  He needed a break. While we were there, my father ended up having an acute pancreatitis attack and ended up in a hospital in New Orleans and passing away. And, we didn't have any family there. 

Helen Lewis: I have very distinct memories of all of that and flying from New Orleans to Ohio where I went to live with my father's brother.  I was a sensitive child. I was very aware and I sort of had this knowledge that I'm in this house where I don't necessarily belong and it wasn't always easy there.  So I tend to anticipate and really think through everything, every conversation and kind of trying to stay two steps ahead to not make it any more of an issue, or any more of a problem.  And so as a child, my art was a time when I could shut all of that off and really find some joy. That has stayed with me definitely even as I’ve come to a place where I've processed a lot more of that experience. 

Helen Lewis: I also lost one of my brothers. He was only 18 months older than me. And, one week before my high school graduation,  he was killed in a car accident. Our art was something that David and I shared as well. My brother David, he painted and drew and so that was another significant loss. Now, as I'm at a place where more is happening with my art, especially over the last 15 years, as I've really devoted a lot more time to my art practice, my creative practice, I think he would have taken so much joy himself out of that. So much pleasure.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: I'm hearing your story and thinking about the five and a half year old that you were in New Orleans and abruptly losing your father and being with your brother who is clearly not that much older than you were and being in the city and having gone from two parents to no parents. And just the three of you. It’s, I mean, I feel chills. I feel like this is something that you could pick any one of those things, and it could really impact somebody's life. You had all of those things. And then later on you had this additional,  significant loss and it's just, it’s hard to fathom really. 

Helen Lewis: Yes, it’s kind of a lot.  Yet, as I said, I'm to a place where a great deal of healing has come. My faith has really helped with that and I really see how all of the aspects of my personality have come out of that. They serve me well now, and I'm going to a place where I have a lot more peace about all of it and, actually, where I can look back and realize how blessed I've been with peace, tranquility. I don't know if you see it in my work but it very much matters to me. And it's probably the key in all of my work that I do want that sense of peace, that sense of tranquility. I want it to come through loud and clear. You know, there's so much noise around us. Whether you've lived a life that's a bit unusual, like mine, everyone has pain. 

Helen Lewis: And especially in the days in which we find ourselves right now, there is just noise everywhere. And so I want my art to be a place where someone can view and focus. That's the takeaway. I want that centeredness that I feel when I'm working. I want that to be clearly evident in my work. My practice is very meditative. There's a repetition involved.  I come from a place where I try very much to quiet myself. It’s a prayerful, quiet, centered focus that needs to happen in order for my work to flow. And when I attempt to do my art, when I attempt to paint without tapping into that, it just, it doesn't go well, I'm never happy. I would end up saying, “well, that's going to take five more layers to cover that.”

Helen Lewis: So, yes, it’s definitely a thread. And, the idea of story is definitely there. You see it even in some of my work where I love to incorporate bits of old books, spine, old script. I worked, as you said, in advertising and communication before my twins were born and did a lot of writing. So words are really important to me as well. It's a joy to be able to, even if it's just a little bit of book spine, to add some extra texture. I know that that little bit of story is also there. As you are drawn in, and as you look closely at my work, you're going to see it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Helen, tell me about some of the pieces that are behind you on the walls of the Portland Art Gallery. Tell me some of the things that you were thinking about as you were creating them?  What were some of the ideas you were trying to incorporate into them?

Helen Lewis: Well, directly over my right shoulder is a piece called Still.  My titles are very, very important to me. I put a lot of thought, a lot of prayer, a lot of really seeking, as I come up with those titles and that particular piece is called Still. It’s very tranquil.  It's very layered.  There's a sort of an expansiveness, I think, to the piece and that's another concept that really matters to me. As we focus in, and as we are living from that place, there is an expansiveness, you come into a broad place, not a restrictive place. And,  so that kind of came into play with that particular piece.  The next piece that's over my head is one that I incorporated a lot of older ephemera into. 

Helen Lewis: There is, I believe, some old script from the very early 1900’s.  I think it's French. I'm trying to remember what's actually in there… beautiful old calligraphic handwriting. There as well are some bits from an old book that was falling apart and some graphic sheets from an old player piano roll. So, there are several bits of ephemera that are in there, but, you know, as I'm doing all of my pieces, there's a fine line. And I know when I've crossed it, when I've put a bit too much in one, and it's losing that sense of peace.  To the degree that sometimes I'll look and I feel as though I'm at a place where things are approaching a finished point, and, and maybe as I stand back and look, I have a concern that it's a little too minimalistic. 

Helen Lewis: Maybe it's a little too simple looking. And so I've gone back in and added more. And I immediately knew, no, it was stronger before, it felt more like me. It was more aligned with with who I am, before I added. And so, whether it's scraping back or covering up with more layers,  I do what I need to do in order to get it back to where there's that comfort level of, yes, there's just enough. I want the viewer to be drawn in. I feel like we are invited deeper, especially those of us where our faith and our spirituality matters. We're invited deeper all the time. And, I want to mirror that in my work. I want my work to be such that it draws the viewer in deeper so that it could be the 5th to the 30th time that they've looked at the piece and they'll notice a bit of texture in a corner or a little something peeking out from an earlier layer that they hadn't noticed previously. 

Helen Lewis: So my texture on the surface matters so much. When I begin to get a bit of texture, I really work to capitalize on that.  Typically as I worked, even all the pieces that are behind me, I may have a general idea of something that I hope to achieve when I start on a painting but then as I work, because of the nature of my medium, you know, when you're taking an open flame to Molten beeswax sometimes you can't really control exactly what's going to happen. And so, as I see how the wax is responding to the torch on that particular day, I will just follow that and follow whatever inner nudges are coming to me, whatever direction is coming. And I'll try to capitalize on that, as I go to really emphasize or to just kind of switch gears as I need to. 

Helen Lewis: That in itself has also been a great medium for me in that respect in terms of my life as well, that I think I didn't always live an expansive life. I lived a very controlled life. I'm going to make sure that I'm not inconveniencing anymore than my very presence already is. And so, I led a pretty, I kept things pretty tight and pretty controlled. And, so this art practice has been wonderful in that respect because there's only so much control that I can, exercise particularly over, you know, when it comes to the encaustic and yes, you learn skill and technique and you get to a place where you can make those layers do more as you're visualizing, but still there's that wild card. And there's that bit of lack of control. That is really good for me. That's really good for me emotionally and mentally and just in my life.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: What about the piece that is behind me? It's a large piece with a broad swath of cream color across the top and then an interesting striking rectangle of blue in the corner, and then there's a softness around all of it probably due to the encaustic that you're describing.  Tell me about this piece. 

Helen Lewis: That piece, I believe, also has embedded a lovely old document from France that I actually found at the Marston House. If you're familiar with Marston House here in Maine, they used to be in Wiscassett, and now they're out on one of the islands (Vinalhaven).  It was a little stash of papers from France. The owners spend half of their year in the south of France, and I found that little treasure there, and I just loved the script and the softness of the color.  So that is embedded in that as well. So there's that idea of story.  And then yes, the white at the top. It feels like there's an area where you can breathe.  Obviously I love color field work. I love Rothko's work.  For that reason, there's a certain almost geometric…. I have a son who's an architect. And so, I do like order. I like things that are not too wild in terms of placement.  That piece in particular comes through in that.  I did a whole series of those and I think at this point, that's the one remaining piece in that series. I was sad to see all those French script pieces from Marston house get used.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: And the name of the one behind me is what? 

Helen Lewis: I think that it is something along the lines of “A Story Worth Telling.” So. now knowing a few more details about my life,  you can see why some of those titles emerge. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: So if someone were to have a piece of your artwork, they're really bringing a piece of your story into their home and acknowledging in some ways this important layering of life that we all experience. 

Helen Lewis: Yes, that's true. And the healing that can be found now. The peace that can be found out of myriad of circumstances. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Which brings us back around to where we started this conversation, this idea that we are all of us in this,  strange, chaotic,  disjointed time and needing the ability to focus in, as you've said, and, at the same time remain expansive and not fearful and figure out a way through with some sense of healing on all of our parts. 

Helen Lewis: Very true, very well said. Thank you, Lisa. That's a wonderful summary, 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Helen. I have really enjoyed learning about you. It's impressive to hear your willingness to speak your truth because,  as I said, just hearing it, I could feel the sadness and the impact that this had on your life as a young child. So your willingness to llow this pain to come to the surface is really powerful and I appreciate learning about your art. I I'm really struck by the story within a story and just the idea that you're bringing something forward that all of us can appreciate. 

Helen Lewis: Thank you so much. I appreciate that, Lisa, thank you for saying that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: I've been speaking with artist, Helen Lewis, who is with the Portland Art Gallery. I encourage people who happen to be in the Portland MAINE area to go in and really experience Helen's work. It is powerful in person, to be sure, and if you're not able to get there they do have a virtual art opening at the Portland Art Gallery every month.  This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. You have been listening to, or watching, Radio Maine with artist, Helen Lewis. Thank you so much, Helen. 

Helen Lewis: Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. Truly appreciate it. It's been fun. Thank you.