Article and photo by Julie Lake
A drop cloth covers the floor; old paint palettes, tubes of oil paints, and a drum set decorate the studio space where Matt Lewis creates his psychological, one-of-a-kind, abstract paintings.
Lewis's oil paintings start with one color and a little music. Sometimes he has a color in mind when he begins to paint, and this color, in turn, will determine the music he plays for inspiration. Other times, he just turns on the music and that alone will determine the starting color. When he begins painting, he often draws a color wheel with only letters representing colors. "Everyone has a different interpretation of color," says Lewis about why he does this. Lewis doesn't want the representation of the color, by the color itself, to clutter his mind as he is painting; instead, by using only letters, his mind stays clear to create each color by feeling it instead of seeing it. He is very aware of the psychological effect of color, a quality that is built into the color and so isn't something that needs to be thought about consciously.
Lewis doesn't have any particular theme in mind when he begins to paint. "My paintings kind of decide what they want to be, or need to be, on their own," he says about his abstract oil paintings. He spends a serious amount of time looking at the painting and getting into his subconscious mind and allowing whatever is there to come out in the painting. Lewis doesn't like to tell viewers anything about what they are looking at when they see his work. Instead, he likens the experience to gazing at the clouds in the sky; each person sees or feels something different while looking at the same work. Despite his unwillingness to plan what a painting will "portray," a common denominator is a scoop-like curved shape; sometimes this shape is part of the abstract image, and sometimes it becomes a dividing element that separates the painting into two distinct areas.
Lewis uses oil paints that have a slow drying time because he likes the open working time that oil paint offers. "I like to have the paint on the palette for 8 hours. I can go to lunch and come back and still use the paint I left out." Painting wet on wet also allows him to create great textural effects in his paintings, and this "texture is part of the painting's own language." His technique of making colors lie one on top of another requires that the paint be thick, so he cannot achieve this effect with thinner, fast-drying acrylic paints.
Typically, Lewis spends about 30-40 hours on one painting. Why so long? "If I spend 7 hours in the studio, only 2 ½ hours are actually spent painting," he says. "The rest of the time I spend staring at the painting in an attempt to feel what it's trying to say." He often turns a painting on the easel to change the perspective and to check for balance. This repositioning may also change the color relationships and ultimately affect the orientation of the final painting.
Like many people who become artists, Lewis has been interested in art since he was a child. Drawing, painting, and other types of art making were daily activities for him. Yet, until he got older, he didn't realize that adults made art too, and it wasn’t until he was a junior in high school that this idea became tangible to him when during an art class one day, representatives from different art colleges spoke to the class about careers in art. Then Lewis realized that making art could become a career for him.
He began applying to different art colleges and was offered a scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), but he preferred the studio spaces at The College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, MI. His problem was CCS didn't offer him as much money to pay for classes as did CIA, but this did not deter Lewis. Every morning he made a phone call to the financial aid department at CCS. They were reluctant to give him more money, but after being persistent and explaining that he needed more money in order to attend CCS, he was offered $500. Lewis repeated his phone calls and his explanations and each time was offered $500. He didn't quit calling CCS and asking for more money until he reached the same amount that CIA was offering him. He attended CCS and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing. He then enrolled at Saginaw Valley State University in the Accelerated Teacher Education program and became certified to teach. After student teaching for one year, Lewis accepted his first position in Pontiac, MI, teaching art to grades K-12. He currently teaches art in Frankenmuth, MI.
© Julie Lake, 2009