Paul Lewin, An Eclectix Artist Interview
Paul Lewin is a wonderful San Francisco Bay Area artist with a sublime surreal vision. Those of you who visited our brick and mortar gallery, back in the day – may remember his outlandish meditations – in group exhibitions, as well as in his solo show. Liberally dosed with H.R. Giger influence, his works were riveting, darkly intense images, with haunting eyes and swirling reptilian patterns. Religious iconography has been a consistent thread throughout Paul’s work and the science fiction fantasy of his youth can be seen in his supernatural apocalyptic futures and alien creatures.
Paul’s newer folk art works -“Roots of the Cotton Tree”, are a fantastic and modern interpretation of tribal legends and days gone by. Tinted with a vintage golden palette, they seem beautifully faded with age, wisdom and history. Decadent and complex with decoration, edged with intricate lace designs, adorned with feathered headpieces and luscious gemstones… The pieces combine ancient masks, motifs, and sprinkles of the Day of the Dead flavors – to form almost hypnotic mandalas. There is a sensitive feminine feel within his works, (rare for a male artist) – paying deserving homage to our maternal goddesses. These are majestic and commanding African women dressed in their finest Mardi Gras attire, unafraid of the impending circle of life. Embracing fertile growth and inevitable death, they are surrounded with lush life, protected by Alien-like armor and earthly organic totems. Lovely engaging narratives with eclectic and ethnic symbolism, emoting all that is human.
My favorite art memory from my childhood is …
I had an obsession with drawing spaceships and fighter jets as a kid. I would sit around with my brother and cousins watching sci-movies and try to draw the ships in the films. Our drawings were never quite accurate but it was always fun to see our interpretations.
My interest in art started …
From before I can remember… I’ve always loved to draw. It was my most reliable escape. I was also inspired by my father, he was always building things on his days off. From sun up until sun down, like clock work. His most memorable creation was a large-scale train set he worked on for 8 years that took up our entire back porch. It was elevated off the ground and had mountains and tunnels that were made from plaster and mesh. It was destroyed in 1992 by hurricane Andrew. I remember his attitude about it was just “Oh well”, and he began working on a new project. That was my first lesson in learning to enjoy the process of creating, over the final result.
Your new group of folk art based works was sparked initially by….
About 3 years ago, I was at a point where I really liked what I was painting visually , but I wanted to do pieces that were more personal to me and my experiences. Inspiration for my past work has come mainly from seeing amazing art, music, sci-fi movies and inspiring conversations with friends. Most of our discussions are about the art , music and movies we want to make. Around that time a friend gave me a CD of a group from Puerto Rico named Paracumbe. It’s a style of music know as Bomba, which is a mixture of the three different cultures of the Island, Spanish, African and Taino. Inside the cover were drawings of characters from Puerto Rican folklore. I was particularly attracted to their masks. I’ve always had a love for ceremonial masks of various cultures.
I began researching the folklore of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands which lead me back to ancient Africa and then all the way to my home country of Jamaica. Most stories from Caribbean folklore have been handed down from generation to generation dating all the way back to ancient Africa. My mother told me about growing up in the old country in Jamaica. When it got dark the Grandparents would gather the children around outside to tell them Anansi stories – which are the most well know Jamaican and African folktales. I began feeling like I had found what I was looking for. It had just the right amount of mysticism, rituals, and the supernatural that I felt would work well with my style.
An an interesting bit of history surrounding one of my relatives is …
Shortly after I began this series, I was discussing my work with a family member and discovered that my cousin, Olive Lewin was a well-known author, social anthropologist and musicologist in Jamaica. She passed away last year at the age of 86. She spent her entire life studying the folklore and music of the Caribbean and Jamaica. I got a copy of one of her books and I loved it! The way she spoke of the musical history of the islands was very moving. The last time I saw her I was very young so I don’t have much memory of her.
Do you work full-time on your art or do you also have another job?
I am working towards making art my sole career. Currently, I also work at a worker owned Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco. We are pretty flexible with hours so I can dedicate more time to art.
As an artist, do you think there is outside pressure to stick with a successful style?
Yes. I’ve never had to depend on my work solely to make a living, but I’ve seen how that pressure can affect artists. Galleries are looking for consistency and a style that’s been known to sell. They usually are happy to see artists create new work and grow, but at the same time they are a business trying to survive in the crazy unpredictable art market. And an artist completely changing their style can be risky. For me personally, people sometimes say they relate better to my older work, which I’ve never really minded… I’ve never had any formal training with my art so my ability to create comes almost completely from inspiration with what I’m working on. Which is why I was never really able to see myself doing commercial art for a living. If I’m not bouncing off the walls excited about a piece then it’s not going to work. This means I have to keep my work new and growing, in order to keep creating.
I am often inspired and motivated by …
Music, art, nature, sci-fi, science, folklore, books, my friends and day-to-day life.
If I could spend the day with any artist (dead or alive) it would be …
Octavia Butler of course! We would spend a Saturday afternoon at the theatre watching bad sci-fi movies and critiquing every little detail.
The art technique (a specific tidbit of craft. specific product or mechanical expertise) that has helped me the most is ….
About 2 years ago I began mixing all the colors for my paintings before I started each one. This completely changed the way I paint and I really like the colors I’m able to get from it.
If I could own one piece of art, out of the world’s collections, it would be …
The sculpture of Nefertiti. When I was growing up my father had a miniature of it in his art collection and I just thought it was amazing. My father also taught me a lot about Ancient Egypt growing up and it is very much a part of my work today.
My current favorite piece of my own art is …
Well, that’s kind of hard to say, but I feel my favorite piece from recent years is “The Crow and the Carnival Queen” (above). It was one of the first pieces of my current series “Roots of the Cotton Tree”. It really set the tone for the direction I want to go and I refer to it before starting each new piece.
The most memorable thing anyone has ever said to me about my art is …
My work has changed a lot over the years. With my older work I always liked when people would say they could see the influence of H.R. Giger in it. He was a huge inspiration to me and completely changed my view of art when I was first starting out.
My ultimate project or fantasy is …
It is GOING to be when I sit down with Hayao Miyazaki to make an epic animation film about the mysticism of the diaspora with characters from Caribbean and African Folklore. There have been rumors of him retiring so I think I better start moving on this.
I am currently working on ….
Currently I’m working on a series of paintings entitled “Roots of the Cotton Tree”. The title comes from the folklore of the silk cotton trees that grow in the Caribbean Islands and Africa. They are massive trees that grow up to 80 feet tall with a very large trunk. It is said to be a place where ghosts and the spirits of our ancestors dwell in its roots. I really liked how this belief tied together Africans, the modern people of the Caribbean and the indigenous Taino culture that inhabited the islands before the Europeans arrived. The Tainos called it the “god tree” . My work for the series falls somewhere between sci-fi and surreal folk art, with influences of African and Caribbean Folklore. Much of this folklore has been handed down from generation to generation through the traditional art of storytelling. Each painting is kind of mash-up with bits and pieces from folktales, rituals and religious beliefs. I try not to follow any specific narrative with each piece. I like to create my own stories with mysteries that even I am a bit puzzled by sometimes. I am hoping to do a solo show with the work from this series.
A specific event in my life that sparked a number of my works was ….
Around the end of 2011, I finally was able to afford an art studio outside of my apartment, before that I was painting out of the corner of my bedroom. I like to paint big, and with canvases piling up it became an obstacle course to get to each side of my room. Having a studio enabled me to focus much better with a lot more breathing room. That is when I came up with this current series and decided to take about 2 years off from showing or posting any new work in order to focus on it. Much of my current work began to take shape around that time with a lot of trial and error and sometimes 16 hour days in the studio.
If I could time travel – the era or historical date I would like to drop in on is …
In 2008 I had the pleasure of meeting the late Robert Venosa, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. He told me the story of how he introduced H.R. Giger to Salvador Dali in the early 70′s, which are two of my biggest influences. He also spoke about the visionary surrealist art movement happening in Europe around that time. That is definitely a time and place that I would love to see.
The last song I choose to listen to was …
“Obeah Man” by Exuma.
The last book I couldn’t put down was …
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson.
One of my favorite words is … Pyro.
One of my favorite smells is …
A combination of paint and rain. Those are my favorite days to do work.
One of my (recently) favorite movies / TV shows is …
Movie: Moon, TV show: Last Week Tonight
I can’t live without … My headphones.
It’s not hip, but I really love …
Sometimes I like to watch bad sitcoms while painting. I think it has something to do with recreating my childhood moments of drawing and TV obsession.
My favorite part of my home is …
My Zdzislaw Beksinski wall of framed prints in my living room. It’s not much but I often like to sit and stare at them.
If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be…
Well I would love to have an art studio high up on a hillside in Jamaica that I could visit whenever I wanted to but I would need to live closer to friends and family, so I’m gonna go with New Orleans. I visited there earlier this year and completely fell in love with it.
My favorite motto (or quote) is …
“What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being,
constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful
things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their
image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an
instrument of war.”
― Pablo Picasso
Link to Paul’s Website
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For a few printed versions of Paul’s paintings, order the Eclectix Magazine, here.