“I have lived in Maine since 1966, but it wasn’t until 1984 that I began to work seriously from the landscape.” In his statement for the landmark exhibition “On the Edge: 40 Years of Maine Painting 1952-1992” at Maine Coast Artists, Michael H. Lewis also noted that he at first found landscape painting “fraught with the dangers of stereotype.” After a while, however, he found it irresistible: “first the coast, and then the rivers and fields around my home in Orono.” After a time, he stated, he stopped “viewing” the world and began to experience it as part of his being.
The painting that curator and Christian Science Monitor art critic Theodore Wolff chose for “On the Edge” exemplifies Lewis’s approach to landscape. In Sunrise Over the Stillwater, 1989, he employs his signature turpentine wash medium to create a dramatic riverscape. The sensibility is romantic and somewhat Wagnerian.
Lewis began developing this technique in 1975 using small amounts of oil paint washed on to a paper surface with turpentine. “In the resulting paintings, as in watercolors,” he explains, “all of the luminosity comes from the white paper showing through very thin veils of washed paint.” The oil pigment, he notes, “contributes a distinct quality of sensuality and a subtle expressive energy.”
The evolution of the artist’s aesthetic and vision occurred gradually over the years. From canvases that dealt with personal and social issues, Lewis began exploring “mythic, dream-like Jungian content.” And then he discovered and embraced the turpentine wash medium, which he used to paint landscapes that served as, in his words, “metaphors for inner emotional/psychological/spiritual experience.” Oil paint and turpentine on 100% rag board became his favorite combination.
While certain of Lewis’s landscapes—Compass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, the Stillwater River in Orono—are recognizable, more often he seeks to render the world in such a way that the viewer “does not get locked into the ‘present moment’ by the tyranny of explicit detail and convincingly solid form.” In this regard, his paintings sometimes recall the atmospheric inventions of such old masters as J. M. W. Turner, George Inness and Ralph Albert Blakelock. “I’m actually not terribly attracted to the landscape,” he told Portland Press Herald arts reporter Bob Keyes in 2015, “but landscape is a good starting point, because it’s familiar to people.”
The effects of light are striking. In the 2008 series “Mystic Garden,” the artist plays out what he calls “the drama of luminous warm light against a beautiful but encroaching darkness.” These glowing landscapes with trees are “gardens” only in the sense of being open spaces for contemplation. Some of them have a slightly ominous quality, recalling the park scenes in Antonioni’s film Blow-Up.
The 2007 “Jumping Towards the Light” series takes the otherworldly quality one step further. In each painting, a single figure, legs and arms stretched out, is depicted mid-leap in the sky, as if undergoing some transcendence.
This series came as “a surprise” to Lewis. “The leaping figure appeared unexpectedly and felt so ‘true’ that I continued to pursue it in successive paintings.” Because his working process is very intuitive, he trusted the impulse. Whatever the image symbolizes—human aspiration, the desire for transcendence, moving beyond material existence—the paintings haunt.
Writing about Lewis’s work some years ago, the art historian and museum director Dr. Konrad Oberhuber (1935-2007) tied him aesthetically to the English and German Romantics, yet he also noted how his work was “not possible without the formal experience of Mark Rothko and Abstract Expressionism that dominated the art at the time of his early training.” The turpentine wash work represented, in Oberhuber’s view, “a valid new approach to religion and spiritual art, which has been rarely treated in our century.”
Oberhuber acquired 27 Lewis paintings, drawings and prints for the Fogg Art Museum collection at Harvard where he was a curator. When he moved to the Albertina in Vienna in 1987, he again acquired the painter’s work.
Lewis showed for many years at the Uptown Gallery in New York City, Steven Scott Gallery in Baltimore, Gallery 357 in Rockland, Vose Galleries in Boston and Aucocisco Gallery in Portland. He was included in the Portland Museum of Art’s 1998 Biennial and had solo exhibitions at the Colby College Museum of Art and the University of Maine Museum of Art. His paintings have also been shown abroad through the U.S. Department of State’s Art in the Embassies program
Lewis’s list of influences includes Inness and the American luminist painters, Frederic Church and company. To that he adds filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and the writer Kyriacos Markides, his colleague in the sociology department at the University of Maine, who has written books on Christian mysticism.
In a 2012 interview with Bangor Daily News reporter Aislinn Sarnacki, Lewis described his painting process, which often starts with long walks, from near the UMaine Field House and then past University Park in Old Town. He may also “saunter along Stillwater River for the reflection and movement of the water.” He seeks to immerse himself in the landscape and “not observe the land.” He’s out to “participate in the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the weather.”
Returning to his attic studio, Lewis told Sarnacki, he pops a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez album into his stereo “and tries to empty his mind” as he begins to paint. “It all comes from intuition and the subconscious,” he said.
I use the landscape as a metaphor. If my mood is emotional, the landscape is emotional. If the mood is serene … for a long time, painting is a lot like meditation, discovering what’s in the subconscious. But as the painting develops, I have less and less freedom of choice. It has to have structure and I have to finish it.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, Lewis traces his love for art to his father, Abraham Lewis. He earned a BS in art education (1963) and MFA in painting (1975) from the State University College, New Paltz, New York, and an MA in fine arts (1964) from Michigan State University.
Lewis arrived in Orono in June 1966 to interview for a position teaching painting and drawing at the University of Maine. He was hired by that virtuoso professor of art, Vincent Hartgen (1914-2002), and began to teach classes the following September. “[Hartgen] brought this attitude to the department to be committed not just to the students but the Maine community. That resonated with me,” Lewis told Sarnacki.
In 2012 Lewis received the Vincent A. Hartgen Award, given each year in recognition of outstanding contributions to the advancement of the arts at the university. Owen Smith, director of UMaine’s Intermedia Master of Fine Arts program, nominated him for the award, describing his colleague as “the soul of our department.”
“I teach as if everyone wants to be a serious, hard-working, committed artist,” Lewis has said. At the same time, teaching “keeps it vital.” Being close to people who were “just catching on to the excitement and challenges of the painting process” helped to renew his own “feelings of discovery.”
Lewis served two stints as chair of the art department (1975-1981 and 1987-1993) and as acting associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (1981-1983). He retired from the University of Maine in 2015.
That year, the Lord Hall Gallery mounted a major show of his work, “Deep Roots/Old Strength,” comprising more than 50 paintings dating from his years at the university. The exhibition was a revelation to visitors, but also to the artist who, viewing the work, felt as if “someone else did these, like the shoemaker and the elves.”
Artist and gallery director Laurie Hicks organized the show. “It’s very clear, Mike has had a significant impact on painting in Maine over the last 50 years, with the work he has created and the students he has mentored,” she told Keyes.
“To get inside somebody’s head, that’s the goal,” Lewis told Sarnacki. “If you ask my students, ‘What is he always harping about?’ They’ll say, ‘It’s the poetry of the painting.’”
This essay was originally written for Edgar Allen Beem’s book Maine Art New. Thanks to Laurie Hicks for tracking down images and titles. The photographs are courtesy Adam Kuykendall (photographer) and the University of Maine’s Office of Public Relations in the Division of Marketing and Communications.
The photo of Lewis by Kevin Bennett (top of page): Michael Lewis seated in front of Painter’s Children in Lord Hall Gallery at the University of Maine in Orono; appeared in a profile of the artist by Bob Keyes in the Portland Press Herald, Feb. 28, 2016