Forty-six pieces–including ink drawings, watercolor and acrylic paintings, and collages–make up the collection. Lewis, ninety-six, says that four years ago he “went to work with serious vigor” to assemble the project and ensure it would be completed in time for the start of the WWI centennial. For Lewis, who is “interested in history as much as art,” the work is also deeply personal–he is a WWII veteran, and four of his uncles served in WWI.
“I’ve had this stuff in my head since I was a little kid,” says Lewis, a former U-M art professor and former associate dean of U-M’s art school. As a young boy visiting his grandparents in Hamtramck, he’d sit in their attic for hours paging through old war books and periodicals. An only child, “I had nobody to fight with–it was all mine.”
He heard his parents’ stories about his uncles’ war experiences–including those of Wilfred Lewis, who served in the Canadian army and was killed in September of 1918. His uncle Henry “Heinie” Breuhan returned from WWI “badly damaged,” most likely the victim of gas attacks. Later in Heinie’s life, Lewis became his caretaker; he received many of his uncle’s personal items after he died in a VA hospital.
In 1955, Lewis created his first WWI piece, titled “Patriot’s Dream.” It is an ink drawing that depicts a battlefield scene imagined through his uncle Heinie’s eyes. Through the years, Lewis drew and painted other WWI subjects and returned a few years ago to focus on his uncles’ experiences. A 2011 acrylic painting of American troops firing into a smoke-filled Argonne Forest, where Heinie fought, features a collage of Heinie’s badges, pages from his notebook, and his transport cards. Another watercolor collage pays tribute to his uncle Wilfred–who smiles from a photograph wearing a bow tie and straw hat. “He is in there symbolically as a kid–but everything has gone to pieces (around him),” Lewis says.
“It is so intimate–there’s no distance between him and the work,” says Deb Greer, a director at Chelsea’s River Gallery who represents Lewis. Greer says he is an artist “revered and respected both academically and commercially.” Greer is working to find a venue for the collection. Ideally, she says a nonprofit could frame and show the work locally and then send it on a traveling exhibit. Libraries and universities would be “perfect partners” she says.
Lewis, who lives with his wife Garland in a condo in northeast Ann Arbor, works from a small basement studio, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines on art and history. Dozens of sketchbooks–filled cover-to-cover with drawings and watercolor paintings–are piled in one corner of the room. He pulls out a bound edition of the New York Times’ “Mid-week Pictorial of the Great War” and another of “Collier’s Photographic History of the European War” from a waist-high stack. “These are my meat and potatoes,” he says as he flips through the pages. He gets inspiration for his paintings from these photographs of soldiers, ships, battle scenes, and war refugees. Many are the same images he looked at as a boy.
In the 1960s, Lewis exhibited about forty works on the Civil War during that war’s centennial at the U-M Museum of Art and on a two-year traveling exhibit. Now, dozens of his drawings and paintings of WWII lean against a wall of his studio–an eyewitness account of his four years “afloat in the North Pacific” in the U.S. Navy. “I’d had a watercolor class [at U-M], and my folks sent my watercolors to me–and I spent the rest of the war doing waterscapes and landscapes,” he says. From a painting of “a dandy of a typhoon,” to nighttime shooting exercises, to the aftermath of war in gutted-out Tokyo, Lewis’s art was exhibited at the U.S. Navy gallery in Washington in the 1990s.
Despite his admitted “preoccupation” with war, Lewis says he is a pacifist and is angered by “one damn war after another.” He has painted many other subjects. “My long-term subject has been the visual effect of the Industrial Revolution–what it’s done to the landscape over two hundred years–cities as well as trains, boats, and things that move.”
His daughter, Susan, in Milwaukee, paints as a hobby. His son, Clayton Lewis, is an artist and a curator at U-M’s Clements Library–a job that comes in handy for the elder Lewis, who makes copies of historical documents for his research. “He knows just where to find things!” Lewis laughs.
Greer says she recently received a letter from the Smithsonian complimenting Lewis’s “exciting” work and recommending she contact the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Lewis is hopeful the collection will be exhibited and says creating it has been cathartic. “I’ve just about gotten it out of my system,” he says.
Greer believes that when people see the artwork they will be moved: “He has taken something so horrific and captured it in an exquisitely beautiful way.”