ORONO – Michael Lewis will paint again.

He’s not sure how and he’s not sure when, but the long-tenured art professor at the University of Maine intends to stand at the easel again and make pictures.

He’s hasn’t painted in a while now. Ill health has left him lacking energy to do much creative work. But he has not given up on the idea of mark making, even if it means changing his ways and processes.

Lewis, 70, received the Vincent A. Hartgen Award during a campus ceremony in mid-May. The award, named in honor of the founding member of the art department and famous Maine artist, recognizes outstanding contributions to the advancement of arts at the university.

Lewis has taught at Orono since 1966.

“Hartgen was the man who hired me,” Lewis said in an interview in his Carnegie Hall office. “He was passionate about making everybody on the campus and everybody in Maine be passionate about art. I learned a lot from him, including his high-energy approach to teaching and the importance of outreach. He proselytized about art every chance he got.”

By all accounts, Lewis is more mild-mannered in his approach to spreading the gospel of art around Maine, but no less committed. Students admire him, and his peers respect him. He has inspired an enormous amount of loyalty among his university colleagues, said art department chairman Owen Smith, who nominated Lewis for the Hartgen award.

He described Lewis as the soul of the UMaine art department.

“The soul is the essence or the core of something or person, and Mike is the center and essence of the department of art,” Smith said. “Traditionally, a soul is what gives the body life, and Mike does that as well. He is a positive presence who gives all the rest of us a sense of stability, assuredness, compassion, calm and energy.”

He’s also a great teacher, said former student Maryann Anderson, an artist who lives in Auburn.

“He was pivotal to what I have been basing my artworks on over the last 20 or so years. Of course, at the time when I was a student, I had no idea of the impact he would make on me later in life,” she wrote in an e-mail. “That makes for an excellent teacher, I think.”

Lewis did not expect to stay at Orono very long when he arrived in 1966. He had never been to Maine, and had an image of the state as a backwoods kind of place “where the mail would probably be delivered by dogsled. I figured I would get some experience and go someplace else. I never left.”

He pauses. “I never made the decision to stay. I just never wanted to go someplace else.”

Lewis and his wife, May, have made their lives here. They raised three children in Orono, and are blessed with four grandchildren.

Orono offered the opportunity to teach and paint, which, aside from family, are the two things about which Lewis is most passionate. He goes back and forth between which endeavor creates the most joy in his life.

He enjoys teaching because he likes sharing his knowledge while also learning from his students. He loves being around young people, and is mesmerized by their thoughts and ideas.

“Just talking to them about art can re-energize me,” he says.

He pours that energy into the act of painting. Lewis makes luminescent, intuitive landscapes that have spiritual qualities.

Over the course of his long painting career, he is best known for developing a turpentine wash process that involves just a teeny amount of pigment and a lot of turpentine. He applies that super-thin liquid to a cotton-fiber rag board.

The luminosity comes from the white paper showing through very thin veils of washed paint, Lewis says. The oil pigment contributes to what he describes as “a distinct quality of sensuality and a subtle expressive energy.”

Lewis has enjoyed quite a bit of success. Andy Verzosa of Aucocisco Galleries in Portland represents him, and has managed to establish for Lewis a respectable national following.

His paintings are in the collections of many Maine museums, as well as the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria. His collectors come from all corners of the country.

Verzosa also studied under Lewis as an undergrad at Orono.

“Mike introduced me to and taught me foundational art basics such as learning how to see other, more complex visual art fundamentals of drawing and painting. His classes at Carnegie were ones certainly not to miss,” Verzosa said. “Now, some 30 years later, I am so fortunate to still be connected to Michael as his dealer here at Aucocisco. It’s immensely gratifying to show his work, but more importantly to be his friend.”

Lewis has a full load of classes lined up for the fall, and at this time, has no plans to retire. He knows that day will come, but as long as he retains his stamina, he intends to teach.

This summer, he hopes to regain the strength to paint. He is reluctant to talk too much about his health. He is beset by a few ailments at this time, including an eye disease that may cause blindness.

But his spirit remains unbowed, and he looks forward to his future with the kind of zeal that would make his mentor Vincent Hartgen proud. Onward and upward, come what may.

“You don’t get to choose the way the movie unfolds,” he says.


Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes