ORONO — Most years, the winter months at Lord Hall are filled with paintings, sculpture and new-media artwork by members of the University of Maine art department faculty. This year, the faculty ceded the time and space to their peer Michael Lewis, who is teaching his final two classes this semester in a career that has spanned a half-century.

Few painters, if any, have taught more Maine students about the process of painting than Lewis. The 74-year-old has offered a lot of advice about life, as well.

“His feedback is thoughtful and almost spiritual in a way,” said art student Hattie Stiles of Eliot, who is taking an advanced painting class from Lewis this semester. “He embeds life advice in his critiques about art.”

He does the same thing with his paintings. On the surface, they look like landscape paintings. But they are never that straightforward, and they rarely reference a specific place or time, although he cites Maine as inspiration for his work. His paintings are about an inward journey from the physical world to a spiritual world.

The paintings are meant to nourish and nurture one’s spirit, to offer transcendence. Many of his paintings have a halo-like glow to them, with a softness that is achieved through color and the opaque quality of the oil-based turpentine wash that he developed in the 1970s and perfected during a sabbatical in the 1990s.

He does not want viewers to get locked into a painting because of its detail. He wants them to get lost in the possibilities of their imaginations and “a timeless inner space.”

UMaine art instructor Michael Lewis poses for a portrait at Lord Hall Gallery in front of “Painter’s Children,” the earliest of 52 works of art on display from his 50-year career as an art teacher.

UMaine art instructor Michael Lewis poses for a portrait at Lord Hall Gallery in front of “Painter’s Children,” the earliest of 52 works of art on display from his 50-year career as an art teacher.

Metaphorically and otherwise, Lewis’s paintings often show light overcoming dark, leading viewers “to the mysterious realms beyond literal conscious thought,” he said. “I’m actually not terribly attracted to the landscape. But landscape is a good starting point, because it’s familiar to people.”

Lord Hall Gallery Director Laurie Hicks arranged an exhibition of more than 50 paintings that span most of Lewis’ 50 years on the Orono campus. As beautiful as the exhibition is – peaceful, spiritual and calming – the show says as much about Lewis as a human being. The exhibition is titled “Deep Roots/Old Strength.” That’s the name of one of the paintings in the show, and those words also reflect Lewis’ standing on the Orono campus and across the art scene in Maine and beyond. He’s solid, like a tree, Hicks said.

“It’s important we do this not only to acknowledge what Mike has given to the state as a painter and educator, but to give him the opportunity to reflect. To be able to see so many pieces in one place is so rare,” she said. “He’s earned this. 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.”

The earliest piece in the exhibition is a mural-like painting that he began in 1967 and finished several years later. The painting reflects his life at the time, with images of his wife and growing family, the war in Vietnam, Bob Dylan, the shooting at Kent State. It’s significant because the painting sprang from the personal side of his artistic expression. It was the first time he attempted to paint his ideas and thoughts to reflect changes and growth he was experiencing as an individual and in his life. He calls this one “Painter’s Children.”

It has hung in the sociology department at UMaine for many years – an appropriate landing spot, he said. “It’s not a very good painting. But it’s good sociology,” he said.

When he first saw the show after it was hung, Lewis was surprised. He had forgotten about many of the paintings, he said as he walked through the gallery a few weeks ago. Others he had not seen in years.

“It’s like someone else did these, like the shoemaker and the elves,” he said, invoking a Grimm fairytale. In that story, a shoemaker goes to bed penniless after giving away his last pair of shoes to a woman in need. The next morning, he awakes to find a new pair of shoes that were made overnight by elves. He sells the shoes for a profit, and uses the money to pay the rent and buy groceries for his family.

Some of the paintings have been shown only once. Others were stacked, facing the wall, in the corner of his studio, unseen by anyone in years and never shown publicly. There are paintings inspired by time spent in Italy, and a few book covers that he painted for his friend and UMaine teaching colleague Kyriacos Markides.

A large bulk of the show is familiar work, made with his oil-and-turpentine wash. The turpentine wash creates a thin, soft consistency that lends itself to Lewis’s mysterious realms. He uses small amounts of oil paint washed onto a paper surface with turpentine. The oil paint reacts like watercolor, allowing surface colors to show through. Brushing and moving the thinned oil pigments creates the sensuality and expressive energy that Lewis is after. He relies on his memory rather than observation.

Michael Lewis’ painting “Deep Roots/Old Strength.”

Michael Lewis’ painting “Deep Roots/Old Strength.”

Lewis arrived in Orono in 1966. He had married his wife, May, three years earlier, and they were beginning a family that would include three children, born between 1964 and 1967. He didn’t choose Orono as much as it chose him. He applied for teaching jobs, by his estimate, at about 200 schools.

Vincent Hartgen responded with the best offer. Hartgen founded the art department at UMaine. By 1966, he was looking to expand. Hartgen is rightly credited with the department’s early success and growth. As Lewis noted, “Vincent did something amazing. In a place that didn’t have art, by the force of his personality he made UMaine into an art campus.”

Lewis arrived in the turmoil of the ’60s and the Vietnam War, and he helped shape the art department with his quiet stewardship and one-on-one counsel with students. He chaired the art department two times, for a total of 12 years, and served as acting associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in the early 1980s. He’s had a good career off campus, as well. The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University owns several of his paintings, and his art is in the collections of the Portland Museum of Art, Colby College Museum of Art and the UMaine Museum of Art in Bangor.

His colleague Owen Smith has called Lewis “the soul” of the UMaine art department. A soul gives the body life, Smith said. Lewis does this with his positive presence, which leads to stability within the department. Colleagues look to him for advice and feedback, and students appreciate his experience, as well as his thoughtful critiques.

Stiles, the UMaine student from Eliot, performed poorly in a drawing class that she took from Lewis a few years ago. He didn’t coddle her. He gave her a C, and told her she could do better. “I still have the note that he wrote to me. He said, ‘The skill is there, but the effort isn’t.’ It was definitely a turning point,” Stiles said.

“Winter (Orono Maine) #7”

“Winter (Orono Maine) #7”

Soon after, she declared art as her major.

Despite the C grade in drawing, she produced work she didn’t think she was capable of producing, largely because of Lewis’ input. “He can look at a painting or a drawing and give the artist just one little suggestion that seems really obvious, but it’s not,” she said. “That little suggestion can enhance the quality of a piece, but does not compromise what the artist has to say or what the artist is trying to communicate. He understands what the artist wants to say and pushes you to do it better.”

She signed up for his painting class, in part, to redeem herself in his eyes. “I was disappointed with how I did in his class the first time around. I wanted to show him I’m better than that,” she said.

In a recent painting, Stiles started the background by applying vibrant colors, then painted over it in an effort to achieve something more realistic. In painting over, she lost some of the vibrancy she liked, and asked Lewis for help. His advice: “Now fix it. You are not going to grow as a artist if you are not forced to correct your own mistakes.”

That’s good advice in art, and in life, Stiles said.

The class meets for five hours once a week in a light-filled painting studio in the Wyeth Family Studio Art Center. It’s a maze, with tables and carts and easels arranged every which way. The students work where they are most comfortable, and Lewis moves around the room quietly and slowly, using a cane to steady himself, a concession to recent health issues that have reduced his energy and made it harder for him to teach.

There is fun to be had in his class, but it’s a studious environment.

UMaine art instructor Michael Lewis walks through Lord Hall Gallery,

UMaine art instructor Michael Lewis walks through Lord Hall Gallery.

“I teach as if everyone wants to be a serious, hard-working, committed artist,” Lewis said.

If he could, he would keep teaching. “But I don’t have the stamina to teach at a level to make a difference,” he said, then quickly added with a small laugh, “Fifty years is a long time. It’s time.”


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