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Barbara Lewis (1925-2008) was a Chicago-based painter, photographer, and printmaker. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago (1943), University of Illinois at Chicago (1967-70), and the IIT Institute of Design (MFA in Printmaking, 1970-72). Through her mixed-media compositions, Lewis explored Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, often referring to urban imagery of Chicago.
Barbara Lewis was born in 1925 and lived in the Chicago area for most of her life. She was a fine art painter, photographer, and printmaker. As an adolescent she first worked in watercolor, pastel, and oil paint depicting the extensive garden established by her parents. Her passion for art led her to study at the Art Institute of Chicago (1943), the University of Illinois at Chicago (1967-1970), and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she earned an MFA in printmaking in 1972.
Lewis worked as the Curator of Prints at the Morton Arboretum Library in Lisle, Illinois (1965-67) and as a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago before becoming assistant to the director of the Richard Gray Gallery. She enjoyed the position from 1971-1993 while also maintaining her own studio in various Chicago locations, including the historic Tree Studios. She was represented by the Jay Horwich Gallery and the Jan Cicero Gallery in Chicago, and participated in the Art Rental and Sales Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. In April 1975, the Richard Gray Gallery received a Fernand Leger lithograph entitled "Jeune femme a face." To Lewis "it was a veritable explosion in my head and heart. Very simple, extremely powerful. Drawn on paper, it was transferred to stone and retained the texture of the lines on the paper, giving it a subtle tone. Each line was so poignant and so inevitable, with the expression of serene directness on the face so magnetic that everything else paled before it." Lewis was deeply inspired by Leger and worked for years writing a body of work on the artist, in contact with collectors, museums, and galleries in the U.S. and France. In the end she could not achieve an agreement among the parties involved that would result in a published work.
Above all, Lewis enjoyed experimenting with new techniques and materials and found more joy in the process of creating art than in the end product itself. She had a strong big-picture vision of her trajectory as an artist, and was fearless in combining mediums, both embracing and celebrating the accidental in her work. Lewis believed that a certain amount of turbulence and contrast was necessary to form a kinetic harmony in her work. As a result, her oeuvre includes oil paintings, various printmaking techniques, and her own black and white photography. Her father was a photographer, and Lewis was inspired to experiment with the medium in her own work. She enjoyed the unpredictability of adding photo emulsion to her paintings, and they often add a mysterious, subtle texture to her mixed media pieces. Lewis’ role at the Richard Gray Gallery kept her aware of and in contact with many well-known Abstract Expressionist and Pop artists of that period.
The Lewis family, which included Barbara, her husband Eugene, and their daughter Sara, traveled extensively. Barbara drew inspiration from their trips and painted scenes from Europe, Mexico, and Egypt. In 1983, Lewis and Sara took a three week long cruise down the Nile River in Egypt. This trip sparked Lewis’ ongoing fascination with Egypt and upon their return she began her first series of Egypt paintings, which would eventually exhibit at the Mendocino Art Center. Her subjects ranged from timeless architectural images to the human form, with a combination of modern and ancient elements. The juxtaposition of the themes reflected Barbara’s belief that artists have a responsibility to show the way things have changed and not simply reflect the world as it used to be.
In 1992, Lewis moved to the West Coast on a large parcel of land with ocean views near Fort Bragg, Northern California. She lived in a beautiful Arts and Craft-style home and held a separate studio on the property. Lewis began exhibiting her work at the Mendocino Art Center and also showed work at the Gallery on the Rim in San Francisco, the Fort Bragg Center for the Arts and other venues in Mendocino, Fort Bragg, and Eureka. Despite the increasing burden of Parkinson’s Disease, Lewis continued creating art until her death in November 2008.
Many thanks to Sara Moore, Barbara’s daughter, and Teri Robertson-Lewis for bringing Barbara’s collection and story to us. This collection was acquired through the estate of artist Barbara Lewis, family friend of Michael and Alice Mason.