The woolly and wildly expressive style of Toronto artist Sean Lewis hearkens back to frenetic and lawless history of the taming of the American continent. While completing his thesis year in illustration at OCADU in Toronto, Lewis has already carved out a unique body of work, and is currently involved in Cavalcade, a collaborative group mural project at Xpace in Toronto. With a new series in the works for his thesis, Lewis discusses his learning experiences and plans for after graduation.
Your body of work is really inspiring, even more so considering you’re still in school. How has your university experience influenced your growth as an artist, and do you have any specific direction planned for after you graduate?
Not to sound like I’m plugging the school or anything, because I know a lot of people haven’t had the best experiences with it, but my time at OCAD has really changed my outlook on art making and has many ways rejuvenated my passion in it.
The professors particularly in the illustration department really pushed me to try my hardest. After a few embarrassing critiques in second year, I kinda started to clue into what made an exciting picture. I started to constantly compare my work to art I loved being published in books, and fawned over in art galleries, and just try to meet (and ideally surpass, but yeah right) that quality.
A fellow student pretty much taught me how to paint because I had never done it before. So I shifted my work out of the computer and started to get more excited about the results.
As for the direction I hope to head in after I graduate, I just aim to to spread out a bit and experiment more with other mediums and visual motifs. I don’t know why but I always feel a little embarrassed when people ask my medium and I say acrylics. I rarely find work I’m excited about when it’s done with them so I spend a lot of time making sure they don’t look too acrylic-y.
We’ve noted a recurring “beard” motif in your illustrations. Could you tell us about some of the themes you explore in your work?
I always get teased about the beards/hairs/pubes in my paintings by my friends. I tend to focus on that sort of imagery because it really set people and the concept outside of time and I felt it helped create a timeless looking picture. I felt a little bummed when I saw it become sort of a trend in a lot of peoples work so I’ve made a conscious effort to try and stop doing it but clearly I haven’t really.
I have a huge obsession with the past, particularly the rise of America and all the awful things that have happened over here. The steady destruction of the wildlife, and feeling like everything you do in your day to day life destroys what supports us, makes me feel increasingly sad and conflicted about what I should be doing. At times I feel like making art is indulgent and I should be involved in causes that have more impact. So I’m trying to shift my work in a way where I convey issues I’m passionate about.
Much of your work, such as the cover for Blood Meridian, involves some hand rendered typography. Are you working towards a specific design aesthetic, or do approach each illustration individually?
I’ve been taking stabs at hand rendered typography because I love the way it can look. And it’s really fun and satisfying to do. I also love the way pictures look in design contexts. Doing the Blood Meridian cover in my own time was a nice little exercise to see how one of my images would look in the place of a book cover. Going to a record or book store is so fun to just look at the packaging. I get so pumped when I see a beautiful design and how multiple images can come together to create a beautiful cohesive thing. I see it much how an album is compiled – songs fit together in certain ways and in a lot of cases totally enhance the feeling and power of a song through its sequencing.
Looking at a record cover, and the back, and then flipping it open can be a similarly breathtaking experience in how each image can add to another ones power.
I definitely aim to develop a pretty specific design aesthetic so hopefully someone will always recognize my work as only my own.I use recurring design elements and textures that I hope make my images cohesive but at the same time I want every painting to carry its own weight and stand strongly on its own.
We love the concept for the 360º collaborative mural for the group show at xpace you’re participating in. Can you tell us about the idea behind this project and what it’s like collaborating with the artists involved?
This was really fun and stressful to do, and all the credit must go to the very hard work of Jessie Durham and Dmitry Bondarenko who basically got everyone all together and organized the whole thing.
The shows theme was basically set around the idea of a procession and it’s called Cavalcade. Everyone got their own section of the wall and we spent a lot of time figuring out who would be beside who, and how everything would fit together. I was really happy that I got to collaborate with my good friend Adrian Forrow, and be a part of a show with so many talented folk! We all planned to have our set spots and leave space between each person’s mural for a fully collaborative section that eases the viewer into the next person’s work.
I pretty much planned from the get go that Adrian would be introducing his characters into my own mural heavily. But now everyone is in a place where we can really improvise and find neat and exciting ways to add our own visual vocabulary to each others pieces. We really have no idea how it’s going to transform!
After the show ends it’s going to be tough to paint over all our hard work, but it’s also refreshing to be making something based solely on the excitement of creation and collaboration and not have to worry about sales. If the show sounds exciting to you come check it out early and then on the closing so you really get a sense of how it has transformed. Every Friday of the shows running time there will be at least one of the artists will be in working on it so feel free to drop by, we’d love to talk to anyone interested!
Any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
Right now I’m head deep in all things thesis, and I’m really excited about where it’s heading! It’s a series of paintings based around the turning points of various outlaws, drug lords, rebels etc… and the reasons why they reject society’s rules, and carve their own unlawful paths through life, and achieved their infamy. I’ve included one of my images about Black Bart, the gentlemanly robber of Wess Fargo’s stagecoaches. This company wanted to buy his mining land and he refused so they cut off his water supply and out of revenge he began robbing only them. He was known for how polite he was and even left a few poems at two of his crime scenes.
There are so many other interesting figures and it’s really exciting researching all of these fascinating people. So come May I’ll have a whole new body of work each focusing on a different figure and hopefully it goes well!