Folsom’s E.B. Lewis is a world-class artist and children’s book illustrator, with more job offers than he could possibly accept.
He has homes here and in Charleston, S.C., and his work is in art galleries and private collections around the nation.
But the 56-year-old is still haunted by his dyslexia and years of feeling like a failure in school, he said.
“I failed third grade. I was in the principal’s office once a week,” said Lewis. “My words were jumping on the page, and I didn’t know how to make it stop. I was thinking all kids are like that, they just overcame it.”
He would play the class clown to get thrown out of class, he said, to avoid the embarrassment of reading aloud. The only thing that saved him from continued failure was his uncle Bradley Smith, an artist who taught at Temple University. He took him to art lessons every Saturday for six years.
“He changed my life,” Lewis said of his uncle, for whom he is named — his full name is Earl Bradley Lewis. “He introduced me to my tribe.”
That experience led him to look at every kid as holding incredible potential.
It also led him to get a master’s degree in special education and to teach art to challenged populations early in his career, from second graders to the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
“I saw (the psychiatric patients) more as students in need of recreation, and art as therapy,” Lewis said. It gave them a reason to be excited about something and a reason for living, he said. “I saw myself as a great motivator.”
His empathy for struggling children also led him to paint them, particularly minority kids, for book projects.
Lewis was first approached to illustrate children’s books in 1992, and his first project was “Fire on the Mountain,” an Ethiopian folktale about a brother and sister team that outwits a cruel master, rewritten by Jane Kurtz. Reviews praised Lewis’s watercolor paintings, and since then he has illustrated about 54 children’s books, he said, working with most of the major book publishers. His schedule is full for book projects through 2015.
His latest book, with author Jacqueline Woodson, is “Each Kindness,” a story of a young black girl’s failure to be kind to a poor white child in her school, and the regret she feels when she can no longer reach out to her.
“Lewis dazzles with frame-worthy illustrations, masterful use of light guiding readers’ emotional responses,” said the magazine Kirkus Reviews on May 2, 2012.
“They call us the ‘Dream Team,’” Lewis said of his partnership with Woodson. The two also collaborated on “The Other Side,” a story about a white girl and a black girl who aren’t allowed to stray from their own side of a fence, so conduct their friendship on top of it, and “Coming on Home Soon,” about a black girl living with her grandmother while her mother moves to a city to work during World War II.
“Coming On Home Soon” was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2005, which is an American Library Association award for illustrators. Lewis also won the 2003 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Nikki Grimes' “Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman.”
His 2005 book with Grimes used students at Atlantic City’s Richmond Avenue School as models for characters in, "Danitra Brown, Class Clown."
Books he illustrated have been ALA Notable Books, including “Down the Road,” written by Alice Schertle; and “My Rows and Piles of Coins,” written by Tolowa M. Mollel, which was also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. “Bat Boy and His Violin” by Garvin Curtis was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book; and Jacqueline Woodson's “The Other Side,” was a 2002 Notable Book for the Language Arts. Lewis teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and has a show now through May 19 at The Noyes Museum of Art at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, called “Earl B. Lewis: National Treasure,” which includes watercolor paintings from various book projects, fine art landscapes, and his latest fine art project called “Lotto Icons.”
The icons portray children as the prize on a lottery ticket, and adults have to scratch off the gold surface to see the value below. He paints a child’s portrait on an actual lottery ticket, then covers it in a light gold surface, which he partially scratches away.
The small paintings are framed in heavy frames, giving them the look of religious icons.
He came up with the idea after giving up fine art painting for more than two years, doing only illustrating work.
“I felt like my work wasn’t cogent, relative or important,” he said. “I needed my work to have a reason, so I stopped until the reason came.”
He found inspiration in other artists’ work, like Michael Rolando Richards’ sculpture of a Tuskeegee Airman, called “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,” in The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, N.C.
“It was life size. He used a body cast of himself,” Lewis said, and sculpted gold planes crashing into the figure.
The piece, depicting the airman as St. Sebastian, the early Christian martyr, was powerful in many ways. Richards was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in his studio on the 92nd floor of one of the twin towers.
Lewis grew up in Philadelphia, but visited his grandparents in McKee City in Egg Harbor Township frequently. He even lived with them for a time, he said, to escape his problems in school at home.
As a teenager, a friend showed him the Lake at Atsion State Park, and when he got his license he drove through Hammonton to get there. Now he has a space in the Hammonton Artists Studios, where he plans to do oil painting. It’s a medium he has only recently explored and is enjoying, he said.
“I remember coming through Hammonton in the 1970s and thinking, ‘This is a strange little town,’“ he said, laughing. “Lo and behold, now I have a studio here.
“How many times did I turn the corner and look up at this building, and now I’m looking out at the cars turning down the street. I was meant to be here. This is my town.”
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