FANTAST IN FOCUS: PAUL LEWIN
Storytelling is Paul Lewin’s passion. His sources of inspiration are thousand-year-old tales that originate in the oral traditions and folkways of West Africa. But the vision that he depicts in his acrylic artworks is a surreal inter-dimensional realm of past, present, and future; beaming up (à la Star Trek) all manner of trans-generational forces and beings. In a way, his art reveals the interconnectedness of all life, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. We caught up with Paul to find out how stories have augmented his artistry.
The Custodian: What were your favourite folktales as a child?
Paul Lewin: I really loved Aesop’s Fables. Those are the most memorable ones for me. I was always amazed at how each tale would capture my imagination so well and then slip in a very powerful life lesson.
C: You’ve said that you draw inspiration from the generational art of storytelling in Afro-Caribbean and African culture. Does your family have any unusual or legendary oral traditions?
P: My grandparents were great storytellers. When my mom was a child living in St. Thomas, Jamaica, many nights when it started getting dark, my grandmother or grandfather would gather the children around on the porch to tell Anansi stories. These stories have been passed down from generation to generation dating back to ancient Africa. Anansi is a mythical small spider and a trickster who is always getting in and out of trouble. He uses his mind to get himself out of difficult situations and outwits his adversaries. For the early Afro-Caribbean communities, these stories were part of the oral educational system for children growing up in the New World. These stories helped to teach them that you can beat those who oppress you with your mind and skill.
C: How did you come up with the idea for your collection Roots of the Cotton Tree?
P: In doing research for a new series of works, I came to find out that I had a cousin in Jamaica named Olive Lewin. She was a social anthropologist and musicologist. She spent her whole life studying the history and culture of Jamaica and the Caribbean. I immediately purchased one of her books online, and the ideas really took shape [in my mind] after reading it. She passed away two years later at the age of 93 and I never got a chance to speak with her about it. Last time I saw her, I was very little and I don’t have much memory of it. Around the time I started this series, my work was at a crossroads. I loved what I was doing visually, but there was something deeper missing from my work. When I began to read the stories of my ancestors and the ways in which they used creativity as a means of survival to keep the ties to their past strong, I knew right then what I wanted to do.
In the Caribbean and throughout Africa, the silk cotton tree is considered sacred. They have massive trunks and can grow up to eighty feet tall. It’s said to be a place where the spirits and ancestors live. This was a belief held by the Africans and the indigenous Arawak and Taino peoples who populated the islands before the Europeans arrived. They referred to this giant tree as “The God Tree”.
C: A few of your works depict alien-human hybrids, spiritual healers, ritual fetishes (instruments of magic) and other elements of mythology that are preeminent in Dogon culture as well as West African Voudon. Have you had any direct experiences with these?
P: Well not in this particular lifetime, no. These are all things that I’ve been inspired by for a while now and I learned a little bit more doing the research. I truly hope one day that I will be able to see some of them in person.
C: You’ve mentioned H.R. Giger and Hayao Miyazaki as influences. Do you think you might make a foray into science-fiction animation or art design at some point?
P: I would love to do a feature length animation one day that’s inspired by Afro-Caribbean culture. H.R. Giger was one of my first influences when my work was a bit darker. And Hayao Miyazaki completely changed how I viewed animated films.
C: What are you working on now?
P: I am currently working on a new series of paintings for a solo show I’m doing here in Oakland, CA this winter at the Betti Ono gallery. It consists of about 25 pieces along similar lines to my last show, but I have not worked out the title or theme just yet.