April 08, 2020

Capturing the dramas of the air

WATERVILLE — In late-afternoon light on the hilltop campus of Colby College, the winter sky is huge, with strange. broad strokes of orange-gray against a high-pitched blue.

Under the white Miller Library tower, in the student lounge, skies that feel just as big as the one outside shimmer on two walls. A moon reflects. A storm subsides. The sun drops and dyes the horizon dark neon pink behind it.

No one who has ever been hypnotized by his work could mistake the hue and pitch of these dramas in air, these cathedrals without architecture. These are the skies of Orono landscape painter Michael Lewis.

The first-ever public commission by the UMaine art professor has just landed here, in the lively rush of the Street, a public space open 24 hours and heavily used for study and student meetings. Six paintings — unpeopled works that invoke the silence of nature — are now, somewhat oddly, surrounded by gossip and giggles and, last week, a frantic, last-minute cram session for an exam on fossils.

“I noticed them immediately,” sophomore Maggie O’Brien said of the paintings. “The weird thing is, I can’t remember what was there before.”

Faded posters on dingy yellow walls, her friend reminded her. The Street has been completely renovated this fall, with fresh white paint, thick new carpet and big, cushy, green-and-blue chairs arranged in sociable groups.

A college committee was formed to decide what kind of art would adorn the space. The group reviewed slides from a dozen Maine artists on file at the state arts commission, said Hugh Gourley, director of Colby’s art museum.

Three artists — Lewis and two Portland painters — were asked to present their ideas in person last summer. The other two artists, Thomas Connolly and Thomas Paquette, each ended up contributing one work to another section of the student area. Connolly’s is a large historical painting of the original Colby campus beside the Kennebec River; Paquette’s is a coastal landscape.

Lewis’ proposal, for four large and two smaller paintings on two walls, was not the format the committee had suggested, but members were quickly won over. “Mike made a wonderful presentation,” Gourley said. “He was very eloquent.”

Lewis, in turn, was thrilled to be given the freedom to work his own magic on the space. When art is made on commission, for a buyer’s specific location, the job often comes with specific instructions about content and size.

“It was very, very nice,” he said, “because there were no stipulations.”

His aim, as in many past works, was the depiction of the human spirit through natural land forms, light and climate, in paintings most viewers agree possess a mystical quality. In “Peace Returns,” a warm, reddish storm light presides over dark trees with one small weightless space of sunlit leaves.

“Promise of the New Morning” offers a narrow band of yellow-gray clouds breaking over the ocean’s flat medium blue, with most of the canvas still heavy with the purple-gray of night.

“It’s beautiful stuff,” said junior Oliver Griswold. “I like the way the emphasis is taken off the land.”

But, Griswold pointed out, student art would have been perhaps a more appropriate adornment for a space where students themselves spend so much time by choice. “We have a whole museum” for professional artists, he said.

Some students found the new art sneaking up to capture their attention.

“I just noticed this one while I was sitting here,” freshman Paul Dante said of “Prayer for Peace,” a small study in pink and green. “It looks better from a distance, like there’s an intense fire burning.”

A number of students named “A Narrow Entrance Into Mystery” as their favorite of the new works. The Stillwater River by moonlight is the subject of the blue painting, with the bend of the river suggesting a passage, the start of a journey with an unknown destination.

The darkness of the scene promises secrets in the water, things that could float into silvery view at any moment.

“Technically, they’re beautifully executed, and there’s a certain mystery. They’re rather enigmatic,” Gourley said. “Students are drawn into these mysterious landscapes. There’s an evocative quality, a mystical atmosphere they find intriguing.”

Like much of Lewis’ previous work, the Colby paintings give a feeling of vast space supercharged with portent, emotional resonance created by forces outside the frame. His skies are like magnetic fields where particles rearrange themselves in accordance with epic pushing and pulling — the epic movement of one human mind in one instant.

The instant depicted by Lewis is never a throwaway moment — not the static between stations, but the first vivid second of pure reception. His color steeps outward from a pang of hurt or hit of joy, seeming not an artist’s selection but inevitable as rain.

Interestingly, in “Peace Returns,” we see not the storm itself but the moments just after, and read backward in sequence to seize history before it is disengaged from the present. The pictures exist, then, on two planes of time at once, the now and the then that shaped the light and clouds of the present.

In the library, it’s hard to enter the painter’s world completely, with the nearby hiss of student rumors and the bark of heated philosophy. Every passing 19-year-old brings his own supercharged emotional aura.

But the mood created by Lewis’ paintings is portable, and the Colby campus can be a supercharged atmosphere at certain times of day. Late-afternoon sun transports a classical pediment to a hilltop on a Greek isle, and the picturesque quad, in silhouette, becomes a dark medieval fortress.

The constant rush of nearby interstate traffic is different from the silence implied in Lewis’ scenes. But the sound is like something Lewis might paint — eerily suggestive of unknown forces and the constant pull of time.

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