A consummate visual storyteller and a thoughtful artist, Sean Lewis' poignant, earthy illustrations evoke a profound sense of empathy for the killers and outlaws they depict, uniquely subtle in their composition yet profoundly moving in their raw emotional power. In this exclusive interview for the Juxtapoz Illustration blog, Toronto-based illustrator Sean Lewis discusses his creative process, his affinity for cutthroats and racketeers, and his sincere concern for sustainable living.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Were you always determined to be an artist? Are there themes and inspirations from your upbringing that still appear in your art?
I was born and raised in Toronto by my parents who met at the Ontario College of Art during an abroad program in Florence, Italy. I grew up in a house with my best friend’s family living below us and our parents all had their own artistic pursuits. We just scribbled, drew comics and characters constantly and art was always a huge part of our lives that was nurtured by our parents. My Dad has painted his whole life and growing up we’d go on camping trips and he’d paint watercolour landscapes. Now he does these beautiful realistic oil portraits. His work has played a huge role in my continued interest in making stuff, I’d see his paintings and my mind would melt and I always wanted to get better.
You've received well-deserved praise and attention for your series of paintings depicting infamous outlaws like Black Bart, Aileen Wuornos, and Ed Gein. You have a tremendous ability to connect with the most melancholy parts of the criminal soul, portraying them with humanity without glorifying their brutality. Out of the outlaws you've portrayed, is there one you relate to most? Or perhaps one that touches you most emotionally?
Most of the figures I focused on are bastardized figures in society and adding to that condemnation didn’t seem like a particularly interesting angle to take. Especially after researching their lives I came away feeling sorry for them and their circumstances. Unchecked mental illness, negligent and manipulated upbringings, they’re all sad stories and I felt it was really important to step back and show some empathy for people that never really got any.
Black Bart’s story was really interesting to me. He used to be a miner and had a small start up company until Wells Fargo tried to purchase his land. He refused and so they cut off the water supply and ruined his mine. He went on to rob only Well’s Fargo stage coaches, was “gentlemanly” to the people within those stage coaches, kept his gun unloaded and only took money from the Wells Fargo safe. He also left a few poems at the crime scenes. He was just acting out his own brand of justice and I can’t help but respect him a bit for it. I also did an illustration for The Barefoot Bandit that I wasn’t happy with but his story is pretty unbelievable so to those unfamiliar with it, check him out!
The earthy palette and raw textures of your paintings are incredibly stirring and especially poignant when paired with your intense subject matter. Will you describe the creative and technical process behind your paintings?
Thanks so much! Usually I sketch out ideas until I work out a composition and imagery I’m excited to paint. A lot of my creative process is done in my head while I walk or bike around listening to music. I’ve been trying to get in the habit of keeping a little sketchbook on me because I forget a lot. Most of my paintings are done on wood panels that I’ve sanded down so they’re smooth and the paint just glides on. I’ll lightly and vaguely draw out the elements onto the panel. From there I just start blocking in colours and develop a colour scheme as I go. That’s where I have the most fun, playing with colours, building up details, sanding things back and strengthening the concept with atmospheric touches. I try not to be too precious about a painting as I work on it; I’d rather try something new and fail than play it safe and feel underwhelmed when it’s finished.
What other subjects and/or themes would you like to tackle in your future work?
Environmental degradation and sustainable living has become more and more important to me. I’m hoping to make big changes in my life, educate myself better and figure out a way of living where I don’t feel so guilty. I would love to make work that supports groups that fight for environmental and human rights. I also love telling stories with my work and I hope I can represent the wonderful mystery, beauty and ugliness of the world in an interesting way for others.
Are you interested in exploring other mediums?
Definitely! I’m not really a fan of acrylics and I pretty much exclusively paint with them. But I’ve figured out ways of avoiding the elements I dislike, like its plastic quality by painting on wood. I’ve been dabbling in watercolour to disastrous results and I’d love to spend a lot more time with oils. Both hold a quality that I really love and I’m excited to experiment with them in the near future. I also used to do a lot of my work on the computer. Recently I’ve been interested in doing more but my laptop is so old it can barely run photoshop. When it does, saving a document takes enough time to start and finish something completely different.
You've mentioned on your blog your conflicted mentality when it comes to painting the natural world, that while endeavoring to capture the beauty of nature you feel you are simultaneously contributing to its destruction through the toxic substances, chemical processing, and wasteful shipping your art supplies require. Would you share more of your thoughts on this subject and your general environmental advocacy?
Every system that supports my way of life comes at the cost of the natural world and the exploitation of other people in such a detached and unknowing way. Going to a restaurant and ordering some delicious food, or buying new clothes is such a seemingly harmless thing to do. I think it’s important for people to question the way they buy and consume, ask where it comes from, what’s in it and who made it. As I’ve become more aware of what my actions do, this really oppressive sense of guilt has settled over me and I find that I contradict my sense of morality at every turn. Painting is just one of the many confusing conundrums in my life that I am trying to work out. So as I said above I am doing my best to learn and lead a life that I can feel good about. If my work can create an awareness and make people talk or think about these issues then maybe it’s worthwhile. But I’d like to figure out less harmful means of creating work I can feel proud of.
How was your recent road trip through the US? Any places or people that stand out as especially memorable?
I have done a bunch of road trips the past year and they have been the absolute highlights of my year. I travelled from Toronto down to Northern Texas, moved west along New Mexico, and Arizona then headed up California and eventually to Portland. Then we drove 40 hours straight to Chicago and then home! Right after I did another trip down to New Orleans, over to Austin, then up to Winnipeg and back home. I’ve done 2 others since then to the East coast of Canada and another down to Georgia. Getting down to Arizona and seeing the red rocks and desert was otherworldly for me. Since that first trip I’ve developed an obsession with Northern California and I completely romanticize it. San Francisco and the surrounding forests, that coastal road! I was just floored by its beauty and I can’t wait to check it out again. Last years French Quarter festival in New Orleans was so fun and we met the greatest people. We got to listen to free live music all day and night and you can drink beers while walking around! I liked that a lot.
Are there other artists, illustrators, and creatives who inspire you?
There are countless people that have been a massive inspiration to me. The OCAD University illustration faculty pushed me to a point I never would have gotten to on my own. Paul Dallas, Gary Taxali, Lewis Nicholson,Gillian Iles, Terry Schoffner, Lauchie Ried and others were fantastic guides and sources of inspiration.
I love the work of Anita Kunz, Jason Holley, Mark Ryden, Heiko Muller, Henry Darger, Edward Gorey, Bill Watterson, Charley Harper, Micah Lidberg, Nathaniel Russell, and I could just keep listing people but that’s not so interesting... I find I’m most inspired by music so a lot of the stuff I listen to (which tends to be on the more folky and psychedelic side of things) heavily influences a lot of the imagery and atmosphere I like to play around with.
Do you have any projects coming down the pipe-line? Or any more exciting trips planned?
I just signed with Reactor, an illustration agency in Toronto which I’m excited about! I am working on a new piece for a fantastic show my friends put on called Creative Type. Heiko Muller also invited me to contribute to a group show in Germany with some incredibly inspiring people. Other than that I just try to keep on myself and work on personal projects. I hope to work continue pushing the scale of my paintings and amass enough new work for a solo show.
This summer my friend is getting married in Vancouver so a few of us are gonna make a big road trip of that, I just hope I can afford it... I also hope to find myself outside of North America for the first time sometime in the near future!
Beyond the artistic realm, what else interests you as far as activities and hobbies?
I love biking and camping and now that the beautiful weather seems like it’s sticking around I hope to be outside as much as I can. I’m a complete music obsessive and I follow that world pretty intensely. A lot of that energy used to go into videogames which I still love but don’t play much of anymore. I like food, movies, books, exploring neighborhoods and houses, petting dogs, also cats but I’m allergic, beer and making lists apparently! I’m constantly distracted and rendered unproductive by my friends and family here who bring me more joy than anything else in the world.
See more work by Sean Lewis at the following links:
Interview by Laura Hines