Studio Visit: Artist Tony Lewis on the Comforting Sounds of Chicago Traffic and the Postcards He’s Been Mailing to Friends

The artist offers us a glimpse into the studio that serves as his refuge.

Tony Lewis. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mark Poucher.

The inspiration for Chicago-based artist Tony Lewis’s graphite drawings come primarily from words of all sorts—Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, historical speeches, and best-selling books.

His 2019 solo exhibition at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, titled “Charlatan and Ultimately a Boring Man,” delved into the debate between activist and writer James Baldwin and American conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., during a 1965 debate at Cambridge University.

But more than literature and debate keep Lewis at work—he finds inspiration in everything from the sounds of the city to a stiff drink. We caught up with Lewis about what it’s like in his studio.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

9b pencils, graphite sticks, various graphite powders, paper, eraser, masking tape, rubber cement, and correction fluid. On a daily basis, these are the essential materials that make the majority of the work.

Is there a picture you can send of your work in progress?

Tony Lewis in his studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Tony Lewis’s studio. Courtesy of the artist.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I’m currently making postcards, which is an idea that came before the post office was in serious trouble. I still find it difficult to appreciate the full impact of drawing without tactile awareness and spatial presence. I think working on a series of small drawings and turning them into postcards allows me to share the physicality of the studio from a safe distance, as well as a chance to briefly reconnect with people whom I hope don’t mind hearing from me. They might not even make it through the mail—they’re pretty haphazard objects.

I’ve also been steadily working on big and small drawings in general, but I’m most excited to share a new group of small Calvin and Hobbes-based drawings which come together to form one poem that I wrote in response to William F. Buckley Jr.’s argument in a well-known 1965 debate with James Baldwin. I’m also working on a large-scale, original comic strip.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

My studio is located on a broad stretch of Archer Avenue without a stoplight. It might sound crazy, but despite the occasional construction and honking horn, the rhythmic sounds of tires and engines whizzing by almost sound like the ocean. Very calming. That’s what I hear most, but music is also around, and completely dependent on the moment. Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool” is back on my mind.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I’m most interested in difficult love, humility, and conceptual progress. I’m always aware of emptiness, hubris, and overbearing strategy when I see it. At the same time, there’s plenty of art that’s not for me, but has had a great impact elsewhere. Reality is vast enough to require a wide range of art experiences to help define it.

I care more about someone’s right to make something, as opposed to rejecting what they make, especially if I haven’t actively dived into the work. I would say a willingness to participate and play along in someone’s dream is a prerequisite to sharing an opinion.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

Water. Cashews. Ice. London Dry Gin.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

I don’t know about social media so much, I find it hard to fully pay attention, but I’m a big fan of Rashayla Marie Brown (@rmbstudios) as an artist and filmmaker. Patrick “Q” Quilao (@greetings_q) has found a way to show up for everyone, even in these times. Also, Devin Mays (@saturdayatsundayschool) has a dope Instagram. Viola Davis (@violadavis). Jim Meehan (@mixography) and William J. O’Brien (@wob234).

Tony Lewis in his studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Tony Lewis’s studio. Courtesy of the artist.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck? 

The studio is never a place to get stuck because there’s always something to do, I’ve designed it that way. It’s important to make the distinction, I think, when talking about what it’s like to make things in the studio these days. Personally, my heart hurts most days, but the studio is ready to make drawing happen whenever. I’m constantly worried about the health of friends and family, but this paper and pencil right next to me are ready to go.

My mind might be cloudy, and I may be afraid and furious when constantly faced with varying abstractions of death, but there’s a pallet of 1,000 pounds of flake graphite powder to my left that isn’t going away anytime soon. It could very well produce the most compelling physical challenge I’ve ever had from a drawing. My studio is always moving, but the world seems more stuck than any artist could be right now.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

Ruslana Lichtzier (@rusiros) and Stephanie Cristello (@chicago_manual_style) launched Four Flags (@fourflags2020), which has been a wonderful project to see develop.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

COVID-19, stamps, Calvin and Hobbes, Peloton bike, Branca Menta, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Argument in a 1965 debate with James Baldwin, Murder by Police and/or energized white supremacists, voting, Campari, Gregg shorthand, hand sanitizer, Jamaican rum, early voting, bell hooks’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” and “Teaching to Transgress,” and a 16-year old Lagavulin whiskey.

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