James Edward Lewis was an African-American artist, best known for his role as the leading force for the creation of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art, an institution of the HBCU Morgan State University. His work as the chairman of the Morgan Art Department from 1950 to 1986 allowed for the museum to amass a large collection of over 3,000 works, predominantly of African and African diasporan art. In addition, he is also well known for his role as an interdisciplinary artist, primarily focused on sculpture, though also having notable examples of lithography and illustration. His artistic style throughout the years has developed from an earlier focus on African-American history and historical figures, for which he is most notable as an artist, to a more contemporary style of African-inspired abstract expressionism.
Early and personal life
James E. Lewis was born in rural Phenix, Virginia on August 4, 1923 to James T. Lewis and Pearline (Pearlean) Harvey. Lewis’ parents were both sharecroppers. Shortly after his birth, his father moved to Baltimore for increased job opportunity; James E. was subsequently raised by his mother until the family was reunited in 1925. They lived for a short time with distant relatives until moving to a four-bedroom house on 1024 North Durham Street in East Baltimore, a predominantly African-American lower-class neighborhood close to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Lewis’ primary school, PS 101, was the only public school in East Baltimore that served black children. Lewis grew up in a church-going family, his parents both active members of the Faith Baptist Church, devoting the entirety of their Sundays to church activities. His parents worked a variety of different jobs throughout his youth: his father working as a stevedore for a shipping company, a mechanic, a custodian, a mailroom handler, and an elevator operator. His mother worked as both a clerk at a drugstore and a laundress for a private family.
Lewis’ primary exposure to the arts came from Dr. Leon Winslow, a faculty member at PS 101 who Lewis saw as “providing encouragement and art materials to those who wanted and needed it.” In fifth grade, Lewis transferred to PS 102. Here, he was able to receive specialized art education in Ms. William’s class under the guidance of Winslow. He was considered a standout pupil at PS 102 as a result of his introduction to the connection between the arts and the other studies. His time spent in Ms. Pauline Wharton’s class allowed for him to experiment with singing, to which he was considered a talented singer. His involvement in this class challenged his earlier belief that singing was not a masculine artistic pursuit. He was able to study both European classics and negro spirituals, which was one of his earliest introductions to arts specific to American black culture. Under Ms. Wharton’s direction, he was also involved in many different musical performances, including some works of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project. Lewis attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where his love of the arts was heightened through his industrial art class with Lee Davis, who instilled in him a care for fine craftsmanship. At age sixteen, Lewis had won a citywide poster design contest, and later had the work displayed at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. He produced his first sculpture at age 17 out of earthen clay from the East Monument Street fairgrounds. He was personally very close with the school faculty, often going over to Davis’ house to listen to jazz music or visiting Dr. Winslow and his children. The connection he had with the Winslow family solidified his interest in pursuing fine art after high school. By age 19, he had produced five completed portrait busts. While still in high school, Lewis had been awarded a Carnegie Institute grant to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but the school was highly segregated at the time and thus he was prohibited from attending. Luckily, a compromise was made with the school to allow an advanced student, American artist Charles Cross, to tutor him in private sessions. He graduated from Dunbar High with the highest average in the arts.
Pearline was supportive of her son’s desire to pursue a career in the arts, but her husband felt the opposite, believing that his son should make an honest living through manual labor. As a result, James E. Lewis opted to work at the Baltimore Calvert distillery during the summer following graduation, beginning on the 30th of June of that year. Having just graduated and now a young adult, Lewis registered for the Selective Service System. During this time, a legal loophole was created that allowed for African-Americans in Maryland to study at any college of their choice with tuition, travel, and room & board covered by the state, so long as they intended to study a field that had no current representation in any of the black schools they were allowed to attend. Lewis, seeing this law as a form of “poetic justice”, decided to apply to study fine art at Philadelphia College of Art, now called the University of the Arts. Lewis studied for a year at PCA before receiving a letter in the mail from the United States Armed Forces stating that he had been drafted into World War II.
Lewis had been drafted into the United States Navy, but soon after joined the United States Marine Corps due to a new policy that allowed for black recruits, something which he saw as both progress and a personal challenge. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, traveling there with his fellow Marines in a segregated train car. At the camp, the segregation further continued, with the black soldiers living in makeshift huts and their white counterparts living in brick buildings. In 1943, he received notice of his father’s passing, and returned home for the funeral. Shortly after the services, he returned to camp, something which he regretted in hindsight after finding out he could have been discharged, as he was his mother’s sole source of financial support. He returned to discover that many of his unit members had been shipped out to the front lines in the Pacific. He heard stories of black soldiers being sent out with no weapons and so he had himself transferred to the 51st Defense Battalion, the first black fighting unit of the Marine Corp. Given the prevalence of racial discrimination in the United States military and the skill of the battalion, Lewis claimed that they were shipped out to Easter Island to keep them away from the action and preserve the image of the white Marines. He served a short stint in gunnery and intelligence before leaving the military in 1946.
James E. Lewis returned to Philadelphia College of Art and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1949. During this time, he met and married his wife, Jacqueline Lucille Adams. Lewis planned on having a career solely in illustration, but realized that the field was not welcoming to African-Americans. The Philadelphia College of Art offered him a position as a drawing instructor, and so he worked there for a short time. He received an offer to teach at Morgan State University not long after this but refused the position, instead choosing to use the G.I. Bill to stay in Philadelphia and attend the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He received his Master of Fine Arts from Temple in 1950. After graduating, he was offered a teaching position at Jackson State Teachers’ College and accepted. Three days before his planned arrival in Jackson, Mississippi, he received a call from Martin David Jenkins with another offer to teach at Morgan State. Lewis changed his mind and took the Morgan position, settling back in Baltimore with his wife.
Lewis was also a personal collector of art. He once cancelled a vacation because he ended up spending all the funds on purchasing a Henry Ossawa Tanner work in New York. He was also known to have collected the works of his students, buying them to inspire them to keep producing art.
He was known to have spoken with Martin Luther King Jr. prior to King’s death. Lewis was a strong supporter of placing a bust in the United States Capitol, and was one of the first to lobby for it.
Lewis and Adams had two children together, Cathleen Susan Tamberg (born March 17, 1958) and James Edward Lewis Jr.
James E. Lewis passed away on August 9, 1997 of stroke complications at Genesis Nursing Home in Baltimore. He was 74 years old.