Photos by Collin Richie

The Creatives: Artist Brandon Lewis

What their arms—outstretched like pillars—are holding cannot be seen, but it can be felt in every smooth stroke of this broad painting starring a young boy in a gleaming gold bowtie and surrounded by the gardenia-strewn dress of his mother and the Sunday best of his grandparents all reaching for the heavens—together. It’s unity, family, a continuum of story and tradition all in one image.

“Every time I come in the door, this is my reminder—a reminder of my people,” says Brandon Lewis of “Gardenia,” one of his most personal works, as he enters past a tree-trunk-thick depository of walking canes and walls checkered with rose-tinted family photos from the 1970s and ’80s.

These are the walls the Baker High School teacher grew up in—where at age 3 he drew an artful rendering of a bumble bee for a preschool assignment, when all he was supposed to do was color one in—now clad with his vivacious paintings like windows into a world of sewing circles, throwing horseshoes, and walking covered dishes to the neighbor’s house.

Inspired by Clementine Hunter—a large book of her work sits below “Gardenia,” next to the Bible—Lewis is a practitioner of painting and won the Public Favorite Award at the Arts Council’s Art Flow exhibit in 2019. But he’s truly a specialist in two nearly lost arts: passing on wisdom and stories of his elders, and taking the time to sit and visit. Without checking his phone, without setting an agenda, Lewis listens and observes.

“How you are raised serves as one of the biggest pieces of your inspiration well that you draw from,” Lewis says. “Oral history really impacts my work.”

Lewis grew up always taking notes in his mind. He’s been to every family funeral and baptism and held a bowl an ancestor used on the plantation when she was a slave.

“We can’t trust other people to tell our story,” Lewis says. “You have to take ownership of your own story, and that’s when you really find a flow.”

Lewis’ hues are as opulent as his scenes are humble. A Saturday morning at the barber shop; a bedside visit with an ailing aunt; a widower’s lonesome cup of tea. But each is rendered with a reverence for the pageantry and peculiar passions that color the details of daily life.

He hopes his imagery will encourage viewers to think about something from their childhood so they tell that story to others.

Lewis is working on a coffee table book, which will feature his paintings and short writings about what inspired each, for release next year. Painting, he believes, should be storytelling.

“It’s about the human soul, feeding someone’s soul to lift someone in some way—that’s the role of artists,” Lewis says. “We are essential workers.”