Self-portraits in clay

The face of sculptor Jhierry Lewis is multiplying and disintegrating at the same time, and some folks are desperate for an explanation. “I’ve opened up this Pandora’s box of the imagination and released chaos in the middle of the UNCA library,” he reports, a hint of mischievous satisfaction in his voice.

No, we’re not talking about an anthrax outbreak. Lewis conjured up this pandemonium through hours of peaceful, creative meditation. When his trance broke, voila!, he had an art exhibit — and wet clay — on his hands (and significantly less hair on his legs).

“The show is untitled. Some people want me to title it, tell them what it’s supposed to mean, what I intended by it,” Lewis says. “But I really don’t know the meaning behind my show; people who see it will react to it and tell me what it means.” What it symbolizes depends on who sees it and what they think about it, he believes. “That’s what I love about art. … The fact that I have an idea, because I created it, maybe it’s in the back of my mind — but then you come along as a viewer and see something that you like in it, or that disturbs you, and you get a totally different idea or concept of what I’m trying to get across. And maybe you share it with me, the artist, and I have what I thought it was and, now, what you thought it was too … Then someone else comes along, and I get three different things from it. … I love that. It keeps something from getting tired. … It keeps it alive, vibrant, refreshing.”

Lewis’ exhibit consists of 11 almost-life-sized figures resembling Buddhist monks in lotus-like poses, encircled by tangles of vegetation. But even as the skeletal tendrils of roots and vines and creepers bind them like ropes, they seem peaceful, transcendent, beatific.

One viewer compared them to Michelangelo’s “Bound Slaves”; another said they represent the spiritual unity of humankind. Those who know Lewis might think the statues look like the artist himself — after, say, 1,000 years in the Sahara. There’s a reason for the resemblance, which he reveals in excruciating detail: “I’m the model,” explains the modest but exceptionally handsome sculptor, “and the face I used on all of them is mine. I made a press-mold of my face by putting on Vaseline and then having someone else put plaster strips on my face. I waited for it to dry, then lifted it off and used it as a template to make all the faces.”

In the process, Lewis underwent austerities one might expect of a monk. “It was uncomfortable,” he points out. “I lost many facial hairs because of that process. You know, moustache, goatee, eyelashes. I pulled my eyelashes out. They got caught in the plaster, so when I pulled the mold off, it pulled my eyes open, and the plaster got into my eyes. Crumbs got into my eyes and irritated them.”

After some experimentation, he began to put masking tape over his eyebrows, moustache and goatee, the way you’d prep a car before painting it.

“Those [molds] with the mouth open, those were the hardest to make ’cause you have to hold your mouth open for, maybe, 10 minutes … but it seems like hours when you’re sitting there.

“People would come in the studio and laugh as I was [waiting for the plaster to dry], but if I laughed, it would destroy the mold,” he explains laughingly (now that it’s safe to do so).

“My eyes were covered [and] I couldn’t breathe out of my nose,” he explains. “My glands were just going at it because, if your mouth is open, then the saliva is building up. And to swallow, you have to move your mouth, so I had to, like, lean my head back, let the saliva just glide down my throat and, at the same time, try not to choke. … It wanted to go down my windpipe, because I had a pool going, a pond, you know what I’m saying? I could have nearly drowned myself, you hear me?”

Lewis says the process was as stressful as a trip to the dentist (but without even the solace of that little suction gadget).

“I had a friend pose for the arms, and I made a mold of his arms. … I got another friend’s chest, somebody else for the back of the head … just different body parts added to it, to make it look more interesting.” (Hey, what are friends for, if not for sharing miscellaneous body parts?).

The Upanishads describe a type of severe yoga practice wherein the yogi pulls out individual body hairs, from their tenacious follicles, one by one in order to become enlightened by tolerating pain. Lewis has been there, done that. “The legs [of the sculpted figures] are my legs,” he reports. “I made that mold while I was sitting in front of the television watching the news. But I didn’t shave my legs. … You put Vaseline on your body to act as a release, so it doesn’t really bond to the skin. I did that, but the hairs on my legs got entangled in that mold, and I was stuck in front of the television for at least 45 minutes trying to get that thing off, delicately . … I’d stick my hand up in there as far as I could, and pull and tear and brush and yank the hairs out. … And my goal was to not mess up the mold; the mold’s the most important thing. … I was trying not to hurt myself, but still at the same time keep the mold intact. But the end result was worth it.”

The pieces are made of white earthenware, fired at a low temperature during an exercise of patience reminiscent of a temple routine. “I would fire it from 7 in the morning until about 5:30 in the evening, all day coming in and turning [the heat] up by increments,” Lewis recalls. “That’s my thing. I don’t paint or draw, can’t do either. I’m just into clay. I feel at peace when I’m working with clay. This one lady calls it her soul food, and that’s what it feels like to me. There’s something about working with this medium … [I’ll] be doing it for hours and not even realize time has passed.”

Lewis meditates with his sleeves rolled up, elbow deep in mud, and his realizations are profound. “We are all bound by something in this world, but still we can somehow or other find peace,” he muses. “[The figures of sculpted monks] have been bound by vines, and yet they still find peace in their meditation, and they’re able to transcend this world. There’s all this chaos going on around them … and there’s chaos in our daily lives. But somehow we can find peace. We are from the earth and are going to be eventually taken back by the earth. You can never fully escape from it. We can’t get away from it, no matter how sophisticated and intellectual we think we may be.”

Is Lewis himself a Buddhist? “Oh, no, Southern Baptist. But that’s a whole other story!” he laughs, exuding the warm and enigmatic charm of a Zen koan.

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