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BECOMING MEN
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GILBERT LEWIS Resting, 1982 Gouache on paper 44 x 30" 2004 Founders' Purchase Award 2004.1222.0002

BECOMING MEN: Portrait Paintings by Gilbert Lewis

Mar 09 - Apr 17, 2004

(Text from Becoming Men: Portrait Paintings by Gilbert Lewis by Christian Bain, in issue 12 of The ARCHIVE)

BECOMING MEN
Portrait Paintings by Gilbert Lewis

By Christian Bain

Philadelphia artist Gilbert Lewis inspires superlatives. What other artist has been compared to Eakins (whose student was Lewis’ teacher) and Titian in the same Art Matters review, or anywhere else for that matter?

Gilbert is also an artist who focuses on the beginning and end of adulthood. During the almost 20 years he worked in a nursing home he painted portraits of elderly patients by day and of young men at night.

“One of my motivations in painting has been to celebrate the beginning of adulthood for the young and the final period of life for the old,” Gilbert observes. “What struck me is that both young men and the old are ignored by society. Despite our ostensible focus on youth, young men are in a sort of nether world, no longer teenagers and yet not full adults. They’re in transition with no established identify and no real place in society.

“A nursing home is basically an orphanage for elderly adults. It’s a place where people don’t really have their families anymore and visiting relatives and the staff constantly tell them what to do and don’t stop to hear what they have to say. When I was with them doing their portraits we were one on one and we were free to talk about whatever they wanted, with assurance that it would remain confidential. They often told me things even their children didn’t know.

“What they had in common with the young men who modeled for me is that they could talk and know that someone was listening. My good fortune was that my young models really appreciated the fact that an adult person was actually there for them and not telling them what to do. I never gave them explicit instructions other than to tell them where to sit or stand. I let them decide how they would do it–I took the queue from each model.

“Both the young men and elderly people who sat for me had a sense of trust because I listened to them and didn’t run away. Some of the young models would bring CDs or tapes of their favorite music to play while we sat.

“I always painted from live models in gouache, watercolor or oil. The portraits were always completed while the model was still sitting: I only touched up the backgrounds, but never the figures.
“I wish that the exhibition could have colored strings connecting the young men who modeled for me with the models who recommended them and the friends they recommended in turn. It would make a very interesting story.”

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