A poster boy for distinctive design

This is one of those stories: Famous artist living quietly in our midst decides, for fun and friendship, to have an art show locally. He’s Andrew Lewis, and though you might not know his name, he is one of the foremost poster designers in the world.

Of course you don’t know his name. Despite living in Brentwood Bay for 17 years and, more recently, near Mount Douglas, Lewis sends all his posters elsewhere. Victoria can manage little flyers, but his standard size is 70 by 100 centimetres, and he’s making one for a big Paris exhibition that is almost 1.5 by two metres — four by six feet.

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Did I say Paris? This one is for the annual international poster exhibition in a huge arts complex near the Seine. The catalogue runs to 400 pages. Last year, his entry in the Mexican Biennale — one of 9,000 — won the gold medal. Since he couldn’t get to the award ceremony, the Mexican ambassador came to Victoria with his entourage and presented the medal to Lewis in the B.C. legislature. And as a result, he has been given the task of branding next year’s Canada/Mexico bilateral relations celebration.

That level of responsibility doesn’t faze Lewis. At the moment, he’s designing the new coloured coins for the Canadian Mint — coming next year. It’s a five-colour process plus engraving. And, at the same time, one of his designs is coming out as a postage stamp. The stamp will likely feature a Converse high-top shoe, with patterning by Marimekko of Finland and a nod to his local footwear supplier, Baggins of Market Square.

That’s just part of the conversation I shared with this artist in his studio last week. He brought out a sheet of credit-card blanks he’s working on for the Bank of Nova Scotia.

“Fifty or 60 layers of files for every card,” he mutters, “mind-melting stuff … trying to keep your head screwed down.” While he continues with the creative process, he passes on the more tedious Photoshop chores to his freelance assistant in Guadalajara. Lewis works in the spare bedroom of his 1912 home, just like a lot of other artists I meet.

Obviously he doesn’t need another challenge, but the owners of Polychrome Gallery, Shawn and Mary Shepard, kept asking him for a show. He says he finds the gallery “fun, really fresh” and, in a weak moment, he agreed. He’ll present about 30 of his “greatest hits” from the poster world in small-size signed editions, specially printed by Island Blue. And he has also promised Polychrome six paintings.

We repaired to the basement (rock outcrop, boxes of stuff in preparation for an imminent house move) where I noted that he had apparently created just two and a half paintings.

“Thanks for pointing that out,” Lewis replied. “I appreciate it.”

And this is the first time he has painted with acrylics! Not the least bit daunted, Lewis loves exploring art techniques. Today he’s in love with Frog Tape, a super masking tape that keeps lines sharp.

“It’s unbelievable,” he effuses, “you get the crispest lines.”

Turning our backs on his ad hoc painting studio, we returned upstairs where he showed me the beer labels he has just created for the local Four Mile Pub’s micro brewery. To get that old-fashioned engraved look, he drew the image on Kodak photo paper with a sharpened Sharpie Marker, and then scratched through it with an X-Acto knife. And, turning on his computer, he flashed through some of the poster designs he is considering to make as inexpensive prints for Polychrome — “culling the herd,” he called it.

“Here’s a project in Jamaica for a kids’ school, here’s a poster for a show in Australia, here’s one inspired by my wiener dog, and here’s Chopin [a cat] which did pretty well.” In fact it won 17 international awards. “And here’s one for an exhibition in Denmark, and an anti-war poster. This is a series of the four — the four seasons — for the Miss Winny clothing store in the Ginza in Tokyo. And this one was for those Tokyo rockabilly cats who dance together in the park on Sundays.”

Lewis was showing no sign of flagging.

“Here’s one with my wiener dog for a show in Paris.” The theme was “what’s your life in the city?” and so he drew the outline of his dog by following the lines on a street map of Paris. After all, cities are for more than just people.

“Save the Tipnis — that’s a huge ecological system in Bolivia which the president wants to carve up with a highway which he says is for oil, but it’s actually for cocaine.” That poster helped draw attention at rallies all around Bolivia.

Then Lewis flipped open his sketchbook. It’s full of drawings of every sort and style, done in idle moments in airports or on the ferry. Currently, he’s dreaming up a commemorative poster for the 50th anniversary of the Vespa 50-cc motor scooter. And while we looked, his phone kept on ringing, and Andrew Lewis calmly ignored it.

I thought it was time for me to get out of his way so he could get on with those paintings — and bank cards and beer labels. It was quite an hour. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with for Polychrome.

 

Andrew Lewis Posters and Paintings, at Polychrome Fine Art, 977-a Fort St., 250-382-2787, opening Nov. 6 and continuing until Nov. 27, polychromefinearts.com.

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