The Delaware art community lost a legend Aug. 19 with the death of Jack Lewis at age 99.
Lewis was a well known and respected figure in the First State; his murals hang in Legislative Hall, museums, galleries, businesses and many Cape Region homes. He would've turned 100 years old Aug. 30.
“He was someone who wasn't an elitist artist; he thought art was something everyone should enjoy and experience,” said Jack's friend Jim Flood. “He was a gentle man and a hard worker as an artist. He enjoyed his work and especially enjoyed working in Delaware.”
Born in Baltimore in 1912, Lewis moved to Delaware in the mid-1930s to work as an artist for the Civilian Conservation Corps, painting the daily activities of three CCC camps controlling mosquitoes in Lewes, Magnolia and Leipsic. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1942 and was sent to the Pacific. On his return, he earned a master's degree and began teaching, working in public schools and Delaware Technical Community College from 1949 to 1976.
In 1986, Lewis was commissioned by Delaware’s Legislative Council to create murals celebrating the bicentennial of Delaware’s Ratification of the Constitution. The murals are still hanging in Legislative Hall in Dover.
The news of Lewis' death saddened many throughout the state, including Gov. Jack Markell, who presented Lewis with an Order of the First State - the highest honor for meritorious service the governor can grant - in 2010. Lewis was also presented with the Governor's Award for the Arts in 1986.
“Jack Lewis was a great American artist of enormous talent,” Markell said in a statement. “His work spanned most of a century and painted a vivid story of life in Delaware and the Eastern Shore. I am sorry to hear of his passing but feel fortunate that our state was the beneficiary of his talent. His family and friends can find comfort in knowing future generations will be able to see Delaware through his eyes in the great body of work he leaves behind.”
Lewis published several books of his artwork, with forewords written by notable Americans such as N.C. Wyeth and Eleanor Roosevelt. After retiring, he taught in many venues in the community, including the Delaware Correctional Center and Rehoboth Art League.
The art league held a retrospective of Lewis' life and works in November, which included art from his early days with CCC and his latest pieces. RAL Executive Director Sheila Bravo said Lewis' impact on the art community was more than evident at the event.
“So many people came and talked about Jack and his influence on their lives and their artwork,” she said. “We're certainly saddened by his passing. We celebrate his amazing legacy he has left in the state not only in his artwork but the many artists he influenced.”
Lewis lived in Bridgeville for four decades and left his mark with a large mural on the side of what is now the Dollar General on Market Street. Dewey Beach entrepreneur Alex Pires said he often admired the painting while filming his movie "Mayor Cupcake" in the town a few years ago.
He said was already a fan of Lewis' work and had the pleasure to meet the artist on a few occasions. He recently found and had restored a 1953 water color depicting a party on the beach. The mural ended up nailed to the wall of an old home off of Route 24 and was in bad shape when Pires found it. He said he hopes to hang the 12-foot-by-4-foot piece on the wall in The Rusty Rudder.
Pires also displays a Lewis painting from 1995 in his home.
“He captures real life, but he does it in kind of a light and jovial way,” Pires said. “The big painting I have at home of Lewes, he just captures it. It just looks and feels like a soft summer afternoon in Lewes where everyone is just relaxing and enjoying life.”
Lewis moved to Maine with his wife in the 1990s to be closer to his daughters, but his decades in Delaware lingered in his thoughts.
“He always remembered Delaware and missed it,” Flood said.
Lynda Messick, CEO at Community Bank of Delaware, said she met Lewis several times when he came to art shows at Delaware Technical Community College. She said she was a fan of his western Sussex County works, particularly Cullen's Pond, where she grew up.
“All I could think about is, 'Oh my God, he looks exactly like what I think an artist should look like,'” she said. “He was a gentle man, very self-effacing and humble, I thought. I was so star struck even then.”
She then came across two of Lewis' painting while working on the board at Nanticoke Hospital.
“We used to have our meetings in this funny little room called the Nurses Administrative Room. Every time I would go to the meetings I would get distracted by this water color of Nanticoke Hospital on the wall,” she said.
Upon closer inspection, she discovered they were Lewis' paintings and that he had donated them to the hospital.
“The first thing I did was make sure the CEO knew that he had really important artwork on his wall,” she said. “They had no idea.”
Well into his 90s, Jack made the trek all by himself from his new home close to his daughters in Maine to exhibit his work at the Rehoboth Art League Outdoor Show each August.
When he heard of Lewis' death, Cape Gazette publisher Dennis Forney said, “What a life - he followed his passion.”
Cards of condolence can be mailed c/o Sallie Sharpless, 604 River Road, Eliot, ME 03903. With family services being held in Maine, a memorial service will be held at Rehoboth Art League at a later date. A scholarship fund for budding artists will also be established in his memory.