Earl B. Lewis has been painting for most of his life, but a few years ago he started to feel like his work wasn't accomplishing what it should be. He took some time off from painting and began to wonder if he would ever do it again. But he rediscovered his passion in a gas station. "It was 10 at night when this vision came to me," he says, and he headed out to buy a lottery ticket. "I had to know if this idea would work." Back in his studio, Lewis toiled privately for six months on a new series inspired by that vision. The end result is Lotto Icons, a thought-provoking series depicting the faces of children on scratched-off lottery tickets. Delivering the 28 paintings to the Wells Gallery last week, the Philadelphia-based artist said, "I can't wait to get back to my studio. I don't think I've ever felt this much excitement before."
Brand-new lottery tickets from Philadelphia, New York, Santa Fe, Portugal, and Israel are the foundation of Lewis' ongoing series. "There are scratch-off lottery tickets all over the world," he says. "It's like an archeological dig. We are scratching to get to the essence of what is valuable." Lewis says he is making statements with the scratching. "One painting might be only barely scratched because someone thinks, 'I got a losing ticket because it's a black child.' Sometimes we scratch too deeply. This is not just about poverty — this is about children across all walks of life. A child from an affluent family could be scratched too much, all the ways down to the ticket," he says. "This work is about raising consciousness."
As a children's book illustrator and former educator, Lewis says children are an important part of his life. He frequently visits schools to read his books to classes and takes photographs of children that speak to him. Back in the studio, he applies acrylic to the lottery ticket (or several tickets), covers it with gesso, sands the rough edges, and paints the image of a child's face with watercolors. When the image is dry, little brushes are used to apply the gold leaf. Then there is what he calls, "a crazy period of scratching. I want to create that energy and feel of scratching a lottery ticket erratically."
This complex process is Lewis' way of telling his story. "Artists get you to start thinking and questioning. It's not about making your wall prettier." Lewis says that when he stopped painting, it was because his art was not saying something relevant. "This is a significant time that we are in, a worldwide crisis, and where are the artists talking about these events? Where is the art that is starting conversations? When was the last time you went to someone's house for dinner and started talking about the art on the walls? I want to leave something behind. You fill yourself up till you are overflowing, and then you give it all back."
Most of the 28 paintings in this series are small and contained in wide, wooden frames; Lewis calls them "little gems." Like Byzantine paintings from the 12th century, the concept of children as icons is meant to agitate and make the viewer question the value of a child versus the unrealistic dream of lottery tickets. What do we value most? Beneath the layers of gold leaf are the individual faces of young children, staring at the viewer through the web of gold.
This is the first exhibit of Lewis' series, which will eventually travel to Philadelphia and New York. Lewis sees no end to the series and plans to paint children all over the world. "This is my blood, sweat, and tears," he says, pointing to a painting of a young boy who he learned had been abused. The gold leaf is deeply scratched and his soulful eyes peer out at the viewer, pleading. While working on this particular image, Lewis was brought to tears. "These kids are becoming part of me, like my own children."
Partial proceeds will benefit the Community Center of St. Matthew's, a local outreach that serves children and families in the Charleston area and seeks to end generational poverty by addressing literacy in youth.