February 27, 2007
James E. Lewis, a prominent Baltimore artist and sculptor who devoted his life to developing the art department and gallery at Morgan State University, died Saturday of complications from a recent stroke at Genesis Nursing Home in Baltimore. He was 74.
Lewis sculpted works throughout the city, including the "Black Soldier" at Battle Monument Plaza on Calvert Street and an 8-foot tall statue of Frederick Douglass on Morgan State's campus.
"James Lewis was one of the pioneers in the 20th century who paved the way, who provided a space for African-American artists to exhibit and show their work regularly," said Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She said that every major East Coast city has had an African-American patron for art and that Mr. Lewis filled that role for Baltimore.
Mr. Lewis amassed a renowned collection of African-American art -- more than 3,000 pieces -- for Morgan State, which dedicated its campus art gallery to him in 1990.
"He was the brainchild behind the gallery and the art department," said Gabriel S. Tenabe, director of the Office of Museums at Morgan State. "The college had little interest in an art program until he came. He had a great influence on the students and the faculty."
Born in Phenix, Va., he and his family moved within a year to Baltimore. After graduating from Dunbar High School, he left Maryland because blacks were not permitted to attend art schools here.
He enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Art in 1942. But in 1943, he left school to fight abroad in World War II, serving in the Marines 51st Defense Battalion.
Upon his return in 1946, he married Jacqueline Adams and later graduated from the College of Art in 1949. He received a master's degree in art in 1950 from Temple University, also in Philadelphia.
He returned to Baltimore that year to chair Morgan State's art department, a position he held for 36 years until he retired in 1986. He remained active with the university, collecting and adding art to the school's gallery.
Mr. Lewis encouraged everyone to collect sculptures and paintings. He wanted society to appreciate artists, especially African-American artists, whom he feared history would ignore.
He once said: "We need to be more supportive of our unique cultural heritage and its arts. Like jazz, for instance. It comes out of a rich black experience which we should be proud of. To do otherwise is to be estranged from ourselves."
He often bought the work of his students as a way of encouraging them.
He took more than 15 trips to Africa, largely on behalf of the U.S. Information Agency, to research and teach art, bringing many of the pieces he saw home with him.
"There are works of art over there at Morgan State that he collected that most people don't even know about," Ms. King-Hammond said.
Mr. Lewis sat on the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations until his health began to fail last year. He was a member of the Baltimore Commission for Historic Preservation and worked with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Mostly though, his children remember him as an artist.
"He had these horrendous sleeping habits," said his daughter, Cathleen S. Lewis, of Alexandria, Va. "I remember he would often stay up all night in his studio to work on one piece."
James E. Lewis' bronze statue of the " Black Soldier" was moved to a more prominent location War Memorial Plaza near City Hall in January 2007.
Originally published August 11, 1997
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