JAMES E. LEWIS, who died at 74 over the weekend, was a man of many talents. He was a notable artist and sculptor and a long-time Morgan State University art professor. He was also an indefatigable collector.
He oversaw the development of Morgan's gallery. He also created a home museum that boasted "probably the largest collection of African art in Baltimore," according to Frederick Lamp of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Dr. Lewis wanted more people -- particularly African Americans -- to recognize the value of collecting art created by black people.
"The idea is to start early. Get into collecting now while the market is still reasonable," he urged years ago.
"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."
In his 36 years at Morgan, Dr. Lewis built its art department from a neglected division into a serious scholarly and creative operation. He also started the school's gallery of African-American art. Named after him in 1990, it became a sought-after exhibit venue, which has a collection of more than ,, 3,000 pieces.
Dr. Lewis made more than 15 trips to Africa, acquiring many important objects, particularly from Ivory Coast and Liberia. Those trips coincided with what now is seen as the golden age of collecting significant pieces of traditional art. In later years, wars and calamities wiped out many of the ritual observances for which authentic masks and other artifacts were created.
No work of Dr. Lewis' was more controversial than his 1972 sculpture, the "Black Soldier." Its placement in Battle Monument Plaza was opposed by critics who thought the statue was inappropriate at a memorial to those who fought in the 1814 Battle of North Point or argued that no more tributes to the military were needed at all. In the end, anonymous donors facilitated the casting of the 9-foot bronze.
Dr. Lewis was a founding member of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations. He was a man of wide-ranging interests whose perspectives and wisdom will be missed.
Pub Date: 8/12/97