Think of the act of drawing and you’ll likely envisage a pencil. Chicago artist Tony Lewis indeed favors a Caran d’Ache Grafwood 9B graphite pencil for many of his abstract works, but his physical studio is equally as important to his process. “The whole room has been taken over by piles of graphite powder I bring in,” he says. “It has basically gotten to the point where the walls, the floor and every object in that room is completely covered in it.”
While his graphite drawings begin with a conceptual idea, their evolution comes when they’ve been set aside and “filtered” through the space and its piles of powder, which range from glittery to soot-like. It’s a lengthy process—one that begins with a drawing and can extend for months or even years. By the nature of the graphite-covered studio, and the fact that Lewis’ limbs are usually covered in it as well, the final works “materialize” as they accumulate marks from their environment. “There’s a lot of movement that happens in the studio and a lot of shifting between drawings,” Lewis explains. “If I want to see a drawing I made six months ago, I’ve got to sift through and flip it out. I put it on the wall and take a look at it, then put it back down. Things are constantly moving.” As such, a drawing isn’t complete until it’s left the studio.
There are times when the research he conducts before delving into his work takes longer than the actual course of creating. For a recent exhibition, for example, Lewis did a series of floor drawings inspired by narratives he extracted from the arguments of conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr. during a 1965 debate with James Baldwin. “I spent nine years listening and relistening, writing about it, and analyzing visual footage and audio,” he says. “That was a place for me to start building drawings.” Eventually, Lewis printed out black-and-white screengrabs of Buckley on large pieces of paper, took them to the studio, stored them with other large drawings in progress and allowed the graphite of his studio to collect on them.
Though many of his works feature vibrant hues, Lewis says he’s still figuring out his relationship with color. “I started working more heavily with color to see if it could be subordinate to graphite as a material. I don’t really care too much about the certain colors that I end up using.”
What’s most important to him is that his works make people think beyond what they are looking at in the moment. As he puts it, “I hope that people can gain a better sense of what drawing is and what drawing can be.”
PHOTOS BY FRANK ISHMAN
At top: Artist Tony Lewis allows the graphite powder that floats through his studio to accumulate on his work.