Written by Joanne Barrett
For Bristol born decorative artist Ross Lewis his relationship with walls is far removed from these notions. His ‘love affair’ with wall space began when he was just four years old. He remembers walking along the hallway of his parent’s new home in London with a red crayon in hand. Something compelled him to run that red crayon along the full length of the wall leaving behind a thin red line.
“I knew it was wrong to draw on the wall but I found it very exciting.”
Since then his art has developed well beyond that of a simple crayon mark. In fact his practice has exploded across walls and ceilings both internationally and in Aotearoa New Zealand; a list of projects spanning 30 years so comprehensive, there are too many to mention here.
But mention some we must. His illustrious career has seen him create works for the noble, the rich and famous, for respected international brands and even Royalty! Yes he made a pencil drawing for The Princess of Wales (Lady Diana at the time) and Prince Charles of the high altar at St Pauls Cathedral where they were married. He has made works for names such as entrepreneur Simon Cowell, actor and director Alan Rickman, The Sir John Soanne Museum in London and brands like Elizabeth Arden, Hilton Hotels, and American Airlines - the list goes on.
So what ignited the fire in the belly of this artist?
“I remember watching a video of Picasso drawing on glass and from that I knew I wanted to learn how to draw,” recalls Lewis. “My mum used to take me on the 2B bus on her way to work on Saturday mornings and leave me at the Victoria and Albert Museum where they had free drawing classes. I wanted to draw everything!”
His first real assignment was to paint a theatre-set for a school play ‘The Match Girls’ at the National Theatre. It included a 30 foot cyclorama of St Pauls and Victorian London which he drew using a Dore woodcut as reference. He was 16 years old. “I passed out while spray-fixing a charcoal and pastel drawing on part of the cyclorama. When I came round, we set the entire thing up on the stage and when I saw it as a whole, I thought, ‘I did that’ this is what I’m going to do from now on.”
Soon after Lewis left college he met Nick Eustace a decorator who, at the time had been asked to replicate a mural for an architect of a wall mural from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Eustace was not a figurative painter so Lewis offered to help by painting the hanging heads and Griffins. This project marked the beginning of a work partnership that would last 17 years until Eustace’s untimely passing in 2001.
Lewis realised he could make a living from his brushes so he taught himself how to wood-grain and marble and paint Trompe-l'œil; a technique that uses realistic imagery to create three dimensional optical illusions often used in murals to represent a window, door, or hallway, to suggest a larger space. Whilst Lewis’ style is figurative it still owns some painterly qualities.
“I like to see how my paintings are made. I love paint. Paintings are made by using one’s body and mind and therefore I think the artists should always embrace ones physicality of the act, be it tiny detail or large gestural marks and not be afraid to let it show.”
Lewis doesn’t follow themes, for him they are a little restricting. He likes to think, that his work as a whole has a sense of permanence and simple clarity appealing to the human condition. In some respects his style is looser and more confident in attack, sharper and more precise and poignant in execution - more to the point and succinct.
By the late 1990s his career was now firmly positioned in the United Kingdom and New York, so what was it that attracted Lewis to Aotearoa New Zealand?
His great aunt worked as a research zoologist in Tasmania. She would return to London every two years and tell of her adventures there and in New Zealand. Lewis and his brother were so intrigued with her stories that their dream was to get an old bus and drive around the world to visit New Zealand; it never eventuated.
Later when Lewis met his partner Rebecca Wallis (Bex) who is also an accomplished artist, they came to New Zealand for holidays and by 2003, with their twin girls they immigrated; they had no job, little money and cheap rental accommodation.
14 years on he is well immersed in the New Zealand way of life and has a string of local projects to his name. He has painted the walls of the 'Gypsy Tea Room' on Richmond Road, Grey Lynn commissioned in 2003 (Tuscia Design). In 2013 he created the distinctive murals, paint finishes and signage for Mekong Baby restaurant on Ponsonby Road.
Lewis’ most recent painting is on the ceiling of the infamous Chapel Bar also located on Ponsonby Road. Fashioned on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel it took him eight weeks to complete. His current project, a mural for the Soffitel Hotel Queenstown is a work-in-progress. It depicts a local panoramic landscape painted in monochrome on a series of panels.
Although much of his work is set in commercial and residential spaces he has a garage/workshop at his Grey Lynn home where he sometimes makes samples and creates murals and paintings of various sorts for later installation.
“Living and working in Grey Lynn and Ponsonby there is a constant feeling of change and desire for difference and individuality which is reflected in public places where you can shop, eat and drink. It throws up opportunities to be a part of creating new atmospheres and environments for the community to enjoy.”
Painting on walls and in spaces he believes shows real commitment from the client and the artist. He regards the duty of an artist in their community is to produce and show work that excites and reflects what living in a community means to that person; almost as a condiment to bring in life’s experiences and channel them into works that others may appreciate and enjoy.
There has been a fair amount of water pass under the bridge since he made that red crayon line on the wall of his parent’s home, but 50 years and on Ross Lewis still gets a thrill from using walls to make his mark!