a June 21, 2007, article by John Tune from the

Tim Lewis: 'Idiosyncratic, whimsical' - and proud of it

Tim Lewis

During a 35-year career as a professional illustrator, Tim Lewis created artwork that ended up on the cover of magazines like Time and Forbes.

[The picture shows Tim Lewis in his Empire studio]

He designed album cover jackets for pop stars like Peter, Paul and Mary, Gordon Lightfoot and Chuck Berry.

Publishing giants like Doubleday and Simon & Schuster went to Lewis for his illustrations for use on the covers of a countless number of books.

And during his career, it wasn't unusual for him to bump into the likes of actors and musicians like Rita Moreno, Bob Dylan and Tiny Tim.

So with all that notoriety and living in the cultural capital of country, if not the world, when it came time to retire Lewis didn't take long to decide where to live. Empire.

From a city of 10 million people to a village of 400, he never hesitated. The village holds special meaning for Lewis, who had Norwegian descendants that first came to Empire in the late 1800s.

"Upon my retirement... and after a divorce, I thought why not live in Empire with its peaceful setting, and so many good memories?" said Lewis, who turned 70 earlier this month.

He made the move six years ago, and he hasn't been disappointed. And neither has Empire.

Lewis is not only a part of the local artists' community, he's also provided a key role in the Empire Asparagus Festival that was celebrated last month. He has designed the artwork for the official poster all four years the festival has been held. And as much asparagus as there is that is purchased and consumed during the festival, sales activity of short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts featuring Lewis' poster artwork are just as brisk.

This year's poster featured a character with a sun for a head juggling asparagus spears, butterflies, birds and festive hats with the words "Asparagus Festival 2007" and "Empire Michigan" prominently displayed. The rays from the sun evolved into the asparagus spears, giving definition to a style that's been described as a "idiosyncratic and whimsical." It's a label Lewis is happy with.

"Yes, that label has been applied to me, and I didn't come up with it, but I like it," he said from his home in the village on Lambkin Lane. "I think my work is quite identifiable as mine, so people see and recognize it as Tim Lewis' work. I seem to respond and get satisfaction from developing a new way of presenting an idea." Lewis insists, however, that his work is not "cartoonish."

"Some people think it's cartoonish, but that's a word I boil with." he said. Lewis' illustration days are largely over. Though he's still doing the Asparagus Festival poster, and has done a couple of T-shirts for Art's Tavern in Glen Arbor, he mainly focuses on creating work with watercolors that he says alternate between abstract and representational. He prefers using brushes, pencils and pigments.

"My favorite pastime is getting absorbed in my sketchbook and realizing the results through artwork," he said.

Some of his recent work involves the use of symmetrical images and creating irreverent collages that center around antique photos of people. He's also created a series of mechanical men, and paintings that showcase mermaids in a variety of offbeat ways.

"Rather than do portraits of realistic fish, I did a series that put mermaids in a different light," he said, pointing to one painting he called "Picasso mermaids."

The walls of his Lambkin Street home, a modular that his mother once lived in that has since been renovated to include a studio, are filled with dozens of Lewis' framed art pieces. He also has some of his work exhibited at the Salisbury Building in Empire, where the State Savings Bank is located. His property backs up to the Jimmy Johnson Lions Club Park, and his yard includes a garden he designed with the help of a friend, Jane Ecclestone.

"I told Jane, 'my yard is your canvas, let's see what you can do with it.'" he said. Next door, he's having a small building studio/guest home built.

Life in Empire

Lewis said he enjoys the pace of Empire, and has regular activities that keep him busy in addition to his painting.

"I like to get my exercise by walking the beach in Empire three or four times a week," said the gangly Lewis, who's nearly 6-foot-4 but weighs just 175 pounds. A diabetic, he carefully watches what he eats.

"In a world filled with obesity, I'm considered anorexic," Lewis said. "It's unfortunate that Michiganders don't walk as much as New Yorkers do. You'd be surprised how easy it is to live in New York even if you don't have a car if you're willing to walk and use public transportation."

Lewis stays active with fellow artists through a regular Sunday morning breakfast gathering at the Friendly Tavern in Empire.

"There's between six and 15 of us who gather at the Friendly on Sundays," he said. "It's informal, unorganized, and we talk about art, but lots of other things, too."

He said artist and friend Dewey Blocksma of Crystal Lake is the group's "chairman of the board." Lewis' home also includes artistic touches from Blocksma, whose unusual sculptures are well known.

"Dewey reassembles found objects and recreates them in imaginative ways," Lewis said.

When Lewis first moved to Empire, he said he was a bit taken aback by the number of artists in the Leelanau, Benzie and Grand Traverse area.

"I was surprised by the number of artists who picked this area for retirement, how active they were, and the amount of high-quality art that is being produced," he said. He also enjoys the differences between New York and Empire.

"There's so much more camaraderie (between artists) here," he said. "Everybody just seems more relaxed and congenial compared to the cutthroat nature of New York City."

Lewis said that when he decided to relocate to Empire, however, he didn't want to copy a formula that other local artists have used.

"It was my determination not to produce another lakescape, landscape, or Fishtown visual representation that tourists like to buy so much. I plot my own course," he said.

Working in New York City

After his 1959 graduation from Western Michigan University, Lewis taught elementary art for one year in Portage before joining the Army. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for three years with the Army Security Agency before moving to New York to seek a job in commercial art. He worked for six months as an assistant art director at Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency before joining Push Pin Studios, an internationally acclaimed illustration and graphic design studio where he said he "cut his commercial art teeth."

After a five-year stint at Push Pin, Lewis spent the next 30 years as a freelance illustrator. During that time, his works were published in many magazines, newspapers, corporate brochures and journals. During the first half of his freelance career, he worked mainly on editorial art for magazines and book publishers. The next 15 years saw him primarily focus on corporate and institutional illustrations.

Though he's happy with life in Empire, New York still has a hold on him.

"I have to go back two times a year to get my art fix," said Lewis, adding he never tires of visits to cultural New York City icons like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall, and the American Museum of Folk Art.

Childhood days in Empire

Though Lewis grew up in Midland, he spent many summers during his childhood in Empire with his maternal grandparents.

His first relative who came to Empire, great-grandfather Anton Johnson, arrived in the village from Norway in the late 1800s.

"His original connection was to the lumbering era, but then he decided he wanted to be a businessman so he went back to Norway, picked up his wife, her sister, and their ancient mother, and started a new life in Empire," he said.

Lewis said Johnson provided a tub for Norwegian lumbermen so they could take their Saturday night baths. He also cut hair and ran an ice cream parlor on Front Street.

Johnson and his wife had two sons, one of whom died of tuberculosis. The other, George Johnson, ran Empire State Bank for years. Lewis' great-grandmother, Maude Lambkin, spent virtually her entire life in Empire and died two months shy of 100. His mother, Eva Lambkin was born and died in Empire.

Lewis looks back fondly at those simpler days, and has watched as the art world and life in general have become more complicated and diverse. He's also proud of the fact that he doesn't own a computer, though he acknowledges that technology can provide a major assist to commercial artists.

"I got out just in time, but if you're going to be a graphic designer today, you'll have to be very familiar with technology as a working tool," he said.

Beginning Aug. 24, some of Lewis' work will be displayed at the Lake Street Studios gallery in Glen Arbor. More details on the display will be released later this summer.

Favorite food, book and saying:

Favorite food: "I'm diabetic, so I have to cross off things like key lime pie and creme brule. I'd have to say salmon, because there's so many great ways to prepare it."

Favorite book: "It's not so much a book, but anything written by John Updike. He's been my favorite another for years."

Favorite saying: "Time disappears when I'm involved with painting."