Time Made Real: The Carvings of Tim Lewis

Time Made Real: The Carvings of Tim Lewis

Article by  Ned Crouch 

He was in first gear, lugging down a two-mile grade so steep that if you were coming up it empty, you had to be pushed by a D-9 Cat. It was a sure challenge even if you had done it a million times. Keeping your fingers crossed the brake blow-out light wouldn’t show, while wrangling 45 tons of fresh-scraped coal loaded in the cradle of Junior Lewis’ truck one fine spring day, back in ’88, this was the real deal.

Once you got to the bottom of Strip Mine Road, you were home free, and you rolled in, dumped out at the hoppers and headed on back. Strip Mine Road was mostly just straight up and straight down with two switchbacks thrown in to lessen gravity. Ivy Creek, far below, carved the whole thing out at the beginning of time, and was there as a reminder.

Half-way down, that fine spring day, at a bit of narrow, Junior Lewis’ truck and driver were met head-on by an empty, coming back up. “Just popped right up in front of my face” he said. “Even down in first, we were goin’ fast enough so I couldn’t dodge him. I hit the brakes. They popped, the blow-out light popped and the hydraulics blew. Then and there I knew we were in for it.”

“We had one mile left and were goin’ good — too good — so I cut the wheel to the hill-side of the road. If I figured right, she wouldn’t come back on me when I jumped, and she wouldn’t lose her load right there and block the road. So I turned her and jumped. The actual jumping part I don’t remember, but when I hit, I was diggin’ for the hill”.

Deep down off the side, at the very bottom, he watched as a great plume of blue-black coal dust was cast into the air – 45 tons worth. The cab was gone, the carriage, axels, drive-train, tires and cradle-gate. And what was left was on its side.

“I was beat up, but it was a whole lot better than takin’ the long bounce. So I got up, cleaned off the best I could and hitched a ride down the rest of the way.”

And that, very simply, was the end of that.

Not too long after, Tim Lewis, now rested and sort of recovered, reasoned that he would need to find another line of work. Coal and timber wrestled off the ledges and up and down through the hollows was a done thing, and the rigors of his jump and escape had left him in a different frame of mind.

Sweet water, when you can get it, drawn up from the wells of Kentucky’s Elliott County, the hamlet of Isonville, and down the road through Grassy Creek into Campton, feeds a host of people, friends and family. The eastern end of Kentucky holds a curious number of artists, true-born and the not-so. Some are first-time self-taught; some are second generation, a rare proclaimed isolate and a few quick-flashes, mixed with a tiny handful of real icons.

Minnie and Garland Adkins, Noah and Charlie Kenney, Minnie Black, Linvel and Lillian Barker, Earnest Patton, Edgar Tolson and son Donny and some others – glued together in a landscape of cedar knobs and cricks, banked with cast-off pine-tops and coal tailings – all carving and painting like there was no tomorrow – some gone and some still here.

Often more than not, the splinters of life and heartbreak had visited these folks, and the spilling out of their memories and visions was and is a rich telling.

Tim Lewis had always been there amongst his kin – birthed, schooled and mannered, but it wasn’t until directly after “the jump” that the nudge to try or even to think seriously about making “art” took hold. Even as a kid, he had always been handy with carving and making things, but up until now – that didn’t count.

In contrast to a treasured orthodoxy, long held dear to the hearts of many collectors, dealers and a whole bunch of polished curators and museum-types (while measuring the psychic pulse of the self-taught), Lewis was neither “visited,” “spoken-to,” nor otherwise “dusted on” to “allow” him to do what he has chosen to do.

Plain and simple, he was driven by the necessity of the moment. He gathered himself up and looked around at what his brother, Leroy, a reasonably successful carver and chair maker, and his cousins Minnie Adkins and “the” truck owner, Junior Lewis, were doing. All of them had already met with some degree of success at making things and had a following of dealers and outsiders more than willing to purchase their goods.

“I can do that,” he proclaimed.

So at the age of 36, he began to harvest, cure-out, carve and paint the root ends and trunks of small hardwood trees – maple and dogwood being particular favorites. The straightness of the trunks as staff, and the unique complexity of the root balls allowed for an inventive flexibility – and in no time Lewis’s canes became widely acclaimed and collected.

But he went a bit farther. Sometime during the following year of ’89, he took up stone carving – chiseling Noah’s Ark without the critters, from a lump of sandstone – his very first piece.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

Tim Lewis’s carvings have been included in exhibitions from coast to coast and are represented in dozens of public and private collections. The Rosenak Collection, the Huntington (W. Va.) Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s and contemporary artist Red Grooms’s collections – to name a few.

Lewis was proclaimed “Artist of the Year” by the Folk Art Society of America in October 2007, which makes our celebration of this exceptional artist all the more timely and fitting. The Customs House Museum and Cultural Center in Clarksville, Tenn., will host a retrospective of Lewis’s life and work, focused primarily on his pieces in stone. The two-gallery exhibition will premiere July 10 through October 31, 2008. Select works and support materials will then travel to the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio (November 14, 2008 through February 2009). Then on to the Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, Fla. (April 15 through June 30, 2009). The tour will close at the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, Morehead, Ky. (October 1 through December 30, 2009).

Some 40 to 50 works will be on exhibit, selected by guest curators Bruce and Kathy Shelton of Nashville, with works borrowed from a host of collections throughout the country. A fully developed catalogue with essays by Michael Hall, Dan Prince, Lee Kogan, Kathy Moses Shelton and Frank Holt will augment the exhibition.

Tim Lewis, while mining the roots of family and home and while referencing legend and belief, has created a body of work that stands today as an exceptional example of a rich “telling.” We at the Customs House Museum are honored to share this unique talent.

NED CROUCH is adjunct curator for special projects at the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center, Clarksville, Tenn.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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