E.B. Lewis does not believe in censorship, but he does believe that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” should be taken off the shelves.
“If you’re African American, you get to be Jim, you don’t get to be Huck,” said Lewis, a 1979 graphic design and illustration and art education alumnus. “And Jim’s not a good character. You don’t want to be Jim. You don’t want to be sitting in the classroom as a little African-American boy, and be Jim.”
In the 1884 novel by Mark Twain, Lewis saw misrepresentation of African Americans. He dedicated his career as an illustrator, fine artist and educator to recreating the image of African Americans as one of “dignity and pride,” he said.
“It wasn’t just this down-trodden, broken and beaten individual, and so I want to showcase that,” Lewis said. “These paintings show that you control my body, but you don’t control my spirit. My spirit is intact.”
As part of the featured artist series at the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University, Lewis’ exhibition, “Imagine,” will be on display in honor of Black History Month until March 27. The exhibition is composed of around 20 paintings, primarily featuring his watercolor work and his illustrations in children’s books.
Lewis has illustrated over 70 children’s books and has been awarded the Randolph Caldecott Honor, the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and the Orbis Pictus Award.
“I’ve had a really wonderful run in terms of producing work that I think will hopefully stand the test of time,” Lewis said. “Hopefully in my life, I have left something behind that someone else can use, and that’s what my life is all about. To fill yourself up … with grace and gratitude to give it all back.”
Lewis’ contributions are not exclusive to his artwork—he’s been a teacher for more than 30 years. Currently, Lewis teaches painting and illustration at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
After he graduated from the Tyler School of Art, Lewis turned to teaching. He taught industrial art to the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital for 12 years, and eventually went on to earn his master’s degree in special education.
But while he taught, Lewis couldn’t escape his desire to create—he turned the corner of his classroom into a small studio where he would stay and paint until around 8 p.m. every night.
“About eight years in [teaching], I started to realize I had spent all of these years training to get in the ring, so to speak, in the art world, and never got into the ring,” Lewis said. “So, I wanted to find out if I had what it takes to really get in the ring.”
After Lewis became a member of the Philadelphia Water Color Society, then-president Howard Watson connected him with an agent, who gave him the idea of illustrating children’s books.
“[Lewis] is a person who stands on his own two feet, is very talented and does great things,” Watson said. “In my opinion, he’s always been one of the top African American artists in the area. … He does a lot of work geared towards children, and that’s very special.”
During his lunch breaks at work, Lewis walked to the children’s bookstore Wit & Wisdom every day for two weeks. Lewis said that’s when he “fell in love with children’s books,” and he made his decision.
“You know what, I want to do kids’ books,” Lewis said. “Yeah, this is right down my alley, and my love of education, and my love of art. What better combination to bring those two worlds together? And so, the rest is history.”
Lewis is now working on what he said will be his life’s work: a collection entitled “Honoring the Struggle.” This collection of watercolors and oil paintings will depict the contributions of African-American slaves to the United States—Lewis has finished about 30 of them already.
“I am here to educate the world,” Lewis said. “My work is not just about picture books. It’s bigger than that. I’m picking stories that talk about that pride, whether or not they’re African-American stories, or Native-American stories, or Jewish stories. I’m talking about human stories.”
Jenny Stein can be reached at email@example.com.
Video by Linh Than.