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Charlotte Lewis: Explores nature's way in art

n ancient times, the Egyptians embellished their homes and decorated their tombs with a tempura paint made from duck eggs and ground stones. Today, artists such as Charlotte Lewis still create pictures using the elements of nature, including onio...

n ancient times, the Egyptians embellished their homes and decorated their tombs with a tempura paint made from duck eggs and ground stones. Today, artists such as Charlotte Lewis still create pictures using the elements of nature, including onion skins and coffee grounds.

Lewis, a musician and artist, used to call her pieces collages and mixed media, but photographer Vance Gellert - who photographed Lewis for his own exhibit - discouraged her from that. Just call them pictures, he advised, probably because he thought calling them collages would "pull them down" in public regard, she said.

"You have to call them something if you're entering them in art shows," said Lewis, who lives in Grand Forks.

Her pictures are made of all natural materials and colors, with backgrounds rubbed on with plants or colored from washes such as beet powder, which she purchases at Amazing Grains food co-op.

"It's not as messy as beet juice," she said.

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Then there are pressed flowers and leaves, bark, crushed onion skins, cotton from cottonwood trees or cattails, crushed weeds, Spanish moss and what she calls "sidewalk driftwood." She's discovered that many fruit and vegetable peelings - like those from eggplants, zucchini and mandarin oranges - dry beautifully. She's even used coffee grounds.

Musical trio

Lewis, who will be 91 on March 9, came to Grand Forks from Ann Arbor, Mich. Her sister, Elizabeth Lewis, was on the music faculty at Wesley College and UND and also was concert master for the Grand Forks Symphony. Both sisters had degrees from the University of Michigan - Elizabeth in violin and Charlotte in cello - and in Grand Forks, they often were part of musical trios that performed at various events. Elizabeth died in 1989.

Before moving to Grand Forks, Charlotte Lewis taught lessons from her own studio and worked in food service for many years. She grew up with music, she said.

"I played piano off and on since I was 6 or 7 because my mother taught me, but I fell in love with the cello in the 10th grade," she said. "Then I didn't practice the piano like I should have."

Lewis' grandfather was a Congregational minister and edited hymnals, and her mother played hymns for the family every Sunday night.

"I love to play hymns because I grew up on the hymns," said Lewis, who plays piano at retirement homes and for special services in United Lutheran Church. Mondays are especially busy. She doesn't drive anymore, so she catches the city bus at 8:20 a.m. and plays at Valley 4000 and St. Anne's Guest Home, returning home at 4 p.m. That's her busiest day, and by the end of it, she's pretty tired, she said. How does she keep up the pace?

"By flopping down between times," she said, smiling.

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Lewis began taking her work to art shows in 1978. She started by making cards that some told her were too pretty to mail. Another artist suggested she try her hand at framed pictures. Since then, she's had pieces at juried shows and galleries and has given workshops. For seven years, she was accepted to exhibit at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

"I wanted to make something beautiful that would last," she said. "I mean, music goes away. If you record it, it's kind of frozen, and any live performance disappears."

Lewis continues to show and sell pieces, including a recent exhibit at the World's Smallest Art Gallery in the Urban Stampede and in a gallery in Fergus Falls, Minn. Today, many of the natural pieces she uses in her pictures come from close to home, especially from her kitchen.

"I keep discovering more things all the time - that's fun - every time I'm cooking something or peeling something," she said. "This is all very humble stuff."

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or ptobin@gfherald.com .

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