Louis St. Lewis, a prolific Chapel Hill artist, dies at age 60
Louis St. Lewis, a colorful and offbeat artist who captured the attention of the triangle for decades, both with his art and personal style, died last month. He was 60.
St. Lewis worked productively from the 1980s onwards and became known for combining his pop art sensibilities with classic images as well as eclectic assemblages – three-dimensional collage works – and mixed media, which were displayed in galleries from Raleigh to Paris.
St. Lewis’ work, which was heavily influenced by Andy Warhol, often featured celebrities, such as David Bowie or Elvis, and commented on the nature of celebrities and pop culture. Warhol even once took pictures of St. Lewis to a party in New York City, Walter Magazine reported, and Lewis once said that the first work of art he ever fell in love with was “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips,” a 1962 work by Warhol that he saw. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington.
His death was announced in an obituary in The News & Observer. N&O was unable to find out the cause of his death Sunday afternoon.
St. Lewis was preceded in death by his longtime partner, Roger Messer, and is left, according to his obituary, by Messer’s daughter, Ryan Messer Wilson.
“Louis’ strength as an artist had everything to do with his ability to transform images and artifacts into unexpected, original compositions, by naming them so cleverly through his deep understanding of mythology, music and art history,” said his collaborator Nate Sheaffer. Raleigh Study GLASS. “In the Triangle art scene, he lived up to his reputation as a provocateur, impressed and genius, and he often charmed artist allies while making others furious.”
Growing up in the small town of Wadesboro in North Carolina, about 50 miles southeast of Charlotte, St. Lewis was born Louis Lewis and attended the UNC School of the Arts for a short time, according to a 2001 N&O profile. He later added “St.” to his name when he created a larger than life persona.
“I beat myself up in 1982,” St. Lewis quoted to say in his obituary. “I decided I had enough in my childhood and schooling so I might as well snatch the title. And I’ve performed a miracle, as is required of every saint: I’ve lived by art.”
Pam Leden O’Connor, a close friend of St. Lewis, who met him while working for the PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, said that St. Lewis was ahead of his time when it came to mixing his personal life with his art.
“He really pushed on the envelope from his earliest shows in North Carolina,” she said, and people were attracted to his free-spirited personality.
“And you know, he grew up in a time when it was not so acceptable to be a gay man,” she added. “In the times of being openly gay and being a free-spirited, free-spirited person, it was very brave and I find it very difficult.”
A longtime resident of Chapel Hill, St. Lewis was instantly recognizable in any Triangle art gallery, thanks to his penchant for wearing eye-catching clothing, such as a turn-of-the-century uniform of a riding jacket and trousers and a silk high hat or a Napoleonic cape and hat.
“There are lots of boring people in this world,” he once told The N&O about his wardrobe. “There are lots of boring people in this state. There are designers out there who make wild clothes and they expect someone to wear them. I think artists are one of the few people who actually get away with it. set out to carry them without losing their work. “
St. Lewis was certainly not boring, and was known to be a mischievous ghost. He once wore a fake persona and published a letter to the editor of Independent Weekly in revenge for a bad review, The N&O reported, and he often gave fake biographical details to journalists covering his art exhibitions. He once claimed that he had been found as a baby in New Orleans and named by a group of nurses, his profile reported in The N&O.
“We still have the ability to say who you want to be and be who you want to be if we can lift the apartment,” St. Lewis to The N&O about his blurring of reality. “As a performance artist, I retain the right to be a chameleon.”
Working with him was “akin to stepping on a roller coaster after being told that random carriages power get off the rails without notice, ”Sheaffer said. “The ride, no matter how shocking, was always worth the entrance fee.”
St. Lewis was influential throughout the Triangle art scene, working particularly often with Artsplosure, Raleigh’s city-funded annual art festival. A poster he made for the 1997 edition of the festival led to some controversy as it was seen as a protest against Raleigh’s then-mayor Tom Fetzer.
St. Lewis’ poster for the festival featured a man in drag, which many saw as a response to Fetzer’s attempt to crack down on a nightclub in Raleigh that featured male dancers dressed as women, The N&O reported at the time.
“At the time, the Artsplosure staff were blinded and worried,” the organization wrote in a blog post, mourning St. Lewis’ death. “But, as Louis later told the Artsplosure staff, his ‘medicine could have sweated at the time, but that only made Artsplosure more famous.’
“And it did! This picture became one of our all-time favorites.”
This story was originally published December 5, 2021 at 16:52.