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ART | sadako lewis

RISING
LIKE A PHOENIX
After losing everything in Katrina,
Coast artist Sadako Lewis
burns with creativity again

H TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARLOTTE BLOM

Herbie Hancock blasts out when Sadako Lewis


answers the phone. When Lewis paints in her studio,
which is covered by magazine clippings and photos,
she likes her music loud enough to block everything
else out.
Lewis, 61, was born in Fukuoka, Japan with the
blood of her artist father pumping through her veins.
The youngest of four children, she was her father’s
sidekick. He took her to art shows or “sketching
trips” and she even knew the taste of sake at a very
young age.
Her father saw to it Lewis got as much exposure
Mississippi, “struggling to survive.” She wasn’t able
to do anything else but work, which she was doing as
a waitress. Until she became a citizen and decided to
go to night school, that is. For this she received a Pell
Grant and ended up earning two associate’s degrees,
one in business administration, (technically called
applied science). But she disliked this degree so
much it propelled her to get her second degree in art.
During that time, through a local Buddhist organ-
ization, she meet her second husband, David Lewis,
with whom she had her third child, a son.
When her father died of cancer, Lewis read his
to art as possible. He furnished her with private les- diary and found that he regretted not being able to
sons in high school, and she says she was “exhaust- have done more with art.
ed” from them. After spending 2-3 hours at them “I need to do this for him, carry it on,” she said.
she’d come home ready to But it wasn’t until about five years after her
drop, drained. father’s death that her creative fire was ignited.
“My sisters thought When Lewis’s daughter gave her a watercolor book
maybe he saw something for her birthday, Lewis had an epiphany, remember-
in me even though I ing the vow she made to her father’s spirit and mem-
showed no interest,” Lewis ory, and she switched her major in school at the jun-
said. “I never thought I ior college.
was enjoying it.” To her surprise, Lewis then experienced a typical
Her concern was more artist’s dream: she received a letter from William
about family. Lewis’ first Carey University asking for her portfolio, and was
husband was a GI in Japan subsequently offered a scholarship. Faced with the
but when he was stationed threat of failing a test if she didn’t study, Lewis took
at Keesler Air Force Base text books along on her honeymoon. She graduated
in Biloxi, they moved to in 2001 with high honors and an academic award for
the states with their two excellence, and set out into life with her BFA in
daughters. painting and ceramics.
But then fate took its In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, the Lewises
course, and the couple got took refuge with family in Oklahoma, taking only
divorced, rendering Lewis their cat, some clothes, the computer, and a sketch
a single mother in pad and some art supplies. Their home in Long Beach
was completely destroyed. Only a concrete slab stood in its
wake; all their belongings, including most of Lewis’s paint-
ings and what she calls a “dream studio,” which had only
been completed that year, were obliterated.
Lewis was ready to leave Mississippi for good.
“We were staying in a beautiful town, and the Mississippi
coast was so dirty and nasty, the destruction just over-
whelmed the place,” she said.
However, her husband went back to work within a couple
of weeks, living in a FEMA trailer alone until they decided
what to do.
Because of their positions as area leaders in the Buddhist
SGI organization, Lewis decided to return and start over with
her husband, who asked her to return to “rise again and be
part of that history.” Lewis wanted to be there to see that.
The Lewises bought another house - furnished - in Long
Beach, and began picking up the pieces of their lives. In spite
of the hardships, or perhaps as a result, Lewis’ art flourished.
She wanted to paint more than ever; she experienced another
deepening of her resolve.
Like so many artists devastated by the loss of their work
after Katrina, Lewis knew there was only one option: to rise
like a phoenix.
“All I need is my two hands to create. I am growing and
evolving every day,” she said. “I can make new ones.”
When she still didn’t have enough supplies, she used fab-
ric abandoned in the house by the former owners. Slowly she
regained her studio supplies, made new books of inspiration
filled with images of artists such as Larry Rivers, Egon
Scheele, Willem De Kooning and John Miriam. Accordingly,
Lewis would describe her style as expressionistic. But her
method is as meticulous as she was with her studies. If she’s
not working from sketches of live models, she usually makes
them from photos or even Vogue’s layouts, and then jumps
to canvas.
Lewis just signed a contract with Negrotto’s Gallery in
Biloxi, making them her exclusive representative from
“bridge to bridge,” or basically the Mississippi coast. Romy
Simpson, Negrotto’s owner for six years, first saw Sadako’s
work at “Pinktober” where (mostly) women’s work was
donated for a breast cancer charity. Right now, she has seven
small paintings hanging for February’s Black History show
and three large paintings unrelated to that subject.
“We fell in love with her work,” Simpson said. “It was
rich, had a lot of movement. She uses oils and not a lot of
artists do that these days, especially with the thickness. She
uses non- traditional colors, her prices are really affordable.
She’s just fresh and different.”
Of her late father, Lewis said she’s making up for his lost
time, since he could only deeply delve into his art after
retirement.
“It was bubbling up inside him for many years,” she said.
“I can feel it through him. I think he’s really happy.”

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