Art Hx Artist-in-Residence Nate Lewis Connects with Princeton’s Special Collections and Discusses his Work

March 15, 2023

2022–2023 Art Hx Artist-in-Residence Nate Lewis recently visited Princeton’s Special Collections before discussing his work in conversation with A&A Ph.D. candidate Jessica Womack, who works as the Art Hx project manager. 

Visiting Special Collections

Guided by Art Hx’s focus on the nexus of art, colonialism, medicine, and race, Special Collections Graphic Arts Librarian Molly Dotson and Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology Head Holly Hatheway worked with the Art Hx team to pull an eclectic and captivating collection of objects for Lewis to explore. Works chosen overlapped with Lewis’s interests in dance, movement, monuments, and medicine and they had a deep impact on him. “Sitting with these items that are bestowed with life and memories and significance and texture and spirit opened me up to be even more curious about the items, the subject matter they were dealing with,” Lewis said.

Nate Lewis and Jessica Womack engrossed in discussion with reproductions of Richard Yarde’s watercolors on table before them.
Nate Lewis and Jessica Womack discuss reproductions of Richard Yarde’s watercolors.

“We were so pleased to facilitate an opportunity for Nate to experience and engage with objects held by Marquand and Special Collections. Charmaine Branch, Art Hx programming coordinator and A&A Ph.D. candidate, identified several objects that she thought may be of interest to Nate using her knowledge of his interests as well as her previous experience as a preceptor for a fall 2022 class taught by Dr. Anna Arabindan-Kesson, the Art Hx project lead. Then, Holly and Molly graciously selected additional objects using Nate’s practice and their knowledge of the collections as a guide.”  – A&A Graduate Student and Art Hx Project Manager Jessica Womack

Nate Lewis peering through a lens on wooden stand with antique print below it.

Nate Lewis peering through 19th-century zograscope (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

For Lewis, being presented with a collection of objects curated to fit his interests was a new, enriching experience. “I don’t think I’ve ever observed items, artifacts, in that manner,” he said. “I’ve obviously seen items/objects in museums, but have never had specific items pulled for my own research, exploring.”

The specially curated presentation began with Richard Yarde’s The Savoy Ballroom, a rare 1986 book of lithographs reproducing watercolor paintings that Hatheway was excited to have added to the Marquand collection last summer. The images depict what is described as the “world's finest ballroom,” which opened on 140th street in Harlem in 1926.

“It was a pleasure to see Nate Lewis’ face light up. He was delighted by the capture of movement of the dancing figures that brought to life the energy of the quick acrobatics and the music one can imagine from the period. The vibrant colors of the costumes and background in the group of prints celebrate a number of named and known African-Americans living in Harlem and enjoying the Savoy Ballroom during the 1920s.”  —Holly Hatheway, Head of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology

Nate Lewis and Holly Hatheway examine a firey scene depicted on a transparent antique drawing that Hatheway is holding up to the light.

Holly Hatheway and Nate Lewis examine Franz Xaver Habermann’s Vue de la Distruction de New York [Representation de feu terrible a Nouvelle Yorck], circa 1776, etching and engraving, with cutouts and paint (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

The next works, jumping back to the nineteenth century, had Lewis peering through a zograscope at La destruction de la statue royale a Nouvelle Yorck, a hand-colored engraving by Franz Xaver Habermann requiring the special mirror and glass lens device for viewing.​

From the same artist, a hand-colored “hold-to-light” engraving with cutouts gave the effect of flames, representing a catastrophic fire in New York in the late eighteenth century.

18th- and 19th-century manuscripts depicting botanical illustrations that shaped the naming conventions of medicinal plants followed. In response to Lewis’ interest in the history of medicine with an emphasis on airborne diseases, Dotson selected Observations on the changes of the air, and the concomitant epidemical diseases in the island of Barbadoes: to which is added, A treatise on the putrid bilious fever, commonly called the yellow fever, and such other diseases as are indigenous or endemial in the West India islands, or in the torrid zone

Mireille Djenno points to manuscript at which Nate Lewis is marveling with Holly Hatheway smiling in the background.

Global Special Collections Librarian Mireille Djenno shows Nate Lewis William Hillary’s Observations on the changes of the air manuscript published in 1776 (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Holly Hatheway and Nate Lewis examine print on table.
Holly Hatheway and Nate Lewis examine Jacob Lawrence’s Westchester Graduation Ball (1951)

Next, Lewis admired a 1951 print by Jacob Lawrence titled Westchester Graduation Ball. And finally, the H. M. Tyndale family photograph album containing 32 tintypes of African American portraits drew him in. 

The objects clearly left an impression on Lewis, for whom this first visit to an archive will surely lead to more throughout his residency and beyond. “I research all the time on my computer, looking at old documents or items,” Lewis said. “However, being present with the actual items is a special experience. I look forward to building poetic connections in the archives very soon.” 

“I research all the time on my computer, looking at old documents or items. However, being present with the actual items is a special experience. I look forward to building poetic connections in the archives very soon.”  – Artist Nate Lewis

Artwork projected on large screen with Nate Lewis visible at bottom

Nate Lewis discussing his work with Probing the Land V (2020) on screen behind him.

Nate Lewis in Conversation with Jessica Womack

At the James Stewart Film Theater later in the afternoon, images of Lewis’ work filled the screen as he spoke with Womack about his work and background.  Photographic images, sculpted with countless incisions gave the impression of multilayered textures and explored subject matter including monuments, time, COVID-19, and movement.

Lewis’ strong roots in the medical field were seeded in the 5th grade when Lewis first set his sights on nursing. He ultimately worked as a critical care nurse for nine years.  Aside from violin lessons in his final year of college, Lewis had no prior art training when he began to draw in 2010 in his second year as a nurse.  He observed a conflict between “nature, society, and information” that he saw playing out within people’s bodies. 

Collaged pieces projected on to large screen with Jessica Womack and Nate Lewis seated and looking up at them.

In his early work, Lewis collaged and painted onto electrocardiogram rhythms.

He could recognize the body’s expression of injury or illness through a close reading of visualizations that deal with line and pattern, like CT scans or electrocardiograms.  These inspired his early work, and he draws on them still.  Lewis emphasized the critical importance of close looking, of being able to differentiate cardiac from gastric cells, for example.  He felt the high stakes of observing with honed accuracy in his career as a nurse and this translates directly to his work as an artist.​

An early breakthrough came when he started to work with paper.   Lewis worked “from the heart,” exploring paper as though it were an organism.  Using a scalpel-like utility blade as a carving tool, Lewis describes incising paper “in a cellular way” and of  “building this anatomy in the paper.” Micro cuts upon micro cuts exposed greater degrees of detail and allowed Lewis to experiment with light.  “These tiny little nuanced processes I think my senses were trained to understand stuff like that,” he said, “I was engaged in that way.”

“We’ve enjoyed working with and learning from Nate during his time with Art Hx. He is deeply motivated by an ethics of care, something that is important to our team as we explore and communicate complex narratives about how colonialism, medicine, race, and art intersect.” —Jessica Womack

Photograph and artwork by Nate Lewis are shown side by side on large screen.

About Nate Lewis

Based in New York City, artist Nate Lewis explores history through patterns, textures, and rhythm, creating meditations of celebration and lamentations. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from Virginia Commonwealth University, and he practiced critical-care nursing in DC-area hospitals for nine years.

His work has been exhibited at the California African American Museum; The Studio Museum in Harlem; The Yale Center for British Art; 21c Museum Hotels; with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. Past residencies include Pioneer Works and Dieu Donne. Lewis’s work is in the public collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Blanton Museum of Art, and The University of Austin at Texas. His most recent solo exhibition, Tuning the Current, was on view at Fridman Gallery in New York City earlier this fall. The featured works raised “questions about the interrelatedness of physical movement, history and healing, particularly (but not only) in the context of African diasporic art and culture.”

The Art Hx Artist-in-Residence program is made possible thanks to the Collaborative Humanities Project of the Humanities Council