I was driving North on Schaefer Avenue, south of Fenkell Street, in Detroit. I noticed on the right a bold commercial wall, a painted advertisement — “I Make Stars” — for Bill Cason Photography.
I stopped to admire it.
Upon closer investigation, I noticed the signature of Curtis Lewis at the lower left of the attractive mural, produced in 2012. Bill is no longer at this location but the mural continues to brighten the neighborhood.
As I record Detroit’s unique and wonderful character with a camera in hand I meet a lot of people on the streets. A friendly neighbor jumped in front of the sign, asking me to take his picture. He was destined for the local gas station/party store. In many neighborhood “food deserts,” such stores are the only places that provide access to nutrition.
I’ve admired Curtis Lewis’s outdoor artwork for years. His images populate my book Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Folk Art (available at Wayne State University Press and Amazon.com). Painted in oils, many of his wall advertisements still exist, having survived all kinds of weather conditions.
Jesus Blessing the Renaissance Center was never completed. The Pastor ran out of money.
Curtis Lewis himself has been a bit more elusive. I finally met Curtis and his wife, Cynthia Henley, through artist Hubert Massey, at a small touring art exhibition in the Grosse Pointe Library system.
Curtis is in the process of producing 30 oil paintings saluting Aretha Franklin: he knew Aretha and her family personally. Cynthia is working on a series of educational coloring textbooks – “Amazing Grace – the Aretha Franklin story,” illustrated by Lewis. Negotiations with the Franklin Estate for rights to produce are ongoing.
Curtis Lewis graduated from Detroit’s Pershing High School in 1971 with a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, he returned to Detroit and spent six years on ladders and scaffolds, painting billboards and honing his graphic skills.
Hollywood Beauty Supply, Seven Mile Road at Wyoming, is a good example of effective outdoor art. In it, you can visually grasp the expanse of the “Curtis Lewis look” — BIG brash images and color. “The wall dictates the balance, meaning and placement of images and text,” Lewis told me.
Curtis Lewis is a prolific mural artist. His work just rolls along on the walls.
The stage entrance and restaurant at Bert’s Warehouse in Detroit display some of his most ambitious work. In the corridor leading back to the concert stage, one of his murals chronicles Detroit’s long history. At Bert’s, the work covers noted Detroit musicians, athletes and politicians, and documents the rich Detroit culture from an African-American prospective.
The Detroit Public Schools contracted Lewis to paint over 50 interior murals at various locations. The well-preserved murals (circa 1993) at the Coleman A. Young Elementary School remain as a visual history. The images begin on the African Continent and take the viewer through times of forced slavery, segregation, integration and economic empowerment. Many of the images are labeled.
In 2008 I photographed a large Lewis exterior signage/interior wall installation at Upper Cuts Barber Shop on Livernois Avenue in Detroit. I was shooting the exterior signage on a Monday morning and had good light.
The shop was open. I met a barber with a ponytail who invited me in. “I have to work seven days a week to make any money.” Not enough heads anymore. The shop featured a bright blue and red boxing motif and a staging of barber chairs surrounded by stanchions and ropes. Above the mirrors was a long boxing-history mural completed by Lewis.
I returned to Upper Cuts in January, 2020, to discover a “For Lease” sign. A phone call to the number posted connected me to the owner, who asked her friend, Mr. C., to meet me at the shop.
When I arrived, Mr. C. was seated in a chair.
The space has been cleaned out. Only the Lewis mural and backwall cabinets survive.
I’m hoping the murals will be recognized as Detroit fine art and preserved by the owner. A fresh coat of paint for a new lease could delete the images.
Little by little, over the years I have noticed and understood the volume of visual art by Curtis Lewis in the Detroit area. I am pleased to have documented many of the ephemera he produced, and recognize Curtis as a very talented and successful artist of murals, advertising, and fine art.
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