One sunny day as sculptor Duncan Lewis used a grinder to create a 9-foot scrap metal alligator, the process sent yellow, white and red-orange sparks flying in his metal sculpture studio in Winston-Salem.
“I really do like working with metal a lot,” said Lewis, who was wearing leather, protective clothing and a welding mask.
Many of his sculptures are “industrial folk art.”
Although he has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Beloit College in Wisconsin, Lewis, 67, said he realized he wanted to be an independent studio artist after taking a bronze casting class and ultimately becoming a teacher at The Penland School of Craft near Spruce Pine.
“That’s really where I learned the bronze casting and the blacksmithing and the welding and the metal sculpting,” Lewis said.
Before the pandemic, Lewis had been teaching on and off at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art. He is currently doing collaboration work with Mixxer, a makerspace, and Dent, a nonprofit that wants to reduce waste through the creative use of items, both in Winston-Salem.
He is a big believer in community art and has done several local public art projects, including “Triple Helix” in the courtyard of One Technology Place in Innovation Quarter in downtown Winston-Salem.
“I think art shouldn’t be this elite, inaccessible thing,” Lewis said.
Q: How would you describe your art?
Answer: I am a sculptor who has worked in several different styles or genres over the years. I am working on a commission in welded metals. It is in a style I call “industrial folk art” because I’m using a lot of industrial scrap metal to fabricate a life-sized alligator for someone’s garden.
I studied figurative art for a long time and still do “realistic” bronze castings, primarily expressionistic animals and birds. I have also done large-scale outdoor abstract sculptures and fountains, wood and stone carving and ferrocement pieces. I guess you could say I’m all over the map.
I’m interested in community art as well, and I am involved in a couple of collaborative projects at present. A recent example of this type of work is in King. Adjacent to an ADA-compliant playground in that city’s Recreational Acres Park, we made a “miniature mountain range” representing Pilot Mountain, Sauratown Mountain and Hanging Rock with the help of volunteers and donations.
Q: How have you evolved as an artist?
Answer: Once I had started selling my work professionally, I was primarily a gallery-oriented artist. I may have done occasional commissions, but I was focused on making sculptures that I wanted to make, in the ways that I wanted to make them. I transitioned away from the commercial gallery scene, and for 10 years, I was a member of the Artworks Gallery co-op on Trade Street.
Teaching sculpture and drawing has always been a part-time thing for me, but for the last 15 years or so, I have been doing commissions, large and small, public and private. In many ways I am still doing what I have always done, making expressionistic animal art, primarily in metal. It is my intention to move away from commissions and return to doing work “for myself,” but if an interesting proposal comes along, I’ll usually check it out. I’d like to think that each new sculpture I do is part of an ongoing progression, and that the best is yet to come.
Q: Who has influenced your art?
Answer: I have always been and continue to be a student of European and non-European art history. During my undergraduate studies, I majored in anthropology, which had a positive influence on my sculpture career with its emphasis on world cultures and non-Western cultures. I was very fortunate to have two strong sculpture teachers and role models, namely my grandfather William Gratwick and the German sculptor Lothar Kestenbaum with whom I studied and apprenticed for in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico over a period of 12 years.
I was strongly influenced by the time I spent at The Penland School, where I learned bronze casting and metalsmithing from numerous sculptors, including the then-director, Bill Brown Sr. And the three years I spent at the New York Studio School in Manhattan were also formative. I had several excellent sculpture teachers, such as Peter Agostini and Sidney Geist.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
Answer: Besides the obvious challenge of carving out uninterrupted studio time from the realities of day-to-day living, it is often a challenge for me to overcome self-doubt. Does the world really need my next creation? Is what I’m working on relevant to anyone else but me? I have come to a place of acceptance with who I am as an artist, but these questions still come around from time to time.
Q: What does art do for you?
Answer: Art in all its myriad forms is a central, core facet of my being. When I am working on a piece of sculpture, it gives me the feeling of knowing what I am here for on this beautiful planet. And it is a similar feeling that I get when I am on the receiving end, immersed in hearing music or witnessing a performance. I believe that art and art-making are one of the defining characteristics of being human. The ability to deal with reality by means of metaphor keeps me sane and keeps me human.
Q: Any advice for other artists?
Answer: Follow your bliss; be careful what you do because that’s what you’ll end up doing; keep on keeping on.
Fran Daniel writes weekly about artists — visual, musical, literary and more. Send your story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 336-727-7366.