Art in the round | July 13, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 13, 2007

Art in the round

Artist gives viewers a turn with her rotating paintings

by Rebecca Wallace

Sydell Lewis is a dancer-turned-painter and an admirer of op art works that inspire darting eyes and unusual perspectives. Small wonder, then, that her latest paintings are in perpetual motion.

The abstract canvases are mounted on rotation devices; some turn at battery-powered intervals, while others invite gallery visitors to rotate them at random.

As the acrylic paintings turn, viewers can see new aspects. Vertical rippling lines morph into ocean waves and then go vertical again, becoming rain trickling down a window. Symbols emerge from the layers of paint, calling to mind aboriginal creations or totem poles.

That's Lewis' goal with her rotating works: to encourage viewers to look again and again. As she wrote in a recent artist's statement, "My intention is to create energetic surfaces that keep the eye and mind in an active elated state."

Today, Lewis stands under the pools of light in Palo Alto's Gallery House, looking up at her rotating paintings on exhibit.

"People find all sorts of things in my paintings. That's the beauty of abstract," she says.

She pauses in front of "Infinite Relief," which incorporates a subtle geometric pattern. One gallery visitor, she recalls, stared at the painting, then turned it and found something new: "Wasp's nests," he announced.

When Lewis paints, she sometimes has concrete subjects in mind, such as the vapor and rain of "Quiet Flow." Other times, she's caught up in the nature of the paint itself, matching colors or creating ridged, corduroy-like textures with a knife or comb.

Another major influence is Picasso. From him, Lewis says, she's learned that "You don't have to paint exactly what you see; you paint the essence of what you see."

Lewis' use of rotation devices is unusual but not unheard of. Brooklyn artist John Beech, a native of England, creates rotating paintings along with his sculptures, drawings and installations. His rotating works have simpler designs than Lewis' paintings; many are circular, glossy Plexiglas disks in one or two hues.

Regardless of the design, a rotating painting can be intriguing because it gives the viewer added insight into the artist's thoughts. While working, many artists turn an in-process painting upside down for a time. This can yield a new perspective, or help ensure that the composition is balanced.

So when viewers turn paintings in a gallery, they feel part of the creative process, said Nora Wagner, program director at the Blackhawk Museum, a Danville museum of automobiles and works of art with automotive themes. She's also a collector of Lewis' art.

"My work in the museum profession involves looking at art and encouraging other people to look at art. Not everyone sees it in the same way," Wagner said. With Lewis' work, she said, "Now I can participate in the way I view this."

One of Lewis' rotating paintings hangs in Wagner's home, where it's become a conversation piece. Wagner has also enjoyed Lewis' other works, which include oil paintings, large-scale acrylics and prints.

"She's had an extremely varied career, but there's a consistent quality of a freshness and a tremendous vitality," Wagner said. "Also subtlety. The color choices that she makes sometimes, and the combinations of those colors, there's an elegance and a subtlety to that."

"Varied" is a good word for Lewis' career. Besides being an avid ballroom dancer, she's also a trained chemist who worked in biomedical research for many years. Lewis studied art, too, but became a scientist for fear that she wouldn't make a living with art.

By 1992, she was ready to give up science to try her hand as a full-time artist. "I'd fulfilled a certain cycle as a chemist," she said, adding, "I was married; I was supported (financially)."

Lewis has been showing and selling her art ever since. A Sunnyvale resident, she's been a member of Gallery House since 2000 and has seen her work in many Bay Area venues, including Stanford Art Spaces, San Francisco City Hall and the Triton Museum in Santa Clara.

The rotating paintings grew out of a series of striped abstract paintings she was working on about two years ago. She began turning the canvases upside down while painting, as she commonly did, and then became inspired to set them on their sides as well.

"I was totally taken and fascinated with them," Lewis recalls, standing in Gallery House, where she's exhibiting with Palo Alto clay monotype artist Martha Castillo. "Then I had this problem: How am I going to show them?"

A carpenter friend helped her build manual rotation devices that were so simple she now constructs them herself. For the current exhibit, she used some automated devices, designed by kinetic artist Mark Galt. They turn the paintings at 45-degree angles at regular intervals, making a gentle ticking sound in the quiet gallery.

The rotators also added another dimension for Lewis: She had never before considered looking at her paintings on the diagonal. It's a dynamic, eye-catching angle that you don't often see on a gallery wall.

Now when Lewis paints, she turns her canvas every which way: "I never paint in one direction for too long."

What: "Beyond the Surface," an exhibit of rotating paintings by Sydell Lewis and hand-pulled clay monotypes by Martha Castillo

Where: Gallery House, 320 California Ave., Palo Alto

When: Through July 21. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-326-1668 or go to .


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