A London Grip online art exhibition of sculpture and painting by Calan Lewis

with text by Teresa Howard

Calan Lewis has used oils, acrylics, pastel, charcoal, and a variety of stone, bronze and wood to produce an extraordinarily moving body of work.  Her solo exhibition has been curated by Jeremy Brown and mounted by architect Alistair Metcalfe in Brown’s converted Schoolhouse.

Calan Lewis was born in Wales and grew up in Birmingham, the daughter of a minister.  Therefore it is no accident that there are recurring Christian images in her work as well as pieces inspired by Greek myths and Byzantine architecture.

Calan’s drive to become an artist began at a young age.  She trained as a painter and sculptor at The Slade, Morley College, Verrocchio Art School in Tuscany under Nigel Konstam and at the Dedalo School in Italy.  She studied history of art at the Courtauld Institute and taught for nineteen years at Wimbledon School for Girls.  Her work has been inspired by, amongst others, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Maggie Hambling, the European Expressionists, African art and Cycladic art.

At the Dedalo school Lewis studied cire-perdu (lost wax process) bronze casting which she has used for the sculptures “Orpheus”, “Eurydice”, and “Head of Francesca”. Near the bronze “Head”, Brown has hung a charcoal drawing of the sculpture.  A more 3D effect has been created for this drawing with torn paper mounted on the page before the drawing took place, producing additional shadows and light-reflecting surfaces.

The same sculptural collage technique reappears in two charcoal drawings of Istanbul.  The towers of Hagia Sophia emerge within an expressionistic, architectural image of Istanbul, capturing the melancholy of Orhan Pamuk’s city, and its crumbling, faded grandeur.  Other studies in oil of this charcoal drawing invoke different aspects of the city, incorporating gold leaf and vivid colour.  Some echo the deep reds and rusts of the spices from the market and another the blues of the mosque tiles.

The six sculptures on plinths form the centre-piece of the exhibition.  “The Holy Family”,  incorporating two sculptures in one, is carved out of Portland stone. On one side is Joseph comforting Mary at the death of Jesus and on the other is a relief of Mary holding the young Jesus who leans away from her embrace. The piece speaks of love and protection as well as the need of the infant to strain towards independence from his mother. On the sides of the piece there seem to be hands holding the figures within.

After news of the 9/11 disaster, Lewis began work on a piece in alabaster, “Crouching Man”.  This depicts a crouching, hunched male figure, showing how masculine might has collapsed and become as vulnerable as a baby or as a foetus curled in the womb. It glows with the translucent light which shines through the stone.

“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”, also in alabaster,  represents the moment that Jacob relents and gives in to the Angel. The sculpture exudes a gentle sense of acceptance. Lewis’s Angel has no wings.

In stark contrast, “The Lovers” represents a man and woman locked together but turned away from each other, alone and in anguish. These startling Cycladic forms are hewn out of two different pieces of sandstone, one pink, one green.

“Man Upside-Down”, like “Crouching Man”, was created after another cataclysmic moment, the Tsunami of December 2004. With overtones of Icarus in his downward flight from the sun, this pyramidal sculpture in black African soapstone records the strength of a man overcome by a powerful force.

“Horse’s Head”, cut from African soapstone in rusts and creams, was a present for Jeremy Brown’s 60th birthday, Calan’s acknowledgment of their joined creativity.  He had always longed to ride a horse and this was the closest she could get to fulfilling this dream for him. The horse’s head floats above its mounting on two brass pegs, straining out of the stone like a horse in flight.  The image is dreamlike, mythical:  it could be Pegasus, the symbol of creativity caught in motion.

Jeremy is a concert pianist and music teacher.  He first met Calan nine years ago when she came to him for piano lessons. They have been bound up in their creativity since the moment they first met, through both music and art.  Calan’s first instrument is the cello and so it was natural that the piano lessons should lead to duets and then trios with the violinist Simon Brown. Jeremy also joined Calan on her forays to discover new stone for the sculptures.  He has facilitated her creative output in every way that he can.

Lewis is moved by a sense of place.  The sculptures make use of foreign stone as well as historical and social themes.  The paintings focus on three places, Cornwall, Istanbul and Thailand.

From Thailand there are a series of “Puppet” pastels and an oil painting.  The strings of the puppets become more and more tangled until in “Puppet 2” the puppet itself seems to be formed with strings.  The figures in these four pictures reveal an eerie greenish-yellow luminosity, hinting at the frightening unseen hand they are controlled by.

Lewis’s relationship with Cornwall as a place of inspiration has been a long-standing one.  She first went there in the 80s with a party of musician friends who rented the Old Hall in Prussia Cove.  They went to play quartets together by the sea and the custom continued.

Calan’s cello appears as one of the central sculptures of the exhibition, “The Cellist”, a relief carving cut in English alabaster.  English alabaster in fact is no longer available and this is a recycled piece from an old altar rail.  The bevelled edge of the rail has been left intact on the back of the piece.  “The Cellist” sculpture aches with the sadness of someone who is no longer able to play the cello, represented by a silently weeping face.  The rough-hewn strings and shining head of the cello grow out of the stone as if the artist had found them there.

There are four paintings of Prussia Cove in the exhibition and one of these, an oil-painting entitled “Wave”, has beach sand mixed into it. The image conveys a sense of solitude, beauty, and inevitability.  Just one wave is enough to wipe away everything, especially when it is coming for you, slowly, beautifully, and there is nothing you can do to stop it making its way up the dry, real sand.

The overriding theme of Lewis’s work is beauty and strength being overpowered by unseen forces. Art often imitates themes inherent in the artist’s life, almost subconsciously.  Calan is suffering from terminal cancer and this first magnificent exhibition will probably be the last she will see. This small birdlike woman seems almost too delicate to have wielded a hammer and chisel to huge rocks and poured molten bronze into hand made casts, to produce this astonishing body of work.  But when you hear her speak and look into her bright vigilant eyes you feel the powerful force of life within her.  It has been an act of selfless generosity for Jeremy to have facilitated this wonderful exhibition, but when you experience the work and meet Calan Lewis, you understand why.


Calan Lewis’s exhibition took place at at St Clement’s Yard, London in April 2009.   Some images from the show appear below. Click on any of the images to run a slideshow.

Teresa Howard is a playwright, lyricist, theatre producer and journalist. She is in the process of setting up a Studio Theatre and Art Centre in Forest Hill, London, UK. (www.possessedamusical.com)

Puppet 4

Puppet 4 (oil) Photograph by Charles Girdham

The Cellist

The Cellist (Soapstone) Photograph by Andrew Holt

The Artist

Calan Lewis, the artist, standing beside The Holy Family (Portland Stone) and in the background on the left Cliff at Prussia Cove (Oil),  and on the right Rocks at Prussia Cove (Oil)
Photograph by Andrew Holt

Head of Francesca

Head of Francesca (Bronze – Lost Wax Process) Photograph by Andrew Holt


Orpheus (Bronze – Lost Wax Process) Photograph by Andrew Holt

The Lovers

The Lovers (Soapstone) Photograph by Charles Girdham

The Lovers

The Lovers (Soapstone) Photograph by Andrew Holt

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (Italian Alabaster) Photograph by Andrew Holt

Crouching Man

Crouching Man (Italian Alabaster) Photograph by Andrew Holt

Man Upside-Down

Man Upside-Down (African soapstone) Photograph by Andrew Holt

Horse’s Head

Horse’s Head (African Soapstone) Photograph by Andrew Holt


Wave (mixed media – oil and sand) Photograph by Charles Girdham

Cliff at Prussia Cove

Cliff at Prussia Cove (oil) Photograph by Charles Girdham

Rock at Prussia Cove

Rock at Prussia Cove (oil) Photograph by Charles Girdham


The Lost Wax Process

The Lost Wax Process dates from the 3rd millennium.  Using an original sculpture, a rubber-based mould is formed and the inside coated with melted wax.  For large sculptures the mould may be cut into sections and “brazed” (similar to welding) together prior to finishing.  Once the wax has hardened the rubber mould is removed and the inside of the wax shell filled with a heat resistant mixture of plaster, sand and water, which is known as the “core”.  This is suspended within the mould by metal pins.  Wax tubes, known as “gates” are fitted to the wax shell to allow ducts for draining and for pouring in the melted bronze.  This is covered with a further plaster mixture and heated in a kiln.  During the heating the plaster hardens and the wax melts out through the ducts, which is why it is called the “lost” wax process.

When the plaster has hardened and the wax has drained away, molten bronze is poured in through the ducts left by the wax.  When this has cooled the plaster shell is chipped away.  Any imperfections are repaired and the sculpture is then hand-polished.

Reference: Griffin Gallery Ancient Art


9 march 2009