Laura Lewis’ paintings translate the vast expanses of earth and sky from north of Amarillo and south toward Midland into neon-electric images so dynamic that admirers of her art might gasp and say: “I know that scene. But not like that!”
Indeed, you’ve probably seen some of these places. In her interpretations of Panhandle, High Plains and West Texas landscapes, Lewis traverses rural asphalt and dirt roads in a huge radius around her hometown of Lubbock to photograph a wide range of subjects—sunsets, sunrises, cotton fields and cotton-harvesting equipment, horses, windmills, sunflowers, mesas and sandy riverbeds. She then assembles the assorted photos—a sunset with just the right pinks and stratified clouds, cows or horses in a pasture, Canadian geese in flight—into one immensely satisfying collage-like picture.
One of Lewis’ biggest fans is Wally Darneille, president and CEO of the Lubbock-based Plains Cotton Cooperative Association (PCCA), who owns several of Lewis’ works and displays them in his home and in the co-op’s offices. “West Texas lands are stark, but Laura makes it beautiful; she captures the power of the country and its culture,” he says. “Her work reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe, who took stark land and made it beautiful.”
The PCCA is so appreciative of Lewis’ works that the organization and some of its employees and members also own several of her paintings.
Lewis, 56, says one of her biggest challenges comes from working with mostly flat landscapes. “Because vertical elements are not abundant, my compositions are assemblages of content from various locations,” says Lewis, who paints in oil on Masonite boards (tempered and pressed wood). “I am forced to think of a painting in terms of what it needs instead of what might be present at any particular place.”
On photographic jaunts, the nimble, 5-foot-1-inch-tall Lewis—typically dressed in blue jeans, work boots, T-shirt and baseball cap—climbs to the roof of her Nissan Pathfinder for a better view of the landscape. She photographs during sunrise and sunset, the best times for slanted lights and shadows. She click-click-clicks on all kinds of subjects: pink-tinged clouds, wheels that carry irrigation pipe through fields, cactus. But after the pictures are taken, Lewis paints in an indoor studio, thereby avoiding dusty winds and the occasional rattlesnake … or, as she once experienced near Justiceburg, southeast of Post, bullets that went zipping across the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River during someone’s outdoor target practice.
But since Lubbock represents the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world, it follows that much of Lewis’ work focuses on cotton: close-ups of fluffy-white, open bolls, expansive scenes of farmers planting their crops, cotton-stripping and module-building machinery at work (module builders compress cotton, readying it for transport to the gin). And much of her work is done at night.
For example, Lewis’ “Kyle’s Night Out” painting started in a field west of Meadow, near Lubbock. There, 22-year-old farmer Kyle Bingham was replanting cotton deep into the night in an effort to make a good fall crop. From early evening until dark, when Bingham turned on his tractor’s headlights, Lewis snapped picture after picture of a scene familiar to all Lubbock-area farmers.
Lewis used the photos she took that night—of tractor, plowed rows and progressing glow of sunset—to assemble the painting. “I had an idea where the tractor needed to be as a focal point, and I arranged the rows to lead the eye around the whole image, trying not to let your eye leak out of a self-contained picture,” she says. “And I allowed myself artistic license to make the red-brown dirt redder. Then I took one image of the clouds with that brilliant pink sunset and placed it to achieve a balanced arrangement.”
One of Lewis’ first steps toward an artistic future came as a 14-year-old in Lubbock when she studied with sculptor Glenna Goodacre, a Lubbock native who today is best known for creating the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lewis then took art classes in college before switching to a health career, working first as a respiratory therapist and then as a neurodiagnostic technician.
But it was an aha moment on a honeymoon trip through Wyoming in 1993 that ended her health career and launched her future as an artist. “It was that vast feeling of space in Wyoming that gave me the inside urge to express that bigness—a time and space where there was no background noise except for the chirp of crickets,” Lewis says. “It was an imagery I’d grown up with which I think somehow got imprinted on me.”
So the newly married Lewis returned home with zeal to capture her Texas scenes—which now are exhibited in dozens of private homes and businesses, as well as in Supreme Court of Texas offices.
For Lewis, whose résumé includes three awards at the juried Lubbock Arts Festival and a Best of Show award at the Red River Valley National Juried Show, it’s always been about painting what she knows: “I do have a soul connection with West Texas, and that motivates me to choose my imagery from where I have lived my life so far.”
Laura Lewis’ paintings are sold through Weiler House Fine Arts & Antique Gallery in Fort Worth; Art on Texas Avenue and the Frame Mart & Gallery, both in Lubbock; the Mason Gallery in Mason; King’s Keepsakes & Framing in Plainview; and Fredericksburg Art Gallery in Fredericksburg. Lewis’ 20×40-inch works sell for $3,800 to $4,000. To see her paintings, go to www.lauralynnlewis.com.
Mary Lance is a writer based in San Antonio.