article and essay photos by Stephen Humphreys
Not too long ago, Java Lewis’ studio was the street. When he first returned to Birmingham from Detroit several years ago, he set up at the corner of 1st Ave N and 20th Street, painting and selling street scenes, and sleeping nearby wherever he could find a hideaway from passersby.
But, quite unlike the stereotype of most street people, every time he could put a little scratch together he would run to the art store for supplies. Despite the immediacy and authenticity of his condition, there were drawbacks to having a studio on the streets—and one of his greatest traumas occurred when his hear-earned art supplies were stolen one day.
He did manage to sell his paintings, though, and successfully courted some patrons at RBC Bank and Levy’s Jewelry. One of his supporters has also always been Leah Tucker at Carver Theatre. He worked his way off the street by selling his artwork.
I caught up with him while he was working on a commission down at the Sports Zone in West End. Along the top of the wall on one side of the club he is panting portraits of the greatest pro football players in his naļve style. Across the other side, the greatest college players.
Lewis is now trying to put it together to have an opening for his new self-published book, Mr. Painterman: Legendary Sidewalk Artist Java Lewis, which he hopes to sell at Reed Books downtown.
The book contains some of his unschooled artwork, along with vignettes from growing up in a milieu that was culturally challenged in different ways. He tells about the artisitic inspiration he received from his father, a worker at O’Neal Steeel who could not read or write, but who was prolific at creating art out of found scrap and also braiding leather—a skill he learned during a time he worked a more whimsical job. According to one book excerpt:
He became a whip-maker for animal tamers for circuses. He used to amaze us making them. In school I started imitating him. I had been surrounded by art since I can remember… By the time I was 10 I taught my daddy how to read and write. I don’t think he gave a s*** about reading or writing except he hated that my mother had to sign his checks. Afterwards he had beautiful cursive handwriting and writing itself became an art to him.
The book contains scenes from Birmingham, as well as from Java’s ten years of glamorous travel around the world, and especially Africa, for a hair care products company, good luck he attributes to a voodoo dance by a Haitian woman he used to know and would like to meet again.
The plan is to have a reception on September 30, 6-8, at the Jazz Hall of Fame at the Carver, with an artist’s talk in which some of his works are projected in the theatre. As we speak, the artist is still trying to get some funding together to pay the expenses of opening the space. Anyone who is interested in helping out can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen Humphreys is the owner of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com