Crossing borders 016: Anthony Lewellen


I like to think of the act of writing as a constant flow of unexpected, unannounced and raw ideas. More even, ideas that always sound like they can provide you a breakthrough, or even just greater your audience. Realistically though, the gap between that idea and what is poured with ink on a sheet of paper is often so great that many get discouraged, put the pen down and drift away from what they thought would be easy.

When I first pitched the idea of Crossing borders to my editor and manager, there a hint of fear I couldn’t speak to international artists as easily as I intended to, but I was determined to make that soon-to-be-born column my stepping stone to a writing career -so to speak. It was never about making it perfect on my first attempt; style and themes change and grow. It was much rather about making sure I gave myself some time to progress. That, to me, was -and still is- all that matters. Little did I know, a year and a half flew by bringing me here, at Crossing borders’ 16th edition. I present you Anthony Lewellen, an innovator within the pantheon of Midwest graffiti culture, a man of wisdom whose message is all about self-enlightenment and moving towards life fulfillment.


[Fresh Paint Gallery]: You were born, raised and still live in Chicago, a city that has had a central role in America’s economic, social, cultural and political history. With a “sink or swim” point of view on life in the big city, what makes Chi-Town so unique and appealing to you in terms of inspiration?
[Anthony Lewellen]: Chicago is an interesting place for sure. It’s one of the biggest cities in the country, but feels like a small town in many ways. It has a very unique sensibility, making it much different than the east or west coast. There is something about the Midwest that is very grounded and practical. I imagine my perspective on it is somewhat unique in that I was born here, so it’s perhaps inevitable that I take a bit of it for granted.

Most of what inspires my work is just intuitive and comes out of absorption and observation. It is easy to derive metaphors from things we see happening around us. Those things happen without the intent to create or mirror other meanings, they just happen, but if you pay attention, you see meaning in these things. If you are born in a place and lived there all your life, it is inherently a part of you as much as you are a part of it. When I’m out, I just see things that I find compelling. I don’t think about it too much, I just know that it’s interesting to me. I take all that in and later it comes out in my work. I would not go so far as to say that I try to be a conduit, but in some ways, it’s true. If anything, it’s like being a conduit with a filter on each end; only letting certain things in, then processes and lets certain things out. In a lot of ways, I think just getting to work is the best thing. Often inspiration is the result of the commitment to work and not the other way around. That might be a Midwest thing, I’m not sure, but my studio practice has over the last few years very much become more focused on a disciplined approach to creating.


[F.P.G.]: In 1993, you were interviewed for the Chicago Slices Raw: CTA graffiti contest in which you claimed graffiti was the youngest and truest art form. Do you still feel the same way about graffiti? How so?
[A.L.]: To say that a lot has changed since 1993 would be a tremendous understatement. The world is a very different place now and within that massive context, the relatively tiny culture of graffiti has changed as well. Now it’s also almost necessary to also include the term street art in there as well. For better or worse, there is an overlap between the two and many don’t really understand the nuanced difference between them, but they exist in the same world now.

It’s hard to say for sure what I was trying to articulate with that statement I made over 20 years ago, but what I think I meant was that it was an art form that was still on the outskirts: it had not been monetized or commercially co-opted as cultural cache. There was a bit of that at the time, but for the most part, it was unsanctioned and unrecognized. If you were doing it [graffiti], then you were doing it because you loved to do it, not because you saw it as a springboard for something else.

For me as for a lot of kids growing up in the city in poor neighborhoods, it was something that you could define and create that resonated with the world in which you lived in. It made sense because it was a product of the environment. It made sense to me as a city kid with creative inclinations and there were so many things about it that clicked. It was an authentic culture -or subculture- and the connoisseurs were for the most part the ones who were also the creators. You were taking paint that was made to paint chairs and bikes or whatever and using it in a way it was never intended for. You had to hunt downs caps and steal paint because either you couldn’t afford it or were not old enough to buy it.

I was all very raw, but it’s not like that now. It’s different in almost every way. I can’t say if it is for better or worse. The same happens with so many things once there is a significant commercial interest. The motivation becomes mixed. That might just be my perspective on it, but when I see a $10 can of spray paint branded specifically for graffiti/street artists and graffiti based reality shows popping up, it’s pretty obvious that the culture has changed. You can tell when people do it because they care about what they do and when they just like the label or want to cash in. It can still be an authentic expression; it really depends on individual motives. The waters just got muddier.

[F.P.G.]: What would you describe as being the key defining moment in your art career?

[A.L.]: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I ever really thought of myself as actually having a career; that is probably more a reflection of my life growing up. Even though it is how I make a living and support my family, I just consider myself a working artist. I make work, look for opportunities to share that work and then I work some more. As cliché as it sounds, I consider my whole life as a journey and a big part of that is to always move forward. There are lots of defining moments along the way, but many of them are quite small and for me, mostly internal. If anything, a truly defining moment was when I decided how I was going to define success as an artist. At some point, I realized that if success was going to be defined by external validation as in opportunities, accolades, etc., then I would be subjected to the inevitable ups and downs that they would bring. So I made the conscious choice to anchor myself to something else. For me, that is to create work that I think is good, sharing it and being able to make a living doing that. If anything else comes as a result of that pursuit that’s great, but if it doesn’t, I am not defined by that.


[F.P.G.]: Have some of your philosophical, political beliefs or guiding principles changed over time? What impact did you see it have on your artwork?

[A.L]: I’m definitely more philosophical than political. Although to be fair, I’m sure it’s my personal philosophies that move me away from politics. To answer your question directly, I would have to say yes of course. I believe that if we are not constantly examining what we think and what we feel then it isn’t possible to move forward or grow as a human being.


[F.P.G.]: Could you elaborate some more on the connection between personal and social awareness when it comes to art?

[A.L]: For me, this is something that I’m always trying to understand better and in particular how it relates to my work. It’s rare for me to intentionally try to explore things in my work as what I create relates to my personal experiences or things going on in our society, but as a being that lives and feels, it is impossible that these things will not become part of who you are and what you do. Most of what I do is purely intuitive. I breathe in and I breathe out. What surprises me is how much of what I feel, sense and process comes out in my art.


[F.P.G.]: I fell upon one of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis’ quotes: “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” How would you describe your personal artistic outlook on life?

[A.L.]: I actually think you can change reality and a big part of that is how you see and understand the reality in which you exist. I’m not sure I have an outlook on life that could be easily defined. As an artist, I always try to understand what is going on around me. For me, a big part of creating is an attempt in some ways to do that— to understand more about myself and the world I live in. Once you create something, you can step back and ask questions. Human beings are highly complicated things; we process and understand so much unconsciously and those things become part of who we are and we hardly know how or why. One of the amazing things about being an artist is that you can put something out there that may tell you more about yourself than you knew. If you were not making art, how else would that happen?


[F.P.G.]: Your project “52 Weeks” came to an end last January. Street art and graffiti’s popularity has considerably risen among people around the world, partly thanks to social media. How did you find the experience of having this project grow through online presence rather than putting up a mural and creating an impromptu conversation with a passerby? What did you like the best and least about the process?

[A.L.]: Over the last few years, I have intentionally created yearlong projects that were documented daily on social media. 52 Weeks was one of those and prior to it was Drawing A Day. Initially, it was just to share my work and have some accountability in my creative process. It ended up becoming almost an extension of what I love so much about working in the public spectrum in the way it engaged people and created conversations. It became a great way to parallel what happens in the street in some respects. Technology has made some pretty interesting things possible and I’m looking forward to take advantage of the ability to live stream and building some projects around that. The best thing about it was allowing people into my process, so they see what goes into creating my work and being accountable of doing something consistently with an audience. If there was a thing I liked least, it was managing the pressure to perform- so to speak. From the beginning, I accepted I would have to learn to do that to contend with taking on a project of that nature, but it would have a way of getting into my thinking from time to time, when really, all I wanted was to focus on the work.

[F.P.G.]: Your first published book “Process” offered the reader an examination of your artwork practice. “A Slow Chipping Away”, is currently in the works. What is it about? When might it be released?

[A.L.]: “A Slow Chipping Away” might be my personal artistic outlook on life. As a book, it is something that is still being developed. It might actually end up being a short film. The overall idea behind it is diligence as it relates to the creative process, but also as a larger metaphor for how I have come to understand how life must be lived. It’s rooted in the principle that seemingly impossible things are really an ongoing series of very small possible things, that when taken on consistently over time, culminate in something greater than the sum of its parts. Originally, it was going to be centered on the daily drawing project and the work that came out of it, but I realized there was more to it than that. It might take a few more years for it to fully come together. It’s still unfolding.


[F.P.G.]: What are some of your other upcoming projects?

[A.L.]: Right now, I’m in the middle of working on a short film that centers around drawing, the impact that it had on my life and how it relates to what I do now. I’ve also just begun a new year-long project called 12 Months where I create one large scale piece a month using the same documentation process as the last few years’ projects. It’s a continuing escalation of time and scale. I’m in the planning stages of working with the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and students from the west side of the city sometime this summer. I’m also trying to put together a few mural projects in the Albany Park neighborhood where I live. There are a few group shows coming up that I’m in and some residencies on the horizon. Other than that, just studio work and keeping the lights on.

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Born and raised in Chicago, Anthony Lewellen is a multidisciplinary artist, recognizable by his simple, bold, often pensive and compelling characters. He is a figure within the city’s graffiti culture and keeps “building upon a highly personalized vocabulary”. Though Lewellen is now solely focused on a studio practice, he has worked commercially as an illustrator and art director for more than a decade.