In late 2005 and early in 2006, I spent some time living at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C. I enjoyed the city and its museums and I especially enjoyed the ease in which I could get around without an automobile. There were plenty of places for this walking tourist to explore.
I also met some very interesting people, who told me their stories or who taught me something valuable. One of those individuals was Tom Lewis. He was both an activist and an artist and, among the things that I learned from him, was that art and activism are not mutually exclusive. A person can do both… seek truth and beauty as an artist and say yes to human rights and to life and no to torture, assassination, and war as an activist… because artists are part of this world and have a responsibility to make the world a better pace with the gift that they possess.
That is what Tom did. From 1968 until 2007, Tom worked tirelessly as an activist, seeking to end war and to call attention to the violent threat of nuclear weapons against all life on earth. He committed many acts of civil disobedience/resistance in his pursuit of a world free of war and of weapons of mass destruction. He accepted the consequences for his actions, serving approximately four years in prison at various points of his life.
Tom also worked as an artist and as an art teacher. Many people have experienced the joy of visual art, thanks to Tom’s patient and affirming instruction. He taught regularly in Massachusetts. He also taught in other places, single lessons for students who might never have had the experience, had Tom not been an activist, traveling to protest war and nuclear weapons.
I was one of those art students. On a dreary late December day, Tom offered a few children and me a watercolor painting class at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House. Tom handed out a few paint sets and we got some photocopy paper from a computer. Tom then set up a still life. One of the boys wanted to paint something else, but Tom asked him to paint the still life, saying, “You can always paint the other subject, but you won’t always have me to teach you.”
The boy ended up by making a beautiful painting.
After the lesson, Tom told me that I had made a gorgeous painting and that I had talent. He wanted me to keep the paint set.
It was a very special gift.
When I returned to Western New York, I started going to a painting class at Stella Niagara in Lewiston. My friend and art teacher Jinni Kelley teaches several Franciscan sisters there, and she invited me to come to the class, as well. She gave me some paints, which I had been using, in addition to Tom’s paint set.
A few weeks ago, Jinni taught a lesson, in which the idea was to paint the entire color wheel in the background. For that lesson, the paints that I used were predominantly Tom’s paint set. The colors were vibrant and living. It was a great joy. I had discovered the vibrancy of the colors in the previous lesson, in which we were to draw a picture in ink and then add paint. I painted a “fantasy background” to my picture of a cardinal on a stump. The colors were very dramatic, I realized (see the paintings, above).
I thought about Tom when I made the colorful paintings. I would have liked to have shared the paintings with him.
But, it was not meant to be.
On April 4th, Tom passed away at home. I will miss Tom, even though my time with him was brief. Tom had given me a rainbow. I just wish that I could have shared that with him.
For more about Tom, including a photo album, take a look at http://www.jonahhouse.org/