Jhenna Quinn Lewis | Pondering the Sublime

By Devon Jackson
The Cerulean Warbler, oil, 18 x 14 by Jhenn Quinn Lewis
The Cerulean Warbler, oil, 18 x 14 by Jhenna Quinn Lewis

In the same seemingly contradictory way that beauty can often be imperfect or incomplete, the path to simplicity is often paradoxically very complicated. Take Jhenna Quinn Lewis’ deceptively simple still lifes. What could be more elegant than two nectarines on a tablecloth? Or a bowl and a bird on a table? Beautiful they indeed are, and while it’s easy enough to identify everything in them, there’s a tension to them as well, an intensity. That’s because Lewis’ still lifes have a certain melancholy about them, too. They exude what in the West is called the sublime, a kind of beauty so transcendent it overwhelms, and what in the East is referred to as wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of imperfect beauty.

“I love things that aren’t quite perfect—chipped bowls, old tablecloths, vases, Buddhist begging pots from Vietnam, bird eggs and paper bags and cardboard boxes—they all have an intrinsic value,” says Lewis, who has just as much love and reverence for Japanese aesthetics and philosophy as she does for the exquisitely rendered still lifes of the 17th-century Dutch masters. “I love objects that have been used and loved. It has to do with the Japanese tea ceremony and the art of flower arranging. It has to do with wabi-sabi.” Wabi-sabi representing not just a beauty incomplete but a beauty that acknowledges its impermanence, thus instilling spiritual longing.
Lewis, it turns out, has been a wabi-sabi-ite since age 5; she just didn’t know it then. Born in 1955 in a suburb of Chicago, IL, she remembers wondering as far back as kindergarten how artists painted certain things. How, she asked, did they show Queen Anne’s lace in a field of so many other flowers? These weren’t questions any of her five brothers and sisters, or her peers, were asking. Nor even her parents, who ran a five-star restaurant.
In grammar school, Lewis would gaze out the window. She’d stare at the trees thinking, They don’t look like lollipops the way all the other kids draw trees; the branches interconnect. In high school, she recalls earning extra credit for attending an exhibit of sculptures by Claes Oldenburg, whose humor continues to influence her. “I like to put mah-jongg pieces and marbles and dice into my paintings,” says Lewis. “I never lost my love of humor—that goes back to that Oldenburg exhibit.”
A suburban kid, she adored her weekend trips to the city, to the Art Institute of Chicago and Brentano’s bookstore. She discovered Georgia O’Keeffe and modern art and Asian art. She read all the Ray Bradbury she could find—and Ayn Rand and Herman Hesse and books on art and philosophy. Nevertheless, despite art being her first love, she enrolled at the University of Illinois with the intention of going into occupational therapy. When it turned out she couldn’t get into the art elective classes she’d wanted, she opted out of the O.T. track and ended up with 160 hours of “studying everything,” she says. “But what really turned the corner for me was when I took a course in Japanese tea ceremony and flower arranging,” she recalls. “I came to love Japanese philosophy and art.”
When her parents relocated to Sarasota, FL, soon after she’d studied all she wanted at college, Lewis followed. She enrolled in business classes at the local junior college. Then her father died unexpectedly, and Lewis became the executrix of his estate, which was saddled with about 20 lawsuits. “I really didn’t like that world, but he picked me, and so I had to learn how to deal with it,” she says. In the midst of all that, she met the man who soon became her husband. Attendees at a self-help conference, they clicked immediately; she responded to his energy, and he told her he could see her aura.
It was in the late 1980s when Lewis was in her 30s that her art career finally shifted into the next gear. Lewis and her husband, by then a retired doctor of forensic science and psychology, moved to California with their two children. Lewis had an aunt in San Jose who happened to be a portrait artist—and who agreed to show her niece how to paint. Caught up in her role as wife and mother, Lewis had never felt confident enough before to pursue her art career.
Inspired by her aunt, though, she finally did. Almost. First, she opened up a gallery in Northern California’s Ferndale. That way, even if she wasn’t yet an artist herself, she at least surrounded herself with art and artists. More importantly, she saw firsthand artists making a living as artists, something her parents always told her was impossible. She realized, Maybe I can do this.
After the birth of her third child, she ruled out landscapes as subject matter (too much outdoor time needed) and instead pored over the Dutch masters and their still lifes. She started off with an apple. Then some grapes. Then an apple and a bowl or a vase. But always very simple. A simplicity that not only became her style but also reflected her love of Eastern philosophy…

Featured in September 2007


Find the rest of this exciting article and more
by subscribing to Southwest Art magazine.