Carolyn Lewis uses her background in art, psychology, and art therapy to create beautiful, community-engaging pieces of art throughout St. Louis. I (Katie here!) had the pleasure of sitting down with Carolyn for an outdoor coffee at Espresso Yourself in the Macklind Business District in St. Louis.
You may have seen Carolyn’s work around town through murals, the Sit Down and Listen Bench, or the American Cancer Society’s 42 Doors of Hope. While chatting with Carolyn, I was able to hear her story while glancing at her Door of Hope just across the street. Learn about Carolyn, her mission, and check out some of her work below.
Originally from Alabama, Carolyn soon made her way to the Midwest, landing in Chicago. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and received a degree in art therapy. Her previous bachelor degrees in art, photography, and psychology brought her passions together in art therapy. Her thesis project worked with children in the oncology unit of a local hospital. To capture the timeline and emotions of childhood cancer, Carolyn gave each child a disposable camera and had them take photos of their experiences both in and outside of the hospital. They depicted shorter angles, unique subject choices, and meaningful people and places, all seen from the small person going through an enormous struggle. Once the photos were developed, Carolyn worked with the kids to do whatever they wanted with them: frame them, chop them up, collage them, paint on them. The final masterpieces were the result of Carolyn’s thesis, and lead her down the path she is on today.
Now in St. Louis, Carolyn has chosen art as her career and main mission in life. “It’s not a hobby anymore. It’s a job. I’m always creating something. It has turned into my therapy,” she told me. Her first “solo” project dug deep into her past and her own troubles. Carolyn’s Empowerment Birds were designed to embrace and promote empowerment. She took words from her Grandmother’s old dictionaries, cloth from her children’s old favorite clothes, and always painted on red shoes for the birds, as wearing red shoes is Carolyn’s secret empowerment superpower. The first series of birds dealt addition and recovery and she has since made hundred of birds. “They’ve literally taken off.”
When Carolyn was asked to create a Door of Hope for the American Cancer Society here in St. Louis, she knew what she had to do. You may have seen these doors popping up around the city. The doors are raising money for the Hope Lodge; the Society partnered with local artists to symbolize the 42 guest suites that will be available for cancer patients once construction is complete. “A door is a symbol of a journey, a transition or metamorphosis. These are the same feelings that many cancer patients and their families experience on their quest for wellness.” Carolyn knew an Empowerment Bird needed to be on that door.
One side of Carolyn’s door represents those who have been lost due to cancer, showing their bravery and memorializing them. For Carolyn, she lost Kira, a twelve-year-old girl who fought brain cancer while Carolyn was working in the hospital in Chicago. Carolyn became close not only with Keira, but with her family. As she worked for months on this important piece of public art, she could not wait to tell Keira’s family and show them the door. Covid delayed the publicizing of the project and the construction of the doors in their locations. Suddenly, the day came to construct Carolyn’s door right in her own neighborhood: in front of Keller Apothecary on Devonshire. And the best part? That was Kira’s birthday.
Covid’s quarantine has brought strangeness to everyone, but especially to Carolyn who wondered how she could continue her art. She offers online art lessons to both children and adults, mailing the supplies to her students and offering her art therapy lens to classes. She’s also created two more pieces of public art.
Quarantine, Black Lives Matter, protests, and more have been filling Carolyn’s mind. She knew she had to do something in response, something to help. Carolyn found an old bench and decided to paint it, calling it the “Sit Down and Listen” bench where open conversations can be had with pure respect. The beautiful bench, like the birds, has taken on a life of its own. Organizations and groups are asking if they can host the bench in front of their building or in their neighborhood. News outlets picked up the story and more and more people are wanting to host the bench for a week. It’s currently sitting in University City/The Loop in front of Meshuggah Cafe and Subterranean Books until Oct 2! Carolyn explained her project by saying, “The City is so hungry for something to bring them together.” I couldn’t agree more.
Her most recent project has been another great activation of public space. The back of Carolyn’s fence sits near Gardenville and Milentz here in St. Louis. The space needed something, as a blank alley was all that was there, bringing in kids to play occasionally. She decided to wake up at 6:30 am every day and paint. “It was my therapy starting the day that early in the morning with the sun and the birds.” Once completed, Carolyn’s beautifully painted garden brought life to that fence, that alley, that neighborhood space. She received an unknown letter from a neighbor saying thank you, as the writer is an older woman, recently widowed, who now gets to see the mural out her window every day. More kids are playing there and taking photos. When people pass by Carolyn’s kids say, “My mom painted that!” Maternity photoshoots are happening, runners are stopping to instagram it, and more. “This is why we need artists activating space,” Carolyn said.
Carolyn’s projects never have an end goal. They have an intention and they have her heart. From there, the public gets to enjoy, engage, and be empowered.
You can learn more about Carolyn on her website and follow her on social media. She lives with her wife and two kids in the Princeton Heights neighborhood of St. Louis.