October 2, 2014

Mitch Lewis uses art to fight the scourge of genocide

Mitch Lewis with Janjaweed.
Mitch Lewis with Janjaweed.

Child Soldier by Mitch Lewis.

When Mitch Lewis retired from a career as creative director at a New York advertising agency, he had been living in Wilton for 15 years and was looking forward to the next episode in his life.

While in Wilton he enjoyed rowing at the Norwalk River Rowing Club and racing his sailboat (with an all-Wilton crew) out of Yacht Haven in Stamford. His wife, Barbie, was a fine jewelry designer and created pieces for Irma’s Jewelry in Wilton, but Mr. Lewis didn’t pursue any artistic endeavors then. The Lewises’ move to coastal North Carolina in 2002 gave him the time he needed to develop a new creative outlet.

His background was in the arts, having graduated from the High School of Art & Design in New York and from Pratt Institute with a B.F.A. He also studied at the Art Students League.

“It was only upon retirement that I rediscovered my passion for sculpture,” he explained. “What started as a hobby quickly evolved as my work started winning awards and gaining representation in many fine art galleries.” He did graduate studies in the sculpture department at East Carolina University and has exhibited throughout the country.

Writing for his website, he described his artistic evolution: “My sculpture has always been about the human form, as well as a commentary on the human condition….My earlier work, created in bronze was figurative and highly realistic. It was influenced by the Greek and Roman representation of ‘Classic Realism,’ a period devoted to the naturalistic idealism of beauty.

“I have always been intrigued by archeology, and am fascinated with the process of piecing together shards of clay to solve the puzzles of ancient civilizations. This interest led to my ‘Pillar People’ series. These are totems created in terra-cotta, which are crudely archaic and have been described as modern day antiquities….”

By 2004, the sculptor had a new focus for his work. Having become aware of the genocide in Darfur, he wrote, “I realized that a big part of the problem was that a lack of media coverage was allowing this genocide to happen under the radar. So this became the turning point and I committed to raising awareness of this injustice by using my most effective form of communication, my sculpture.”

His work is striking and emotional, the attenuated figures inspired by his determination to bring the power of art to bear against the horrors of genocide. He is a 2010 recipient of a Puffin Foundation Grant for his Darfur sculpture as well as being named a “Darfur Hero” by the Save Darfur Coalition.

In six years, he created the sculptures for the Towards Greater Awareness exhibit, which has been traveling around the United States since 2010 and was most recently at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center on the University of Maine campus in Augusta.

A year ago, Mr. Lewis launched a project, Arts to End Genocide, that reflected his belief that only through young people would the world finally end the slaughters of innocents. “Traveling with my exhibition and speaking to students, I gained an understanding that my generation had failed to give meaning to ‘Never Again’ and that the hope for finally making this a reality rested with this younger generation,” he wrote in a recent email.

Students in Accra, Ghana, dance to 'Stomp Out Genocide.'

Students in Accra, Ghana, dance to ‘Stomp Out Genocide.’

Using art and technology and enlisting the playfulness of children, Arts to End Genocide has created a video-collaborative project called Stomp Out Genocide. Children are introduced to the subject of genocide and ways to speak out against it through viewing and participating in the video.

It opens with an African child wandering into a destroyed village and discovering a pair of red sneakers that belonged to a child victim. The first child puts on the sneakers and begins to stomp on the ground in anger, but then his movement “evolves into a dance for life. When he completes the dance, he removes the sneakers and throws them into the air. They are caught by an American child, who puts on the sneakers and continues the ‘stomp.’ The scenario continues as the sneakers travel around the world.”

Locations have included New Bern, N.C., Boston, Mass., Augusta, Maine, and Palm Springs, Cal., and locations in Ethiopia, Ghana, Zambia and Rwanda. Student initiatives have spread the word in Africa. At the International School in Ghana students decided to bring the project to a Global Issues Summit in Kenya as a workshop and recruited students from all over Africa to join the project. As a pre-requisite to perform in the video, students are required to receive a lesson on genocide, which includes learning about human rights, activism and using art as advocacy.

The video is in the editing stages now and Mr. Lewis hopes that it is the first of many; he said he hopes that in the next edition, Wilton students will participate.

“Although it’s been great fun making the video, to me the most important element is the educational component,” Mr. Lewis said “Every child who participates in the video is given an understanding of their potential for impacting global issues. For many it will become their first step on a lifelong journey as agents of change and the beginning of their empowerment as a force for social justice.”

He added that the foundation’s work in Africa has allowed Arts to End Genocide to also address an important health issue. In many villages, children going barefoot are susceptible to diseases that are transmitted through the soil. Donated red sneakers not only allow village children to dance in the video, he said; for some, it is their first pair of shoes and a chance for a healthier life.

To learn more about the foundation, visit artstoendgenocide.org.