From working as a critical-care nurse for nine years to becoming a self-taught artist, meet the unusual but surprising career of Nate Lewis. Currently based in Washington, the up-and-coming artist is exhibiting his new work, Latent Tapestries, for the first time solo in NYC’s Fridman Gallery, which is open by appointment only, with a closing date of May 31st. In the meantime, you can see some of the artworks and listen to the jazz sound pieces here.
Focusing on body representation, both human or animal, his work intertwines photography, sculpture, drawing and painting. By playing with layers, textures and patterns, Lewis dissects subjects he is working with to fully and deeply understand them. Delving into a subject to make it familiar, that’s his process to make art and to get along with his environment. “It's about examining, seeing with care, balance and understanding”. Although politically engaged, Lewis aims to generate a complete and objective overview of the subject. Discover how he carves paper to create intricate, conscious and mesmerizing artworks.
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Nate, you went from critical-care nurse to up-and-coming artist, which is very impressive. You have already exhibited your work in many museums, and now, you are exhibiting for the first time at NYC’s Fridman Gallery with a solo show. Has the transition been difficult? How do you feel about your career as an artist so far?
I moved to NYC, and a few days later, I started my residency at Pioneer Works; I owe a lot to them. The residency I moved to NYC for, they provided numerous resources, studio visits, and put me in two big fairs, Spring Break and 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. The exposure in those fairs was invaluable and put me on people’s radar. Because of Pioneer Works, my transition was a lot smoother than it could have been.
I’m grateful for where I am and owe it to the generations of black artists before me who put in the serious work, who were resilient. I’m able to continue in the paths that they have paved. It’s exciting to be where I am in my career – also being that I didn't go to school for art. Breaking that mold. I'm grateful to be able to have a platform and the support to share my vision and ideas in the times we were living in, with the hope that it resonates.
It is inspiring to see how you interweave many elements in your bodywork such as photography, sculpture, drawing, etching, embroidery and textiles: a blast of creativity! How did you learn and come up with such a variety of techniques and skills? How do you find a balance between all of them and how do they feed each other?
It includes photography, sculpture, drawing, painting; not etching or embroidery. I started with just sculpting paper, then added photography, then drawing, painting with ink, and graphite with frottage. I taught myself all the different techniques I use. The multi-technique way that I sculpt into paper is very unique to myself. When I first started working with paper in 2012, I looked at and took note of a lot of different techniques to sculpt paper. After diving into working with paper, it just opened itself up to me and made sense. Also, from a medical standpoint and the idea of surgery and cells, creating an illusion of layers made sense to me. It mirrored how I see and my thought process. I thrive with tight boundaries.
The balance between them constantly changes as I introduce a new medium. The last medium I introduced was the graphite fabric rubs. They are playing a small role, but as I get more familiar with its strength, I'll start to incorporate it more and more. It's just a matter of where I am with my understanding of the particular medium, its relationships to the other mediums and the particular body of work I’m working on.
I feel that you have achieved creating a meeting point between the artistic and the scientific realms. Like a surgeon, you manipulate the human body by exploring human anatomy, and especially since you use sometimes a scalpel as a tool. What are you trying to convey by intertwining science and art through body representation?
I didn't choose to bring science/anatomy/medicine and art together. It chose me. It's my foundation for understanding the world. I'm not so much trying to convey a specific thing by intertwining it. It's just my language and way of understanding the world. It's about examining and seeing with care, balance and understanding. That means examining the subject I'm working with thoroughly but also examining oneself. Investigating the way you think about ideas and being aware of how you think so that you can make room for allowing elasticity in your thought processes.
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In most of your series, you explore the black body in particular, either in portraits or in movement. What do you want everyone to understand about how the black body has been perceived and treated through history?
I don't want anyone to understand a particular thing. I want people to listen to black people, understand the diverse histories, and see them through a lens of care.
You make many self-portraits, and I’m thinking about one in particular where you capture human anatomy by sculpting your body with repetitive cellular cuts made visible. I feel that you are truly exploring the possibilities of paper. Do you feel there is a relationship between paper and the human body?
For me, there is. Because I think about paper like an organism. Finding a nuanced anatomy within it.
“My work is about political issues, yes. But more it's about seeing, hearing, understanding with balance, nuance and care.”
How does self-portraiture enable you to process creative introspection?
I did those self-portraits back in 2015, I just needed to make the work at that time. I don't know if it necessarily helped me process introspection, but I just had to make them. Those self-portraits were made when I was still working in critical-care units, they were about vulnerability, intimacy, being porous in an empathetic way, and my relationships with patients and the family members who I took care of.
Your latest series aroused a lot of interest: Signalling, depicting black figures in motion, and Probing the Land, an examination of Confederate monuments and street scenes from Trump's campaign rallies and the inauguration. Both of them have many updates, and in each of them, you highlight something different. Can you tell us more about what you’re trying to convey? How do they dialogue?
The language I use in interrupting photography is influenced by the diagnostic lenses that we would use to see the unseen in people that I took care of when working as a critical-care nurse. MRI, CT scan, X-rays, ultrasounds, etc. There were numerous tests, they had the ability to visualize the unseen down to slight nuances. For me, those lenses became the most complex means of seeing something in the context of a greater whole. The lenses were all intended for a purpose of caring and finding balance with the conditions that were presented to us. So in terms of whatever photography I'm interrupting, I'm proposing what it means to understand the subject matter with diagnostic lenses.
The dialogue between them is the different textures and patterns. If I'm using patterns as the unseen language and information, a lot of those patterns are repeated on the different series, they are dialoguing back and forth. The counter-narrative of each subject matter is in the patterns on each of the different series. I use texture and the patterns as the language because it closely mirrors the visual language the diagnostic lenses produce. Also, I'm thinking about cells, DNA, the microscopic elements.
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Also, this solo show and the latest series are highly influenced by jazz music. You’ve even commissioned a handful of avant-garde jazz musicians to create a sound piece that will accompany a video. Could you tell us more about this relationship between jazz and your work on an artistic and a political level?
The sound pieces that the musicians created were part of an immersive sound installation that I created. I took the pieces they made and put them into a sound program and layered and chopped them up to create a new composition in which they were all in conversation with each other. There are speakers throughout the gallery and the sound is orchestrated throughout all of them. The sound moves through the speakers at designated times and you become immersed in it or wrapped up in the sound. It almost feels as if it's circling you when you're in the gallery. It moves like a ghost. You don't see it, you hear it, but you feel the vibrations around you.
Jazz music to me is the diagnostic sound of American history. It's an honest form of music that was made in response to a history that is purposefully not remembered, that is often attempted to be erased, altered, and buffered as if the ripple effect of those times in history do not matter. The music that these musicians created are the sounds that help tell the story I'm trying to tell visually. Also, the musicians that I chose for this sound installation are jazz musicians, yes, but they are musicians and artists.. These musicians, I felt all use music as a tool to interrupt, to destabilize, to bring truth to history. I listen to some of them and feel that their music has an unbalanced history, replacing it with truth and sews it back up.
Your work is politically-engaged. Would you say that you’re an activist? Are you using the body in a way that it becomes a tool related to political issues?
No, I don't think that I'm an activist. My work is about political issues, yes. But more it's about seeing, hearing, understanding with balance, nuance and care.
What are your projects in the upcoming months? How do you see your work evolving?
After mounting my first comprehensive multidisciplinary solo exhibition I was able to extract a lot of ideas that I've had floating in my head for some time. I feel I have a greater understanding of how to distill information in a manner that makes sense with how I want to examine and present ideas into the world. More sound, video, and whatever else fits into the rhythm of what I want to communicate. 
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