Images by Ann and Chris photo
Mary Lewis works on sculpture of the Columbia River in her Rainier studio. 
Images by Ann and Chris photo
Mary Lewis works on sculpture of the Columbia River in her Rainier studio.
Mary Lewis retrospective, 1944-2011
March 3-27
First Congregational United Church of Christ
1126 SW Park Ave.
Open 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Opening reception: 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, March 3

RAINIER — One of the more influential artists in Oregon Catholicism is an amiable, solitary Episcopalian.

Mary Lewis, 84, sculpts efficiently in an isolated studio above the Columbia River here.

"This is my life," Lewis says, gesturing to the tools, wood and windows that surround her. She works to classical music, swinging a wooden mallet she's had for decades. A steady plink, plink, plink fills the room like a heartbeat.

In a career that has spanned more than 65 years, Lewis has crafted statues of the Virgin Mary and reliefs of the Holy Family. She's created sculptures signifying the rosary for The Grotto and carved large wooden doors for the Trappist abbey in Lafayette. Her work has appeared in Catholic churches, hospitals and a seminary.   

Lewis also has done plenty of secular art over the years, with a penchant for images from the earth: bugs, toads, snails, fish and hedgehogs. She's done drawings of people over the years, including a tender 1944 sketch made on a Montana-bound train. It's a sleeping boy, son of a Pullman porter.

"I like to think that all of my work has a spiritual quality to it," she says.   

A retrospective of Lewis' work will be on display during March at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland.

She was born in Multnomah, now a part of Southwest Portland. But the family moved around the American west to follow her mining engineer father. She at times lived in Denver and Spokane, never long enough to feel she sunk roots.

She studied at the University of Oregon with Mark Sponenburgh and at Syracuse with the famed Ivan Mestrovic, who later had a long career at the University of Notre Dame.

An intrepid spirit, Lewis traveled alone in Europe on bicycle in the mid-1950s, when she was approaching 30. Soaking in the great art of western civilization, she repaired her own cycle, slept at hostels and brushed her teeth in the fountains of Rome.    

Lewis was a Fulbright scholar in Pakistan in the late 1950s, teaching art to both men and women, a radical idea there.

During the 1970s, she was a sculptor for Oregon-based Viewmaster. Among other creations, her depictions of the book of Genesis and the life of Jesus were photographed and made into the circular cards of slides viewed by children around the world. Her small gallery at home includes her original figure of the paralytic let down through the roof to Jesus.

After leaving Viewmaster because executives wanted work done faster and faster, Lewis started an independent artist's life. One of her first jobs, in 1977, came because Father John Domin of the Archdiocese of Portland art commission admired her work. Into a block of maple four feet in diameter, she carved a circular image of strong-looking Mary and the baby Jesus that still hangs at St. Joseph Church in Roseburg.

"I put my heart and soul into that," she says.

Later Catholic commissions would come. Her reliefs at The Grotto depicting the mysteries of the rosary are viewed by thousands of people every month.

Architect David Richen asked her to carve oak doors for the Trappist church built in 2007. She spent months studying Cistercian architecture and reading up on St. Benedict and St. Bernard, the two giants of monasticism the monks hoped to have represented.   

Lewis, a member of St. Stephen Episcopal Church in Longview, Wash., draws and sculpts from life, memory or imagination — never from photographs or other artists' pictures.  

She's never had a gallery and eschews self-promotion, preferring instead to let her art speak for itself.  

"There is something very monastic about her," says Gian Paul Morelli, executive director of the Columbia Theatre Association in nearby Longview, Wash. "She does such wonderful stuff."

"She has great talent and amazing stamina," says Paula Hamilton, head of Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, which is sponsoring the retrospective."She's really a force."