Beth Lewis, Free’s illustrator as Artist-in-Residence at Please Touch


Lorene Cary tells the story of watching me draw audience members at Art Sanctuary when I was in high school.  She complemented those quick sketches, but I was surprised when she asked me to collaborate with her as an illustrator on Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad. I was 22, and not yet finished my studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Already, though, I knew that the history of the African diaspora had begun to inhabit my work.


Photography and computer layering helped me to deepen and augment the pen-and-ink illustrations in William Still’s original 1872 book, The Underground Railroad. Since then, I’ve explored other media even as I’ve researched courageous fugitives from many countries: Afro-Mexican Palenques, Panamanian Cimarrones, and the legendary Maroons from the West Indies and the Americas.  In fact, I have become dedicated to representing and illustrating these figures in their compelling cultural diversity.


I’m thrilled to be able to explore these transcultural stories and identities as an Artist in Residence at the Please Touch Museum of Philadelphia. Two sources books have been: Afro Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero Atlantic World, 1550-1812, edited by Kathryn Joy McKnight and Leo J. Garofalo, and Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches: Afro Mexican Ritual Practice in the 17th Century, by Joan Cameron Bristol. As with Free!, the exhibit I’ll install at the Please Touch will make the stories of these brave people accessible to children and families.


Each figure will be illustrated on a two-dimensional panel of wood. While an image of the individual will be etched into the surface of the panel, other portions of the image will be completely cut away to allow light through, thus creating a shadow–a double image that correlates to the character being represented. Since this is a children’s museum, the panels will stand about 3-4 feet high so that the children can experience the work at eye level.


Vinchelle #1-1Please join me at the Please Touch Museum of Philadelphia on Sunday, March 24th, and Monday, March 25th, when I’ll discuss the exhibit, my creative process, and the figures themselves. Questions about the Free! illustrations?  Bring’em!


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