“My work is driven by empathy and the desire to understand nuanced points of view. By virtue of my critical care nursing training the essential practice of assessment guides the way in which I investigate narrative content or a material. Repetition, patterns and textures comprise the poetry that threads the language of my work throughout the various mediums. This language is informed by my experience with the application of medical diagnostics and its visual and sonic dialect.”
Q&A Intro: Nate Lewis is interested in excising invisible histories. He approaches his art through the diagnostic lenses of his former practice working as a critical care nurse for the last nine years. The artist uses repetition, patterns, and textures to mold his work across the different mediums he works in, which include cut paper as well as video and audio. Lewis’ artistic initiation was purely accidental; born out of a need to salve the boredom he felt while in nursing school and encouragement from his sister. In our interview, Lewis talks about using limitations to bring focus to his sculptures, the influences of his former nursing career on his work and the ideas behind the new pieces he’s working on.
Chenée Daley: Tell me about your background in art. As a self-taught artist, what did that mean for you growing up?
Nate Lewis: Well my sister is an artist. She’s been an artist since day one. I didn't do art at all when I was younger. I was mainly an athlete. That was my everything. I was an intensive care unit registered nurse for nine years. I started drawing just to stay awake during orientations where there were six month of classes before we started working in different ICUs. My sister saw my drawings and was like, “these are good.”
CD: You were a critical care nurse in the past, can you describe how your work in the healthcare field helped to inform your art?
NL: I started working with electrocardiogram paper, the heart rhythm strips of patients that I took care of. I collected them and started making individual pieces with them. Those pieces were really intimate because they were all patients in very critical condition. What more would I want to make art with, other than these records of somebody's life? After a few months had passed, those pieces started getting little dots on them because they were non-archival, thermal paper. I was devastated that I couldn't use them. A mentor of mine suggested I scan them into the computer, blow them up big, and then by the time you start working through this, you're not even going to be using the rhythms anymore. So I did it. My sister was also working with paper at the same time so I took cues from her. And then at the same time, I was also using an illustration style and playing with lines and then I started using the blade, like a pen, but I was paying attention to a lot of paper art. So I was already aware of what had been done, what hadn't been done. How can I make a language with it? And then I just had a breakthrough. Because I was working with paper, and then with paper and photos, and then paper photos of figurative work. And then it became more politically based as I began to use stills from news footage, monuments and other things. I realized my way of seeing, which is influenced by working in the ICU, was influenced by the diagnostic lens of MRIs, CT scans, x-rays that see the unseen. That’s why I have to interrupt imagery. I had to create my own language of pattern, densities, and rhythms that reflects this language of the unseen. But now I'm working with video and sound, so it's just getting deeper and deeper.
Signaling 26, 2020
CD: What influences your work right now, daily, or within the last couple of months. What are you focused on?
NL: Right now I’ve been focused on, developing and expanding my color palette. Colors bring a whole different level of emotion, complexity, and insight into work. I've used a black and white pallet for a long time, and I’ve pulled so much out of it. I gave myself a boundary to learn as much as I can and exhaust it. I just did another monument piece, which is capturing the energy of the past few months. I've been working on a piece that relates directly to the pandemic with medical access points that speaks to the vulnerability of the world right now.
CD: I think that's important. So are you making actual work right now?
NL: I've been focused on sound pieces. It was like a good way to jar myself in a little bit, take in everything, this new world that we're entering. Take it in a way and be aware of different sensitivities, like within sound and have an output that can match it. So that's been fun. But I did that for like two months and it was based around, sounds related to the pandemic. I'm really interested in the global aspect of it, making tracks using different snippets of news anchors speaking to victims and physicians, but also medical sounds from lung patients who had COVID, and using those, along with playing the piano, with loops of church bells in Italy.
CD: What does winning the Colene Brown Art Prize mean to you?
NL: I mean it's awesome to be able to be financially supported. I think the more support that an artist can get, especially direct support like this, is great. As you have success with a series of work, it just gives you more encouragement to do more things that are outside of the regular frame of what you make. To dive outside, into other mediums really and to be able to take your time with doing that.
Listen to the full interview:
Interviews have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Interviews were conducted by Chenée Daley; a Jamaican-born, New York-based multi-genre writer, whose work encompasses poetry, prose, and song. Grounded in the tender narratives of personal histories where place and memory connect, her work has won the first place writing prize from the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Small Axe writing prize, the Denis Diderot [A-I-R] fellowship from Chateau Orquevaux in Ardenne, France and was recently shortlisted for the Eddie Baugh poet laureate of Jamaica prize. Her work appears in The Wall Street Journal, The Jamaica Observer, Small Axe Journal, The Cordite Review, American Chordata, and BOMB magazine. She has an MFA in writing from Columbia University.