The Unlikely Patron

In a small Green Lake bungalow an extensive collection of local art cultivated through modest means hangs, leans and sits around the city’s most unexpected collector.

Photography by Caleb Plowman

The first time I saw David Lewis was at the Henry Art Gallery’s Bashville event in 2005. The theme was the Wild West and the glitterati had dressed appropriately — and in some cases outlandishly — in sequins, fringes and boots. But it was Lewis who left the most vivid impression. A spry, grey-haired man with owlish features, the sixty-eight-year-old looked like an unassuming patron, sensibly dressed, scouring the room for art at a bargain. I was in mid-conversation with visual artist Victoria Haven when Lewis swooped down on us and, taking Haven by the elbow, headed to the far end of the gallery where her work was on display.

Lewis has purchased Haven’s work since 2000. Haven had left Seattle in 1996 to enter the MFA program at Goldsmith College in London as an abstract and landscape painter, but by 1999 she had taken her art in an entirely new direction, incorporating rubber bands stretched tautly between nails driven directly into the wall. Her new work was inspired, but different. She left Grover Thurston, her former gallery. Her career was in flux.

Billy Howard proposed a solo exhibit, where Lewis bought Support Structure number five, a small-scale work done with tape, ink and pins. Then, just a few months later, he purchased another. While others were still trying to figure out where Haven was heading, Lewis was buying.

Lewis doesn’t fit the profile of an art collector. Currently unemployed and collecting Social Security, he is neither rich nor highly educated. Even when he was working in his career as a draftsman, he never made more than sixty thousand dollars in a year. “Everything I’ve got I’ve worked for,” he says. “It wasn’t lottery money. It wasn’t family money. I don’t have to rely on anyone else to feed my compulsion.”

The individual pieces he’s purchased don’t approach the renown of many of the mid-century masterpieces in SAM’s permanent collection, or the magnitude of the works on view at Olympic Sculpture Park. In the past decade Alexander Calder’s stabile sculptures (like Eagle, situated at the center of the park) have sold at auction for about five million dollars, in stark contrast to the works in Lewis’s collection. He bought the majority of them for five hundred to three thousand dollars, in some instances paying in installments. But by investing in the works of young local artists Lewis has assembled one of Seattle’s most impressive homegrown collections.

On a cloudless day at the tail end of summer Lewis greets me at the door of his small sixties-era brick bungalow near Green Lake in a pair of faded shorts. It’s a two-bedroom home with a combined living room and dining room, white vinyl blinds and green carpet over linoleum. He’s been here for almost twenty-five years.

The term salon style refers to displays of tightly packed wall art. In Lewis’s home the salon style extends to the floor as well, with sculptures vying for attention on modest end tables and kitchen counters. Stacks of framed paintings are piled along the walls. A Joseph Park painting titled Honorific, purchased for three thousand dollars in 2003 and featured on the poster for Park’s 2005 solo show at the Frye Art Museum, is unceremoniously propped against a bookcase. Art is casually integrated alongside a single mid-century recliner, a television and family snapshots.

Lewis recognizes that he has benefited from word of mouth and artist recommendations. He points to a number of dealers like Linda Farris and Don Scott (both now deceased), as well as Billy Howard, Greg Kucera and James Harris, who exposed him to work he might not have seen otherwise. But by and large, Lewis applies gut instinct when purchasing art. “He doesn’t rely on an expert to tell him what’s important or interesting,” says Claire Cowie, whose strange creatures and otherworldly landscapes in ink have been collected by Lewis since 2001, “and he still manages to pick the piece that I consider to be the best or most personal work in my show.”

For the most part Lewis has more than one piece by the artists in his collection — and in some cases many more. Gallery owner Greg Kucera points to other local collectors, like Ben and Eileen Krohn, John and Shari Behnke and Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, who have also supported local artists. But in his willingness to collect works by the same artist year after year, a habit known as vertical collecting, “Lewis,” asserts Kucera, “is in a league all his own.” Between 2000 and 2009 he purchased, among other pieces, ten works by Cowie, more than a dozen by Haven, nineteen by Jeffrey Simmons, a painter of glowing rings of light, and another nineteen by Robert Yoder, an artist who, in the time that Lewis has collected his work, has gone from using discarded street signs to making magazine collages to painting.

In Lewis’s modest home, space is at a premium. The main bedroom is full of crates of unframed works on paper, most of them unlikely ever to see the light of day. At eight feet high, an untitled abstract sculpture of wood, paint and plastic by artist Patrick Holderfield is six inches too tall for Lewis’s ceilings. The piece lies protected in bubble wrap on the floor of the laundry room next to some empty cardboard boxes and laundry baskets. Some purchases don’t even make it home. In 2003 Lewis bought a midsize sculpture titled Little Motor World from Dan Webb, an artist who juxtaposes carving and popular culture. Six years later the work is still stored at Webb’s studio.

In the sixties Lewis studied art at the University of Washington. He regularly attended the end-of-year graduate student auctions, at the time an annual event. “It was a resource for finding interesting work at reasonable prices that I would never produce myself,” explains Lewis, who left the UW without obtaining a degree. He found work as an architect’s draftsman and started a monthly savings account. “It didn’t provide much spending money,” he says, “but I was always able to put away five or ten dollars a month until I could afford a small piece.”

In 1973 Lewis and his wife purchased a ten-unit apartment building in Fremont for $110,000. They divorced a few years later, and Lewis, a single dad, managed the units while working full time as a draftsman. Rental income provided him with additional funds to buy art. By the mid- to late nineties Lewis was purchasing about ten works a year. By 2002, the year following the sale of his apartment building, Lewis says, “It became more compulsive.”

“There was a point in time where I was buying at least one or two or three pieces a month,” says Lewis. He was, in a sense, trading one Northwest property for another. “It’s not as liquid and it’s certainly not income producing,” says Lewis, “but I was never into it for an investment.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s not invested. In 2004 Seattle artist Leo Berk received his first public commission from the University of Washington. He hoped to complete a sculpture for the University of Washington using a computer-controlled router. He found a machine he wanted to buy, but the credit available to him wouldn’t cover the purchase. He had applied for a small-business loan and been turned down when, desperate, he turned to Lewis, who agreed to advance him the money.

Berk eventually worked out a deal with his brother and didn’t use Lewis’s money. But the collector’s willingness to step up to the plate is just one of the reasons that Northwest artists view him with equal parts awe and affection.

In part as a way of thanking Lewis for his ongoing support, Berk offered him a work called Trio from 2005, which was based on a snapshot of the collector and his grandchildren. Berk’s digitally constructed image, done in colored ink, shows a grinning Lewis with two babies in his arms. For Berk, whose work at the time was largely abstract geographies, it was about as off-topic as his work was likely to get. “It was essentially a thank-you card,” explains Berk. “I knew he’d love it because he loves his kids.”

Lewis’s only child, his son Kent, who is president of Anvil Media in Portland, considers his father an unrealized artist. “I can’t even finger-paint,” Kent says, “but I know good art when I see it.” He says he remembers being dragged to art walks and getting to know artists and gallery owners from the moment he could toddle. Although 75 percent of what he has on display is from his father’s collection, Kent has amassed a fairly sizeable collection of his own. He and his father often go to shows together, purchasing different works by the same artist. Occasionally his father gets in ahead of him. “I’ll walk into an exhibit and point at a work I like and say, ‘You bought that one, didn’t you,’ and he’ll say yes.”

But their sensibilities differ when it comes to exhibiting the works in their collections. Kent, for example, prefers to display paintings on their own. “He’s asked me to take more works,” says Kent, “but I don’t want to clutter my walls.”

His father doesn’t understand this. “But,” he says, “it’s his stuff now, not mine.”

It’s the first Thursday of the month, a few weeks after our initial meeting, and I’ve made arrangements with Lewis to walk around the East Edge art district on the border of Pioneer Square. We are to meet at Howard House, where Robert Yoder, whose work Lewis has collected since 1998, is having an opening. The place is packed. When Lewis enters, he heads directly to a wall of paintings, patently ignoring the faces in the crowd. I greet him, but we make very little small talk until we’re out of the gallery and heading down the street.

We walk a couple of blocks south to Greg Kucera’s gallery, where the owner invites Lewis into the back room and gives him a piece he’s had in storage since Lewis purchased it for $650 in October 2005. Most people would have carried the work gingerly to their car. Once home they might have washed their hands or donned gloves before unveiling their new work, then scanned the room for a good spot to hang it. After all, works of art in both public and private collections are often treated like historical artifacts to be admired from a distance or preserved from human touch, although artists and institutions occasionally attempt to bring the public into closer contact with precious things. Since 2007 the Seattle Art Museum has exhibited Carl Andre’s Lead-Aluminum Plain, a work that literally invites viewers to walk all over it, and this year the museum displayed a work by Yoko Ono titled Painting to Hammer a Nail, which invites viewers to drive a nail through a white panel.

But Lewis doesn’t need a formal invitation to perform such utterly informal acts.

We’ve barely reached the corner of Third Avenue when, propping the piece against his thigh, he begins to rip off the adhesive holding the package together. “Not even really sticking anymore,” he comments as the last bit of masking tape peels off.

He opens two sheets of foam core to reveal a print by Joe Biel titled Retrospective. It’s a close-up caricature of a man staring intently but unseeingly at the viewer. Squiggles of what he might be thinking about (a woman’s thighs, hands, a man eating a pair of legs) swirl around his closely shaven head, like tweeting birds after a cartoonish hammer blow to the head. “Great piece,” I offer enthusiastically. Lewis nods. “Biel is very smart,” he says approvingly, “very smart.”

The fact that Lewis treats art as something mundane enough to be gawked at on a street corner, yet worthy enough to consistently invest in, makes him something of an anomaly in the world of collectors. Money — or the investment factor — doesn’t seem to register with him. Dan Webb admiringly calls Lewis “solid gold,” but then adds, “But made of money he’s not.”

Lewis’s latest purchase, made earlier this year, was Victoria Haven’s cut-metal sculpture Double or Nothing, which he purchased for twenty-five hundred dollars; it may or may not make it to Lewis’s wall. It might get shipped off to his son in Portland or come to roost alongside Lewis’s own bedpost, occupying a spot among the living and the lived in. The lack of incoming funds may stall the growth of Lewis’s collection, but it’s not likely to stifle a man who breathes art.