Categories: Visual Arts

Clayton Lewis’ hand-painted envelopes prompt smiles

When 20th-century artist Clayton Lewis sent letters to his mother, he mailed them in envelopes that, like their contents, were a joy to receive. Hand-painted, comical and sometimes racy, these envelopes have been recognized as museum-worthy art and rank among Lewis’ best-known work.

Between 1980 and 1985, Lewis created more than a thousand of these postal paintings – lighthearted, spontaneously produced pictures in which postage stamps figure into the fun. “The Envelope Art of Clayton Lewis: Letters to Rosie” at Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery in San Francisco features 26 of these pieces.

Lewis, who died in 1995, began his career as a furniture designer, in the 1940s. In 1950, he became general manager of the Herman Miller Furniture Company’s Venice, California, office, where designs included those by Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi. He settled in the Point Reyes area in the 1960s and created jewelry, sculpture and oil and watercolor paintings. He supplemented his income by working as a carpenter, boat builder and fisherman – occupations reflected in his art.

Lewis began turning envelopes into art to bring a smile to his elderly mother, Rose Baldwin, who lived in Port Townsend, Wash. As often as several times weekly, he rowed across Tomales Bay to the Marshall post office to mail her a letter in one of his painted envelopes. With cooperation from the postmistress, Lewis frequently placed the stamp in an unconventional spot on the envelope, incorporating it into the design.

Now exhibited worldwide, Lewis’ envelopes contain casual, colorful and impish depictions of subjects that sometimes are as mundane as hanging laundry and sometimes hint at literature or mythology.

Works in the exhibit include “Gone Fishin,’” a playful self-portrait of the artist having a leisurely good time in a rowboat. A coral-themed stamp fits with the aquatic setting.

“Bacchanalia,” one of many pieces containing nude figures (usually women), features a couple with a revelrous, ancient Roman look, rendered in a Picasso-like style.

A particularly smile-prompting envelope shows a fisherman standing with his prize catch, while a crafty cat has its own designs on the fish.

In other works, people plant flora, explore rocket science, behave lustily, tilt at windmills, and emulate the imagery on the accompanying commemorative stamp.

The exhibit also contains a sculpture and a self-portrait on paper by the artist, whose work is included in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Art Museum and the French Postal Museum.

IF YOU GO
The Envelope Art of Clayton Lewis: Letters to Rosie

Where: Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery, 49 Geary St., Suite 509, S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Aug. 15
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 981-1080, www.eesgallery.com, www.claytonlewis.net

Anita Katz

Recent Posts

SF Preps Game of the Week: Sacred Heart Cathedral stumbles in WCAL opener

KEZAR STADIUM -- A week after 52-point win over Homestead a week ago, Sacred Heart Cathedral came into Friday's WCAL…

1 hour ago

Affordable homes, not developer giveaways

In a recent op-ed published in the Examiner, Corey Smith, the paid Campaign Organizer for the citywide advocacy group for…

2 hours ago

Affordable housing plans at shipyard move forward despite concerns over radioactive contamination

The City is forging ahead with plans to develop a 28,792 square-foot site on Parcel A at the Hunters Point…

2 hours ago

SF Preps Football: Mountain View-St. Francis batters St. Ignatius

By Daniel Sheedy Special to S.F. Examiner MOUNTAIN VIEW -- With both teams coming off a bye week and looking…

3 hours ago

Khris Davis hits two homers, including walk-off blast, in 7-6 Oakland Athletics win

By Alex Hall Special to S.F. Examiner OAKLAND -- Oakland Athletics designated hitter Khris Davis already had the most home…

4 hours ago

A’s open final home series of 2018 against Twins

By Alex Hall Special to S.F. Examiner AKLAND — The Oakland Athletics have enjoyed an incredible 2018 season, with 92…

9 hours ago