“Bacchanalia” is among the whimsical envelope paintings by Clayton Lewis on view at Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery. (Courtesy photo)

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.

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.netClayton LewisElins Eagles-Smith GalleryEnvelope Art of Clayton Lewis: Letters to RosieHerman Miller Furniture CompanyRose BaldwinVisual Arts

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