By Gary Kehoe
Emily Lewis was introduced as the focus of a feature article written by the Star Ledger in 2010: “Aspiring Artist from Ewing Homeless Shelter…”—For most, that is who Emily Lewis was.
In 2014, exactly four years since her stay at the HomeFront homeless shelter in Ewing, New Jersey, Emily Lewis will graduate on a scholarship from The New School of Design, located in the heart of New York City, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. She has her own studio apartment and numerous works on exhibit in New York City.
“It is all about bringing yourself to a canvas or whatever kind of art you do,” said Lewis in a recent interview. “The lessons I have learned are shown in my art, but sometimes may be hidden and only I know it’s there.”
Not long ago, Emily had not yet recognized her own talents. In fact, as a young teen struggling with addiction on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, her life seemed void of any positive outlet. The story behind the portrait of success she now presents is one that can inspire many more like it.
Since the age of 16, Emily Lewis had been admitted more than once to drug-rehabilitation and was no longer continuing her high school education. In an interview with the Star Ledger in 2010, her mother Linda recalled, “I would lie awake at night when she didn’t come home and think, she’s late, she’s late. Later, I just prayed she wasn’t lying dead somewhere.”
Amidst Emily’s struggles, the family home in Ohio was lost and Lewis, her mother, and Emily’s young daughter were now without direction or foundation. The family moved itself to Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Lewis received an assistance check earned through the Work First New Jersey welfare program, but with minimal education or sustenance, life seemed without any positive outlet for change. It was the chance encounter with Ms. Ruthann Traylor, founder of the ArtSpace program, and the discovery of a “hidden talent” for artistic expression that opened the door to a brighter future.
In 2008, a 23 year old Emily Lewis sat down in the ArtSpace room, having never painted before. Traylor claimed to immediately notice Lewis expressing herself in ways that stood out among many other pieces being done. After receiving some acclaim for works including “How You See Me” and “Pennies,” Lewis was encouraged to pursue her talent further. With the help of her newfound support system at HomeFront, Emily took the SAT’s and eventually earned her GED. She then took a shot at a new beginning by applying to one of the most prestigious art schools, The New School of Design in New York City. In 2010, Emily was accepted.
A life that seemed to stall on the streets of Columbus, Ohio was now on its way to a new beginning in the busiest city in the world. In the fall of 2010, Lewis joined over a thousand incoming art students arriving at The New School of Design in Greenwich Village, New York. “I accepted my past and moved on” she said confidently. She arrived at The New School with her past as nothing more than special color in her palate.
The first day of college is a frightening experience for most incoming freshmen, especially for those new to life in the Big Apple. Having only been to the city as a child, the environment was entirely new to Emily. She recalled worrying if she would make it through her first year.
“I’m going to be honest, New York City is tough and I felt like it was breaking me a bit. Then I sucked it up. That is how it seems to be in the city. To live here, a person really needs to explore and find things of value. It has to be the best and worst place I have ever lived!”
The fast pace of New York City may have devoured some wide-eyed freshmen, but Lewis’s unique story has shown she is not the type to be broken. Lewis believes she has developed a unique, mature perspective: one that allows her to speak to many crowds and turn the city into her canvas.
“It’s easy for me to relate with people on the street or drug addicts, but I also can have that smart educated side and that is a plus. I think it’s nice to have both!”
Residing in her own studio apartment with her daughter, Lewis has her own space to create new work and contemplate new meaning.
Recently, Lewis brought her art to the streets in an attempt to bring awareness to homelessness in New York City. She described a time she visited Union Square one night and was shocked at the number of people sleeping there. “It made me angry that this was happening,” she said.
She responded with a piece entitled, “Worth Something”, a box spray painted gold on the inside and furnished with a fur vest on the bottom, a nice pillow, boots, and even lighting. She covered the outside with the saying “Treat Them and Street Them”. The piece was shown at the Octagon Gallery on Roosevelt Island this past fall.
Lewis remains connected to those who helped her realize the hidden talent that released her into her new life, including Ruthann Traylor, the woman who began ArtSpace ten years ago.
Lewis recently returned to HomeFront to hold her own class in the ArtSpace. “It was a lot of fun to go back and see the people who helped me ‘Get it together!’”
Next year, The New School will join HomeFront as one of the priceless stepping stones in Lewis’ open-ended journey. As she walks as a graduate for the first time in her life, she will have the same apprehensions as any college student. She is still unsure what her future holds; a master’s degree and a larger apartment for her and her daughter are among her aspirations, and one of her greatest desires is the simplest of all.
“One thing I think that I will always want is for people to be less judgmental. Kids do it to other kids because of what they wear or look like and adults do the same. We look down on people because they are poor/rich; need help with drugs; have an illness that makes them look or act differently; like the same sex, or even just have other views. I get sick of it and seeing people down all the time. I want people to understand we all walk in different shoes!”
From Columbus, Ohio to New York City, Emily is an example of what potential can do when it is given a chance to dream outside the box.