Clayton Lewis’s star still rises

Courtesy of Peter Lewis
ART: Clayton Lewis, an artist and a fisherman, designed this 22-carat gold ring while living at Lairds Landing with Judy Perlman, a jewelry maker.
05/07/2015

“I remember when he painted those portraits of me,” Richard Kirschman said this week in his Point Reyes Station home, about a pair of paintings that, despite the electric neon hues and blue-colored beard, look unmistakably like him. 

Mr. Kirschman was talking about his friend, the artist and fisherman Clayton Lewis, who died in 1995. Clayton has become something of a legendary figure in West Marin, his life at Lairds Landing, a small inlet on Tomales Bay, capturing the bohemian moment of the 1960s and 70s. Even though Clayton has been gone two decades, Mr. Kirschman can’t help but speak of him in the present. “He becomes so animated when he’s painting, his face lights up, just wild,” he said. “I can’t see what he’s doing, of course. I’ve never been looked at so intensely, so that was quite an experience.”

This year marks the centennial of Clayton’s birth, in 1915, and his star, in some sense, is still rising. About five years ago, his son Peter Lewis launched a website that he said has vastly broadened his father’s exposure—so much so that, for a time, he stopped selling Clayton’s famed envelope illustrations because they were going too fast. (Some galleries were also selling them to private individuals without first making Mr. Lewis a digital image.) 

An upcoming show at the Elins Eagle-Smith Gallery in San Francisco late this summer will feature 25 envelopes, along with a sculpture and a self-portrait. A book to be released this summer, “California Green: Houses of the Environmental Movement, from Handmade to High Technology,” will feature the structures Clayton build and fixed up at Lairds Landing, including cottages built by Coast Miwok at the turn of the century.

Clayton told one magazine in 1983 that he had a “congenital urge” to make art, but he did not widely promote himself as a fine artist. That sometimes frustrated Mr. Kirschman. “Sometimes I wanted to just shake him,” he said.

Clayton, a brawny man who was known for his colorful outfits, bowler hat and coterie of young friends, was born in Snoqualmie, Wash., and studied at the California School of Fine Arts in the late 1930s. For three years, from 1947 to 1950, he ran Claywood Designs, in Oregon, a successful furniture design company. After recovering from a bone disease that left him bedridden for months, he took a job offer in Venice, Calif., to oversee the designs of prominent furniture designers at the Herman Miller Furniture Company.

In 1953, however, he moved to Northern California to work on his art. First he moved to Sebastopol, and after a divorce to Nevada City, where he met Judy Perlman, a jewelry maker and designer. 

The couple moved to Point Reyes, and soon after, Clayton came upon Lairds while sailing with a friend. He was so intrigued by the cottages he found there that, according to Mr. Lewis, he visited the assessor’s office to find out who owned the property. The owner happened to be looking for a caretaker, so in 1964 he and Ms. Perlman moved there and built a jewelry studio.

Clayton built a foundry, too, but through Judy, he had became interested in jewelry; that became the couple’s bread and butter while they were together, providing a steady income, and Mr. Lewis said Clayton traveled to galleries to sell it. The couple collaborated on many of the pieces Judy made, with Clayton designing gold and silver broaches, bracelets and necklaces with stones and jewels.

“He’d get ideas, so we’d look at his drawings and work around those until something workable came up,” Ms. Perlman said.

Many of the pieces Clayton designed had a geometric quality to them, with multiple shapes—squares and circles of silver or gold—playfully joined or stacked in fanciful configurations to stones—like jade, opal and pearl—or glittering jewels like amethyst. In some pieces, the gold or silver swirls like the waves of the sea or the curve of a wriggling fish.

The pair collaborated on jewelry design until 1973, when Ms. Perlman left. For about a decade afterward, Clayton, a known ladies man, was single; Jonne LeMieux became his partner in 1983, and they were together until he died in 1995, of cancer.

Clayton’s bayside life at Lairds was purposefully alternative. He was a critic of middle-class values, and he lived largely off the grid, forgoing a telephone for much of his time there. (In addition to the structures he built himself, three of the buildings at Lairds were built by Coast Miwok who worked on local ranches.)

Richard Olsen, whose book on artist’s houses will feature Clayton, said that Clayton’s move to Lairds and his life there is a key to understanding Clayton. “Lewis is an important part of a long line of 20th-century California artists and writers who divorced themselves from a conventional values system to forge a lifestyle of nature consciousness and consumer-culture dissention,” Mr. Olsen wrote to the Light. “The buildings of Laird’s Landing, in Lewis’s modifications of what he inherited and in what he himself built, were among the more exuberant extensions of that ethos.”

After the Point Reyes National Seashore acquired the property in the 1970s, the park allowed him—in response to local outcry—to remain at Lairds until his death. An effort to turn the compound into an artist’s retreat failed in 1996, and although the Miwok structures were tentatively approved for historic status, the park has said in the past that it lacks funding for their upkeep, which they say is complicated by their remote beach location. 

In his previous life, Clayton had been a successful businessman, both at Claywood Designs and Henry Miller, and the talent helped him to sell some of his art works in his later years. A whimsical bed he made is on permanent display in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and some of his envelopes have made their way into the permanent collections of the California Historical Society, the Los Angeles County Art Museum and the French Postal Museum, in Paris.

But Clayton largely made his living by the sea, using what is called a beach seine—a large net that takes two people to cast—to catch fish he sold to Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. Perhaps because of his artistic temperament and his remote location, he did not doggedly pursue notoriety. He could also be a bit of a curmudgeon, and, as he was known to say, he did not “tolerate fools.” 

(Mr. Kirschman said he once found a beautiful bronze casting of a woman’s head, at least a foot tall, sitting in the grass at Lairds. When he asked Clayton why it had been cast aside, the latter had said something like, “Oh, I made that a while ago.” Mr. Kirschman later bought it from him, and it now sits beside his fireplace.)

Clayton’s best-known works came from the five-year period from 1980 to 1985, when he sent his mother, Rosie, letters almost daily. She lived in Port Townsend, Wash., and in his guilt for not caring for her in her old age, he sent over a thousand letters, mostly by rowing across the bay to the Marshall post office.

But it was the envelopes in which the letters were sealed that would garner interest. Covered in vivid, richly colored drawings, the envelopes were by turns racy, dark or irreverent, reflecting the tribulations of daily life. In one, a man stacks wood for a fire; in another, he tends to a leafy plant, perhaps a depiction of the big garden Clayton kept at Lairds. In another, a man sulks in a corner of a room. Women are often naked. The people that populate them look sometimes cartoonish, sometimes creaturely. Sometimes the stamps become part of the picture, as in one in which a woman appears to be hanging stamps to dry on a laundry line. Every once in a while the envelopes teeter into abstraction, no more than an explosion of color containing a missive to Rosie.

“He was just so full of life, he practically burst with life,” said Doris Ober, Richard’s spouse and a friend of Clayton’s. “You can see it in his paintings. He had a really colorful character.”

During Clayton’s life and afterlife, it has largely been his son and Mr. Kirschman that have created the greatest opportunities to spread the artist’s work.

Mr. Kirschman, for instance, enlisted the historical society and the postal museum to first feature his work. The historical society’s leader, J.S. Holliday, a friend of his, wrote a laudatory article about Clayton for the society’s magazine in 1983 and put on an exhibit of his work that year. (Of the envelopes, Mr. Holliday wrote that Clayton wanted the drawings to be “an impulsive act, like a kiss or a whisper.”) Mr. Kirschman also enlisted the help of a friend to get him the Paris show. Clayton financed the trip by auctioning off some envelopes.

Mr. Lewis built his father a detailed website, complete with a biography; a meticulous catalogue of hundreds of pictures of the envelopes, sculptures, jewelry and paintings; quotes from and links to articles written about him; and photos of Clayton and Lairds Landing. 

“On his death bed,” Mr. Lewis said, “he took me aside and said, ‘I want you to find a publisher for the envelope art.’… I couldn’t find one to put it out. So I put up the website.”

The director of the gallery featuring the show this summer, Kim Eagle-Smith, was drawn both to the background of Clayton’s life and his artistic depth. “He would quote various artistic historical styles, modernists like Picasso and Matisse, various European modernists,” he said. “But in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way. He was playfully quoting them… [The envelopes] evoked the Beat era, too.”

For Mr. Kirschman, what sets them apart—aside from the artistry itself—is the intent. “He wasn’t trying to sell them or show off with them,” he said. “It was pure art and entertainment for his mother. There was no commercial anything attached to it.”

 

For more information about Clayton Lewis and his work, visit claytonlewis.net.

 

This article was corrected to reflect the title of Richard Olsen's new book and the spelling of his name.