It starts with one paint-filled bubble

Oliver Lewis defies categorization. Part artist, part inventor, his work combines his love of art, science and problem solving.

Now, Lewis, 29, is working on something that addresses another passion, helping children who are ill.

More Recess, a project Lewis is launching this month at Levine Children’s Hospital, will allow children to create paintings regardless of the challenges they face. How will they do this? By blowing paint-filled bubbles onto canvas.

Moment of clarity

More Recess began with an “aha” moment. In the summer of 2009, Lewis was cleaning brushes in his studio at the McColl Center for Visual Art when a pigment-filled soap bubble formed on his hand. He touched the bubble to a sheet of paper and was taken with the iridescent swirls it left behind as it burst.

He realized that not only could this be a painting medium, but it would be perfect for kids – hospitalized kids in particular, since, as Lewis points out, it would allow anyone who can blow a bubble to create a work of art.

Lewis had been thinking about doing something for children who are ill – perhaps growing out his hair for Locks of Love, as he had done before – but in this one soap bubble, he saw an opportunity to combine art, invention and his desire to help.

The path from inspiration to a workable model took a while. The process Lewis envisioned involved adhering stencils to a canvas, blowing the bubbles onto the canvas, and then removing the stencils. But in his first attempts, Lewis found handling the stencils time consuming and boring; he figured children would like it even less.

Eventually, Lewis found a practical and entertaining solution. He magnetized a canvas and adhered a stencil to it with tiny magnets. After blowing the bubbles, he removed the magnets with the flourish of a metal wand and the stencil fell to floor, revealing the finished painting. The process finally had the wow factor he was seeking.

Forming a partnership

By late 2011, Lewis felt ready to present More Recess. He met with Carrie Keuten, group and event coordinator at Levine Children’s Hospital, who said she was excited “to see a fresh, innovative medium from a young artist who wanted to share it with our patients.”

“From the very beginning,” Keuten said, “art has been an important part of the hospital – the are more than 1,000 pieces done by children, students and professionals.”

Major works include a large installation by sculptor Donald Lipski, a three-story mural by poet and artist DeLoss McGraw, and colorful exterior lights by Karlsberger Architects and the LCH Design Team.

Lewis’ goal at Levine Children’s Hospital is to help up to 500 children make paintings they can take home with them. In addition, the children will help create large pieces – ranging in size from 7-by-10-feet to 15-by-30-feet – that Lewis plans to exhibit at art spaces throughout the country. After these works tour, they will be sold to raise money for pediatric medical research.

Art and invention

In many ways, More Recess is a revisiting of Oliver Lewis’ youthful aspirations. His early aptitude for science and math led him to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a pre-med student with minors in chemistry and engineering. While he loved science, he felt hemmed in by the regimentation of his studies.

Lewis was also interested in art but was never encouraged to study it. A move from Pittsburgh to Lancaster, S.C., finally motivated him to pursue art in a meaningful way.

He embarked on an ambitious project – a single, detail-filled drawing measuring 7-by-10 1/2-feet – “so I could uncover what had always been pushed aside.”

His 2009 residency at the McColl Center was where he finally blossomed as an artist.

Since then, he has combined art with his love of invention.

“What I do now is very liberating because I don’t have to answer to anyone. You don’t really see inventors much. It’s a strange job title.”

To make More Recess a reality, Lewis must raise money and is in the process of forming a nonprofit corporation to do so. His goal is to raise $25,000, which will cover supplies, delivery of work to exhibition sites, insurance and other expenses.

“Doing any type of artwork allows our patients to express how they’re feeling,” Keuten said. “Except for those in isolation, we’ll be inviting all children to the painting sessions, and it will truly be the child’s choice to come. This is one area in which children have a say.”