Paint across AmericaDec 23, 2021 11:24AM ● By Carole Ann McKelvey & Lauren Berg
On the eve of his 60th birthday, Lewis Williams was reflecting on his career as a painter when he dreamt up a new physical and artistic challenge: bicycling cross-country and painting plein air along the way.
Not only did this Montrose artist want to hone his creative talent, but he also wanted to “shake things up” and see what opportunities came of it.
“I wanted to give myself a challenge in these ‘old age’ years that I’m moving into, to prove to myself and others that we don’t have to be limited,” said Williams.
FEEDING THE SOUL
For years after earning his Masters of Fine Arts in painting, Williams searched for ways to integrate together his interests in history, faith and art. The inspiration for his painting style ultimately came to fruition after a workshop with master iconographer Robert Lentz.
“When I saw his work I thought, ‘he’s doing what I want to do,’” said Williams, who’s been a student of Lentz since 1999.
He said he feels blessed by the calling that led him to icons and the apprenticeship that ultimately launched his art career.
“Lentz painted icons with this social agenda to tell the stories of people doing good in our times,” said Williams, who’s currently working on a commission of Sister Dorothy, a nun who fought deforestation in Brazil.
After years of moving around, Williams and his wife, Denita, made Montrose their home in 2009. According to Williams, living in western Colorado feeds his soul and supports his work. In 2012, he began incorporating his sense of iconography art into landscapes via the plein air method (painting outdoors in nature or the “plain air”), creating his own combined style.
While an avid biker, Williams had never attempted a bike trip this long and knew he’d need support. He recruited Denita, who’d recently retired, to travel with him in a converted van, which became their make-shift home for the next five months.
The couple began their journey at Crystal Pier in San Diego, California, departing on March 1, 2021, headed for Bar Harbor, Maine. Williams indulged his love for history first by following the Old Spanish Trail—which branches through California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico—then working backwards along the Santa Fe Trail to its beginning in Franklin, Missouri.
“I did two national historic trails for about half of the journey,” he said.
Williams enjoyed the Santa Fe trail in particular, which was celebrating its bicentennial. He was interested not only in artistic depictions of the trail, but also historical travelers’ personal experiences recounted through their diaries and other writings.
“I tried to connect with their experiences in what I chose to paint. Instead of just looking for ruts as evidence of their passage, I wanted to capture what they saw and felt,” Williams explained. “It’s just this sense of the awesomeness of this country…passing through the hugeness of it, they must have felt how small they were.”
After months of being on the road himself, traveling from coast to coast, Williams imagined the travelers’ experiences of loneliness, exhaustion, fear and awe in a new way. He compared his cross-country trip memories to hiking across the Grand Canyon.
“By the end of the day you were on the other side and you’d look back across that expanse and say, ‘I know in my head that I was over there this morning.’ But you look through that great void there and think, ‘But I can’t comprehend we walked through all of that today,’” he said.
The five months of travel were filled with so many places, events and people, Williams has trouble grasping the fact that it was one trip.
“We had all kinds of surprises and wonderful things,” Williams said. “One of the best parts of the trip were meeting such incredible people along the way.”
The couple ended their cross-country trip in Maine’s Acadia National Park in early August, 2021. For two-thirds of the way (an estimated 3,700 miles of the 4,700-mile trip), Williams was on his bike, sketchbook and all, stopping when he saw something that inspired him.
He acknowledged that, like many artists, he couldn’t do what he does—including this trip of a lifetime—without the help and support of his wife. While five months in a cramped van could result in the couple getting on each other’s nerves, the opposite actually happened.
“This was really good for our relationship and our marriage,” Williams said. “It was a really positive thing. We grew even more after being married for 33 years.”
The trip also evolved into a kind of retirement present for Denita, who spent time reflecting on how she wanted to use her post-retirement freedom.
“I was hoping that during this trip she would find something meaningful to bring more purpose to her life,” Williams shared.
For Denita, that moment of clarity came during the trip when a friend from Kenya called to inform her that their newborn baby was named after her. Having met the friend while working with Pioneers of Hope Foundation in Kenya, this personal honor affirmed to Denita that she wanted to dedicate her retirement years to service and helping others.
More adventures ahead
Back on the Western Slope, Williams has featured the more than 100 paintings from the trip in art galleries and exhibits, including an upcoming Santa Fe Trail-themed art show at the Montrose Center for the Arts, which opens February 4, 2022.
Having enjoyed the cross-country adventure so much, the couple is already planning the next one.
“We want to actually do more,” said Williams. “Not take five months, but we’re like, yeah, we loved this. Why not take a month or so and still go off on these excursions?”
In fact, Williams has plans for a two-week stint painting and biking Santa Fe’s Enchanted Circle trail on his way to the Plein Air Convention in May, where footage from his trip will be featured.
Learn more about Williams’ artwork and journey across the U.S. at www.lewisartwilliams.com.