Rosemary Lewandowski-Lois is an extraordinary artist. In her work, she transcends the impersonal aspects of the machine and renders it with human feeling. Each object in her body-of-work addresses the mechanical hold on everyday life and human behavior, but in her ‘incarnations’ these machines also consist of thoughts and emotions. She captures the ‘soul’ of her subjects, which are not merely mechanical objects, and each painting goes far beyond what the camera can do.
In 1967, Rosemary’s first one-woman show, Lewandowski-Lois Paints Machines, opened at the D’ Arcy Gallery in Manhattan. Twelve ‘machine paintings’ seemingly appeared out of nowhere and received critical acclaim.
Twenty years later, in 1987, Lewandowski-Lois had her second show at the Richard Green Gallery, titled VW, IBM, Boeing $ Lewandowski-Lois, Retrospective: Machine Paintings from 1957-1987.
The Lois part of her name is very familiar because she is married for seven decades to advertising’s Big Idea pioneer – and veritable force of nature – George Lois.
Here are what some of America’s great art museums have to say about the artist and her work:
“Lewandowski-Lois’ machine paintings evoke an almost anthropomorphic power” – National Museum of Women in the Arts
“Lewandowski-Lois is an important painter of the machine age” – Museum of Modern Art
“Lewandowski-Lois’ machine paintings evoke Dada, Surrealism, and Hyper-Realism” – Metropolitan Museum of Art
The National Herald: Tell us about your first steps.
Rosemary Lewandowski-Lois: I grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Syracuse, NY, and attended a Polish Catholic elementary school. The only Greek people I knew were a family who owned a little coffee shop near us. They were well-liked and respected by all. When I was a girl, if anyone had suggested that one day I would become Greek Orthodox and marry a Greek man, I would have said that was impossible.
George Lois’s parents, Haralambos and Vasiliki Lois, wanted him to marry a Greek girl because they were afraid that an American girl would take him away from his family and religion. They didn’t know me at all.
In 1949, George and I met on the first day of school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where we enrolled to study advertising design. In August 1951, we eloped. Five months later, I became Greek Orthodox, and then we had a small Greek wedding at St. Spyridon Church in Washington Heights, near were George’s parents and two sisters, Paraskeve and Hariclea, lived. Paraskeve had one daughter, Stemmie Lee, and Hariclea had three sons, Jon, Harry, and Billy, and we had two sons, Harry and Luke. All the cousins spent most of their summers growing up together at our summer house in Fire Island. They still talk about it on holidays when we’re together.
When I first met my husband, George, he said:
“Me Tarzan. You Jane.”
My reply was:
“Me, Rosemary. You arrogant.”
This August we’ll celebrate our 70th wedding anniversary.
TNH: Is it correct that you don’t know if you’re a painter until you paint?
RL: Yes, until you try to paint. No one can teach you to paint. You just have to do it. Soon enough, you will know if your work is ‘alive’.
Although I began drawing when I was very young, I first started painting (with oil-based paints, no less) while my first child napped. I drew portraits of people, mostly family or close friends, but I didn't need them to pose for me. I remembered them as I knew them, and I was never interested in flattering them. Most never even knew I had painted their portrait! One of the first things I learned was how hard it is to paint someone you love.
At one point, I thought I would take a class with Raphael Soyer at The New School because I respected his work and wanted to find out what he had to say to me. He asked me to bring in some of my work. After staring at my portraits for a long time, he said only four words to me: “You tell too much.”
That shocked me. I thought all artists should tell all that they could. So I went home and painted my truth for the rest of my life.
TNH: Your father made sacrifices for you to attend college.
RL: It was The Great Depression, and most people didn’t make much money – even if they could find a job. But when World War II started, things got better. My father sold his War Bonds to buy a small grocery store when I was a teenager and he saved as much as possible to send me and my younger sister, Joan, to college. My father’s friends told him that he would be wasting his money to send his daughters to college because they would only get married. But he didn’t listen to them, thank God!
I also worked summers to save for college – first picking strawberries at local farms, being a salesperson at department stores, then being a secretary for the Dean of Women at Syracuse University, which offered me a full scholarship to their School of Fine Arts.
I turned it down because I never dreamed I could earn a living selling my paintings – I had to find a way to use my talent commercially – like drawing fashion ads – so I enrolled in The Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City.
I learned later that George had been offered a basketball scholarship to the Syracuse University School of Fine Arts but turned it down for the same reason I did. We met on the first day of school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied advertising design.
TNH: What were the first jobs you held?
RL: In 1951, six months after George and I eloped, George was drafted and served in the Korean War. I was on my own. It was tough to get a job in advertising if you were a woman. Sometimes I was told that they couldn’t hire me because they didn’t have a ladies’ room. There were photos of nude women from Playboy magazine on the walls of the ‘bullpens’ of entry-level employees. I free-lanced doing music album covers for Herb Lubalin, a great art director, but his agency paid by the cover – the months after they were produced!
I had to pay rent and buy food, so I looked for a steady-paying job. I got one at Fairchild Publications doing ads for Supermarket News. One of my ads was selected for an award in Graphis, a prestigious advertising publication. It paid well, but I was bored. So I became the promotion art director at Mademoiselle magazine. I loved that job, designing subscription advertising for college women.
But in 1958, our first son, Harry Joe, was born. I was so happy I told George I didn’t want to go back to being an art director. I wanted to be home with our children while they were growing up. Luke was born four years later. George’s agencies were thriving, so he made it possible for me to be home with our precious children. And that’s when I tried to become a painter!
TNH: What triggered your lifelong fascination with the relationship between man and machine?
RL: My first machine portrait was of a typewriter I ‘fell in love with’ because the paper under the celluloid on each of the keys was a different color, depending on how often the human fingers had touched the keys. The idea that the use of the machine by a human had actually visually changed the machine ‘blew my mind.’ It began my fascination with the relationship between man and machine.
My lament? We were a more progressive nation when we manufactured things – when hard-working men and women were respected, and their unions had absolute power.
TNH: What is the essential force in your life? What defines you the most?
RL: George, our family, and my love of art.
In 1978, our beloved first son, Harry Joseph Lois, died suddenly of a heart attack sixteen days after his 20th birthday. He was a magnificent young man. Our family still mourns him.
Our second son, Luke Lois, became a successful advertising photographer and now works with his father at his company Good Karma Creative, creating ad campaigns, branding products, and designing books. Luke’s wife, Diane Lois, is a real estate agent, and we are blessed with two grandsons, George, a film producer, and Alex, a devoted law enforcement officer.
TNH: What is the importance of self-image to you?
RL: Working as an art director in advertising required me to be fashionable every day – simple dresses and suits (Halston, Trigere, Pucci, Ellen Tracy – occasionally even ‘hot pants’ and boots – 4” high heels every day, hair styling by Kenneth (I owned two hairpieces, one was a braided blonde crown I wore to dinner and a game of tennis on New Year’s Eve.) Fashion was so much fun.
George and I loved dining at wonderful New York restaurants – our favorite was Le Bernardin – so I needed to look my best since I was always conscious of being George’s wife. He was much more famous than I was because he was a pioneer in The Creative Revolution in Advertising, the first art director to be a partner in an advertising agency –which immediately raised the stature and salaries of all the art directors in the industry – and then his agency was the first to go public. He was ‘the rock star’ of advertising! And so handsome in his Roland Meledandri suits.
In closing, TNH notes the obvious: Rosemary and George’s conversations are as fascinating as their renowned art collection.
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