On a sweltering summer afternoon, Anissa Lewis, a highly respected professor and artist, sits with me in a crowded downtown Covington restaurant facing East on Madison Avenue to talk about how she has “boomeranged” home and the struggle to not leave again.
It’s a few weeks after ArtWorks announced its 2019 Season of Transformational Art project, where the arts organization engages children and young adults facing crises around the region through their trademark mural program.
A type of artistic expression Lewis knows a lot about.
Lewis, a community and teaching artist, was born and raised in Covington’s Eastside neighborhood. A product of one of Kentucky’s poorest performing school districts, she went on to obtain a Masters in Fine Arts from the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut. As her website proclaims, “Lewis’ deep belief in community, identity, and voice led her to many projects and collaborations, including arts-based women empowerment classes for a Philadelphia County prison drug and alcohol abuse unit; a rite of passage program for Black and Brown teenage girls; and a student driven mural project aimed to address civic engagement, neighborhood relationships and identity, and others.”
Through her work, Lewis not only conveys the profound frustration of being unheard — of not being seen as who you are, but also a focus on the power of place. She translates, through her work, a sense of discomfort about being accomplished; only recognized through her non-connection to her powerful Northern Kentucky upbringing, which led to her receiving a Creative Community Grant from Covington’s Center for Great Neighborhoods.
With her work, Lewis forges a path, opening up opportunities for others to tell their own story and to create their own narrative.
And that feels like a clear window into what she’s trying to do back here in Greater Cincinnati through her art.
Lewis’ art is, first and foremost, a conversation about sharing experiences to make community stronger. Her photo-based prints, love letter yard signs, and maps seek to reconcile her memories of childhood with the present-day changing social fabric, especially in her Eastside hometown neighborhood.
A few summers ago, Lewis created a living mural alongside the western facing wall of Randolph Pool in Covington’s Eastside neighborhood. It called for residents, then and now, to write on her mural and share their stories so that others can hear what it means to live and work in their neighborhood; showing how residents love their home and how they define community.
Fortunately, art isn’t Lewis’ only mode. Whether due to years working in the nonprofit world or her earnest concerns about social equality and equity, she often gets didactic in even basic descriptions of her life and slips into artisan-speak as she talks about it.
“My art helps me connect with Eastside,” she says. “In terms of, for lack of a better word, reconciling my past — what the neighborhood was like then — with what I see happening now. It breaks my heart to see all of the open lots. It is easy to see the lots as blight, loss, etc. And, it is a loss in one sense: loss of a family, their voices, their stories, and their contributions to the strength of the community’s social fabric and power.”
“But I have hope,” she continues. “There are some amazing folks who live there currently and care deeply for the neighborhood and their fellow residents. I hope my art stands in solidarity with them and is my love letter to the Eastside. An open lot represents an opportunity, a possibility for anything.”
Her artwork tells the truth to a fault. It sticks out in the landscape. It’s a lone Baobab tree in an otherwise deserted sprawl of a Kentucky Bluegrass field. Lewis’ work, in other words, is best when the community can enjoy it while making them more socially conscience.
Ultimately, she creates to inspire. One gets the sense that Lewis has always had deep things to say — and is still saying them.
Part of that may simply be that she experienced her early years feeling as though she was walking along in a James Baldwin novel, invisible, succeeding in Covington Independent School’s Advanced Placement Program from elementary school through graduation as one of only a few African-American students to do so. Being an AP student in Covington in the ’80s meant that you had to go to a particular school. This school was not Lewis’ neighborhood school, so she was bused every day.
This is very different from the busing issue that arose when Senator Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden at the second Democratic presidential debate about his support of bills to ban busing for school desegregation during the 1970s and early ’80s. Lewis and her family chose this program.
A long time removed from Covington Independent Schools, now Lewis shows her work locally, regionally, and nationally, most notably at the Historically Black College University (HCBU) Hampton University Museum in Hampton, VA. Lewis also teaches, lectures, and curates.
At any rate, it’s clear that Lewis is a talented and thoroughly careful person intent on making sure every nuance of her work is used for the greater good and to spur positive conversation in her community.
“So much has changed,” Lewis observes when asked about her thoughts of returning home. “Coming back home was like moving to a new city. Some things never change, for good and for bad. But so much has changed. Coming home was exciting because you really can do whatever you want here and people do want to see you succeed. I have not found that in other places I have lived. Here there is access and collaboration happening all the time. You just have to put yourself out there.”
This is the sixth story in an ongoing series about Cincinnati’s “boomerang” residents — people who grew up here, left, and then came back for various personal, professional, and sentimental reasons. If you or someone you know qualifies and would like to be featured in Soapbox, email [email protected].