Gilbert Lewis, celebrated artist who portrayed gay life in Philadelphia, has died at 78

Gilbert Lewis, 78, of Philadelphia, celebrated artist who portrayed the gay male experience in the local LGBTQ community for 50 years, art teacher, art therapist, and art supplies expert, died Thursday, Dec. 7, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the Belvedere nursing center in Chester.

Mr. Lewis took art lessons on the weekends as a boy in Virginia, moved to Philadelphia when he was 18, and spent the next half decade painting the people and places he found compelling in the city’s vibrant gay community. Former Inquirer art critic Victoria Donohoe called him a “realistic abstractionist” in a 1983 review and said that his “portrait paintings have an engaging directness. …Faces emerge as sharp, explicit personalities.”

His friends said in a tribute: “As a gay painter coming up in a time of queer oppression, Lewis’ perspectives on the body offer a beautifully optimistic and sensitive vision.”

His work was seen in dozens of solo and group exhibitions at galleries and museums in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts, England, and elsewhere. He was featured most recently at the Kapp Kapp Gallery in New York in 2023, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2021, and Woodmere Art Museum in 2020.

He also showed often at the William Way LGBT Community Center, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York, and other private and public venues. He was fascinated by youth and aging, and said in an undated artist’s statement: “My portraits serve to commemorate the ‘tribe’ of contemporary creative youth.” In 2004, he said in an interview: “What struck me is that both young men and the old are ignored by society.”

Mr. Lewis said he was inspired by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and George Catlin, and he painted most often in watercolor and gouache on paper. He also liked to paint flowers and won several awards, including a 1989 Best in Show at Rutgers University-Camden.

His works reside in the permanent collections at Woodmere, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Montclair Art Museum in North Jersey. “He painted what he knew, and this was the lives and experiences of gay men in Philadelphia,” said William Valerio, director and chief executive officer at Woodmere. “His legacy stands as a testament to the beauty of the community that nurtured him, and that he, in turn, nurtured back.”

His images were shown often in The Inquirer and other publications, and a former colleague said Mr. Lewis’ work “represents an important queer perspective on the tradition of figurative art in the United States that has yet to be fully recognized.”

He earned a master’s degree in art therapy and counseling in 1978 from Hahnemann University, now Drexel University, and was certified as a registered art therapist in 1991. In the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, he painted portraits and shared art therapy with elderly residents at Manchester House nursing center in Media.

He instructed students of all ages at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and William Way Community Center in the 1990s, and was the local go-to guy for advice on materials and techniques as a manager of art supplies stores in Philadelphia in the 1990s and 2000s. His health began to decline in 2015.

“Gilbert liked to help people,” said longtime friend Eric Rymshaw. “He liked to teach people. He told people you are beautiful no matter what age you are.”

Gilbert Braddy Lewis was born Sept. 25, 1945, in Hampton, Va. He was gifted as a young man and moved to Philadelphia in 1963 to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

He earned a Cresson Traveling Scholarship from the academy in 1967 and received a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1974 from Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts. He lived in Center City until recently.

Mr. Lewis was intellectual and generally quiet, friends said. He read a lot and preferred one-on-one encounters over large events.

He was a remarkable listener, painted practically every day, and became friends with many of his models. “The intimacy of his talks could be incredible,” Rymshaw said. “Whether as an artist, teacher or adviser at his store, he set up people to be better.”

Mr. Lewis is survived by a sister and other relatives. A brother died earlier.

A private celebration of his life was held earlier.

Donations in his name may be made to the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19118.

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