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Island artist Haley Lewis feels at home when she is away

by Ann MacNiven

Haley LewisYou say you haven’t seen much of Haley Lewis lately? So say we all. During the past ten years Haley has lived in Paris, a few cities in China and, more recently, in Vietnam. She has also traveled extensively in those countries, as well as in India, Nepal, and Burma.

Haley finally landed on PEI long enough for a good visit. She has now returned to China and, because we may not see her again for a while, I thought I would satisfy my curiosity about her life in faraway places.

When asked what set her on this path and lifestyle in pursuing her art, she stated matter-of-factly, “It just sort of happened naturally for me. I have always loved travelling, and since I don’t believe in accidents, I do believe now that there are people, places, and things that we are meant to experience in this life. The art is portable. It’s not only what you put down on canvas, but also very much in the way you choose to live.”

In response to a question about how Haley feels that exposure to diverse cultures has influenced her art, she states, “I don’t see how exposure to different cultures can not influence the work that you produce. The interesting thing about travel is that you are suddenly exposed to all kinds of art forms. For example, the intricate ‘thangka’ paintings of Tibet and Nepal or the works of the great European masters in the museums in Paris. I bought some wonderful ‘sand’ paintings in Burma. But I think what has left the biggest impression are the ancient Buddhist cave sculptures and paintings scattered all over China which I have visited. They are simply monumental in scale and artistic skill. My more recent work has definite Buddhist undertones.”

I wanted to know which country she found the most physically demanding. Haley was emphatic. “Definitely India! You are constantly bombarded with stimuli at every turn there. The images really add up in your head. I feel very inspired artistically and spiritually in India, but it is far too chaotic and hot to do any work there.”

On the emotional side, I also wanted to know if Haley finds it difficult to leave certain countries, and the people there, behind. “ Yes, of course, I form attachments to people wherever I go and sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye knowing I might never see them again.  As far as the art goes, I am continually frustrated by the backlog of ideas I have. I write a lot, though, and draw and take a lot of photos in hopes of one day integrating them into paintings but who knows.

Curiosity really got the better of me when I asked how difficult she finds it to plan and finance travel to remote locations. Haley keeps it simple. “I do it by teaching English. It’s very easy to get work in China and I like the lifestyle it offers me. Although teaching is a challenge I’ve discovered that I quite like it.”

When I asked her what about China makes it a good fit for her life, she responded by saying, “Ideally I would like to live half the year in Canada and the other half in a foreign country. I love coming home to the landscapes and fresh air in Canada. I always feel very creative when I come back here. But in China, even in the chaos of the crowded cities, I have found the time, away from the influences of the past, to reflect and look inward. In China I have found periods of real inner peace and simplicity. Living there also puts me closer in proximity to the countries I want to visit. For example, in 2010 I finally got to visit Burma because I was working in a neighbouring province in China. I love the accessibility.

I had to ask how Haley chooses the next destination to which she will travel. She replied, “ The choice of destination just sort of happens the more you travel. You meet others who tell you about a great place they’ve been to for example, but mostly I think it’s instinct. It’s just a feeling that you learn to trust about places to which you are most drawn.”

Determined to get below the surface, I probed further, asking if it ever makes her feel powerless when she meets people in real need in places where she lives and travels. “ Traveling in third world counties can be challenging because of the many cultural differences, the frequency of natural disasters, and, of course, the poverty that you constantly encounter. I feel quite comfortable with people who don’t have much, but still it’s hard to see people in some very unfortunate situations. It’s important to take breaks, get back to your own country once in a while, and digest what you have experienced. Doing art work is a good way to do that.”

When asked to share her favourite experience so far, Haley related, “Last summer I went up to northern India, to the Spiti valley, which borders Tibet and the Himalayan region. The only way to describe how wonderful it felt to visit such a remote and beautiful place is that it’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing life on another planet. The travel up there is rough, long, and at high altitudes. It’s absolutely breathtaking. There are 1000-year old monasteries built into the edges of cliffs at 400 meters above sea level. I love that ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ feeling that I can get from going to very remote places.”

I asked what Haley found easy to do and what more difficult. “One of the advantages that I’ve found I have is that I will go almost anywhere and I enjoy going alone. I think there are great opportunities in this. The easy part is going. The challenging part is the lack of time to produce work between destinations.”

Reflecting of the past 10 years, I wanted to know how Haley thought that she had changed and how this has influenced her art. “When I first started painting it was like an experiment and very energizing. Later it became clear that in order to sell anything I actually had to paint things that people wanted to buy. I think traveling has made me more my own person and has brought out more honesty in my work. I definitely paint more from my heart now.”

As a final observation for anyone brave enough to take the plunge into the world of extended travel, Haley quips, “I don’t think that most people would want to travel the way I do, for such extended periods, and, of course, its not necessary. However, I think that if they did want to, they would find that it’s not that difficult to do. It’s not always the ‘bed of roses’ that people might imagine it to be, but it certainly has enriched my life. All I can say is that I have found something that seems to work for me, both on a personal and an artistic level, and I am truly grateful.”

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