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George Lewis: I didn't become an artist, I reincarnated as one

Artist and photographer George Lewis has spent time in the far-flung corners of the globe delving into the depths of human spirituality, painting and photographing his experiences – along with portraits of a number of high-profile individuals – along the way. Currently living in New York, the Londoner shares his beliefs, his experiences, and what he misses about living in the capital

What encouraged you to make the move from London to New York?
Although I’m a Londoner at heart, I’ve lived in many different places around the world at one time or another. I like to think of myself as a global citizen. My wife is American, and although we were happy living in London, I suggested that we go to live in her home state for a while, to be closer to her family. She couldn’t believe I’d want to do that; she thought I would want to stay connected to Europe – not necessarily London, but more the ‘old world’.

Do you miss London?
I love London, and I come back often. It will always be home for me. I grew up in Fulham, and before I moved here I lived in Kensington, not far from Notting Hill. What’s lovely is that when I go back, I now have friends all over the city.

What do you love most about the city?
I love London because it’s truly an international city. When we lived there, my wife and I would go the museums, we loved doing that. We’re big walkers, and we loved looking at properties, so before we had children, and when they were small, we would walk for miles looking at the different houses on London’s streets. 

What is it that you think visitors to London often miss?
One of my gripes with my international friends is that they come to London, and all they really see is Mayfair and central London, and that’s not showing the real blend of the city. You’ve got to see the different neighbourhoods. I’d take them further down the river to the west, through Chiswick and Fulham and Richmond, then way down the other end to the east and explore the city’s history. That’s what makes London, London.

Where else have you enjoyed living?
I lived in the Middle East, on and off for several months of the year, for about four years before moving to America.  At the time, I was working as the court painter to the Sultan of Oman, and I was able to travel extensively in the region. I visited Kuwait, the UAE, Yemen, Syria and Saudi Arabia – as well as spending plenty of time in Oman – and found it an amazing experience learning about the psychology of different cultures.

Why the Middle East?
I believe in reincarnation, and I know already about three or four of my past lives, and two of them were in the Middle East. When I first arrived, I didn’t know that, but I felt that something was drawing me there. 

How did the region inspire your work?
I have a beautiful collection of photographs I took there, highlighting the contrast between the old and the new. While Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan (head of the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Social Development) was my patron, I had some fantastic exhibitions and sold a lot of work. Recently, Dubai International Airport commissioned a six metre-long photograph of polo players under the stars against a backdrop of the city. It now hangs in the airport. I will always feel grateful to the connections I made out there.

To where in the world, apart from London, would you say you currently feel the greatest connection?
Bhutan, I think, for two reasons. The first is because its scenery and people are absolutely beautiful. The second is because of what it represents symbolically; a real fusion of east and west, of the silk route, of the inner journey balancing the outer journey. In the west in particular, we are obsessed with the material, outer, external world. How much can I make, what can I do… Bhutan offers that balance with the inner journey, the spiritual connection behind the five senses. Having the opportunity to paint the king and queen has also been incredible.

How did you become an artist?
I didn’t become one, I reincarnated as one. It’s one of my major archetypes. The archetype of the artist is strong with me because I’m fascinated with trying to understand other cultures and explaining spirituality in art. Art has always been the medium through which I can communicate something which we all have in common, as opposed to simply  ‘I’m English, I’m European, I’m white, I’m Catholic…’ I’m always looking for the big picture conversations – I have been since I was a child, but back then I didn’t know how to articulate that on canvas. I studied politics and philosophy at university, but I always painted, I always photographed. My dad gave me a Pentax camera when I was 14, I had my first darkroom when I was 17 and I had my first watercolour exhibition when I was 18.

Who would you say is the most interesting character you’ve met?
I’ve met so many interesting people. From great mystics like Caroline Myss – she can read your energy, she has such psychic knowledge, so I have to mention someone like her. I’ve met very unusual down-and-out people who have great insight; but I’ve also met heads of state. I spent last new year with Donald Trump – there was discussion of me doing his portrait, though it wasn’t a good time for me. I don’t tend to jump on a bandwagon like most people do, of condemnation – I always have in the back of my mind what Mother Teresa said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Who do you find most challenging to paint?
The famous people are more challenging in the sense that people already have their perceptions of them. Most human beings who have risen to the top are also naturally on the more egotistical, narcissistic side. Not all, but most; whereas most empaths are people who are unknown: the unsung hero. I get great pleasure out of painting them, and talking to them.

Who are you painting at the moment?
Right now I’m painting Bob Thurman, he’s the Dalai Lama’s representative in America. He’s Uma Thurman’s father, and he runs Tibet house. In the future I hope to paint the Dalai Lama himself, which will be very exciting.

What does Luxury mean to you?
Luxury for me is about freedom of expression. I think luxury is not an acquisition. It can include something material, but that ‘s only when it gives someone so much pleasure that they can share that joy with others to elevate the consciousness. Luxury is about the individual freedom of exploring through the collective consciousness, to be curious and open, and safe enough to make mistakes and learn from them. That’s the journey of the soul through the material body.