CHATHAM — You could say Doris Lindo Lewis’s paintings came from out of nowhere. Or you could say they came from under her bed.
The painter, who was active on and off through her mid-80s until she died, in 1995, didn’t make much of an effort to exhibit her work. Nor did she discuss it with her only child, daughter Sydney Lewis Glover. It was only after Lewis died, when Glover and her husband, J. Denis, traveled from Massachusetts to West Palm Beach to clear out her mother’s home, that they found stacks of unframed paintings under her bed.
Last year, one of those works, a Surrealist painting Lewis made on Cape Cod in the 1930s, was featured in “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico.
Now the Museum of Fine Arts plans to acquire two of Lewis’s paintings. One, “Mamscape,” was the canvas featured in “In Wonderland.” The other, “Out of Time and Place,” depicts dismembered hands surrounding a Costa Rican artifact that Lewis had owned, and which the Glovers have also given to the MFA. The works will be officially accessioned into the museum’s collection in October.
The acquisitions will supplement the museum’s scant Surrealist collection with work by a Massachusetts artist. “It’s a part of the collection we are actively trying to build — and Lewis’s work helps us in numerous ways — as a woman artist, as a Surrealist, and as an artist with Latin American connections,” says Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s senior curator of paintings, Art of the Americas. She says she hopes to exhibit the paintings in the near future.
While Lewis was not the first female Surrealist working in North America, says Ilene Susan Fort, senior curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she was one of the earliest.
“Mamscape” portrays a landscape as a female body, foreshortened with breast-like dunes rising over an open shell at the groin, with native flora sprouting on either side.
“One thing I find so interesting is that it’s overtly erotic,” says Hirshler. “Sexualized subject matter is a part of Surrealism, but usually it’s the men who were doing it.”
Not all of Lewis’s paintings are sexual. Not all of them are even Surrealist. Because she only worked as a Surrealist for a few short years, she made little impact on the scene, Fort said in an e-mail.
Lewis, who was born in Costa Rica in 1909 and grew up in Cambridge and Jamaica, first painted Cape Cod landscapes. She shifted to Surrealism in the early 1930s while living on the Cape, where she hobnobbed with poet Conrad Aiken and painter Dodge MacKnight. She apparently had a fling with writer Malcolm Lowry, who wrote her a 30-page love letter, which the Glovers have donated, along with Lewis’s other correspondence, to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.
But she abandoned Surrealism after she married engineer Edward Henriquez and transplanted to Cuba in 1937, where she made a number of astute charcoal portraits and painted more landscapes. After moving to Florida in the late 1940s, she turned to hard-edged abstraction.
“She moved on,” says Glover. Speaking recently at their Chatham home, she and Denis are surrounded by her mother’s paintings. Some hang on the walls; others they have propped on chairs to show a visitor. “She didn’t look back. She did that all through life.”
Glover knew her mother painted; some of her Cape landscapes hung in their house in Cuba. “She didn’t talk about it at all. It didn’t occur to me to ask her questions,” Glover says.
The family summered on the Cape, in a house Lewis had built.
“In 1948 in South Yarmouth, she got a big drum and burned a lot of paintings. My father and I were dancing around the fire, trying to make her stop,” Glover says. She nods at the paintings in her living room. “But she didn’t burn these, so they must have been precious to her.”
Glover says she wasn’t surprised to find the artworks under her mother’s bed and more in a drawer. But she was shocked at their number — 60, by Denis’s count.
Denis was flabbergasted. When the couple and their four children had visited Lewis every year, he says, his mother-in-law “suspended all her activity. She didn’t talk about her art. Didn’t show us her art. . . . I never saw more than one hang, and it was in her husband’s closet.”
Denis found a conservator, and the repair and restoration began. The couple mounted an exhibition of Lewis’s Cuban drawings at the Museum of African American History in Boston in the late 1990s. Then, in 2004, they showed her paintings to James Bakker, owner of James R. Bakker Antiques Inc. in Provincetown, and a board member of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
“I drove down there and was immediately taken by her work. I had never heard of her,” Bakker remembers. “I came back to Provincetown and went through the Art Association records. There was an exhibition label from the 1934 Modern show. That was a clue.”
Lewis had exhibited, here and there — twice at the Art Association, and once at the MFA, in the 1933 “Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting,” organized by the New England Society of Contemporary Art. Lewis had briefly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
“She didn’t graduate from the Museum School,” Glover says. “She found them very stuffy, and went to New York to study.” But Lewis always drifted back to the Cape.
Bakker tried to market Lewis’s paintings but had little luck. He has recently donated one from his own collection to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Then in 2011, LACMA’s Fort happened upon something about Lewis that Bakker had posted online. She flew out to see Lewis’s paintings, and read through the cache of letters the Glovers had preserved from Lewis’s estate. Fort went on to include Lewis’s “Mamscape” in “In Wonderland,” an ambitious traveling show that traced Surrealism through its early years in the 1930s to the 1970s.
She noted Lewis’s particular talent for botany. “I like the fact that she regionalized her imagery, that is, her strange figures and body parts are often set in foliage or landscapes with identifiable leaves, flowers, plants, etc., local to Cape Cod,” Fort says.
The exhibition put the work of many unknown artists like Lewis on the museum wall alongside that of Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois.
“The story is typical,” says the MFA’s Hirshler. “Sometimes women artists found it difficult to market and display their work, or they didn’t need to, or didn’t bother. So sometimes their work remains in the family. It’s not an unusual situation for families to find 60 paintings.”
“I’m thrilled,” Sydney says of her mother’s discovery, decades late. She suspects Lewis might be, too. “I think she’s sitting on a cloud, laughing.”Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.