She is a small woman with a huge smile and a genuine excitement for visual art forms that tells stories of unheard voices across the globe.
Louise Lewis’ quick wit and enthusiasm was heard through the crowd that gathered at the CSUN gallery on June 7 as she celebrated her last exhibit, “Reclaiming the ‘F’ Word, Posters on International FeminismS.”
Since 1972, Lewis, director of CSUN’s art gallery, staged more than 500 exhibitions with an emphasis on international issues facing women and minorities. Her last exhibit was no exception.
“I was very happy to have this as the last show of my career,” Lewis said. “It focuses on an issue that has been an integral part of my focus for the exhibition program at CSUN, including roles of women in creative forces, organizers, healers, and leaders.”
Lewis, whom one of her former student’s refers to as “a regular Indiana Jones,” has traveled to places like Paris, China and New Zealand. Her work at the CSUN gallery reflects her experiences, as evident by her open approach to new ideas and concepts.
“She is a real character,” said Chris Haggard, a graduate student who is working in the gallery this summer. “She has brought a lot of joy and life to the gallery. She will be missed.”
Lewis’ career at CSUN extends beyond the gallery. She was also an art professor.
In 1994, as the faculty president, Lewis helped students remain in school after the earthquake that rocked Northridge.
“We had to teach art on the sidewalk after the earthquake. There were no slides for visuals,” Lewis said. “We were in the trailers for seven years at the south end of campus. In fact, the gallery’s first show was held in a trailer.”
Lewis’ final exhibition, “Reclaiming the ‘F’ Word,” was organized by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. It focused on the roles of women throughout history and the challenges they continue to face domestically and around the globe. The 129 posters were divided into specific themes that addressed issues such as women’s choice, violence, labor and gender roles, just to name a few.
“We started with 2,000 women’s posters from around the world,” said Carol Wells, executive director at CSPG, who showed exhibits at CSUN since 1988. “We typically show closer to 80 posters, but there was no way we could edit this collection down to that number.”
Lewis, who is now a board member at CSPG, worked with the members of the organization to select images from the broad range of issues impacting women in various countries and across social classes.
“The ‘S’ at the end of the word ‘FeminismS’ is not a typo,” Lewis said. “There are many forms of feminism. There is nothing that women haven’t been involved in throughout history.”
Sandra Pettit, a board member of CSPG, hesitated in front of a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt that contained the quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Pettit recounted Roosevelt’s life and her role behind the scenes that made many social programs possible.
“This isn’t in your history books,” Pettit said. “Eleanor pushed Franklin to the left.
“If it hadn’t been for her, lots of the things in the New Deal, especially Social Security, would not have happened,” Pettit said. “But women today don’t want to use the word ‘feminism.’ It’s considered a nasty word.”
A panel session was held during the exhibition. The seven-member panel was comprised of members from the CSPG board and participating artists. The panelists emphasized the overall message of the exhibit was to “Reclaim the ‘F’ Word” and broaden the western definition of feminism to address international issues.
“This is an international struggle. I think women in the U.S. have to do more to support working women in other countries,” Pettit said.
Michael Henderson, faculty member at Cal State LA, was one of the few men present at the exhibit.
“I’m grateful for this show,” Henderson said. “There is a sign in the exhibit that says, ‘If nobody is free, then none of us are free,’ and that is the truth.”
Henderson spoke about one of his students, Linda Kiveu, whose graduate thesis project included images shown in the exhibit. Kiveu talked about one of her images that show a live woman in a coffin.
“This shows that when a man dies in Kenya, the wife does not have rights to his property and daughters cannot inherit from their fathers,” said Kiveu, who came to the U.S. from Kenya in 2001. “Some women end up homeless.”
Kiveu spoke during the panel session about how the woman’s struggle is different in Africa because some activists in the U.S. give women a voice.
“Silence in common in Kenya,” Kiveu said. “In the U.S., we can use the media to expose and enlighten people in different societies to show that our struggles may be on different levels, but it is still the same.”
Betty Vandermeer, a member of CSUN’s art council, walked around the exhibit and shook her head several times.
“I’ve never felt this. I don’t know what they are talking about when they say women are not free,” Vandermeer said. “I think I just take it for granted. Woman in the U.S. have never had to experience what Middle Eastern women have experienced. I feel very fortunate to live in America.”
At the end of the evening, Lewis talked to a few visitors before the gallery closed. The powerful images hanging on the white walls of the dimly lit gallery surrounded her as she walked through the room for the last time.
As this chapter in her life closes, Lewis said she is looking forward to her role on the CSPG board and to traveling to places such as South America, Africa and Australia.
Lewis’ last exhibit followed the same guiding principle that she has used for the past 36 years, she said.
“I look at different ways of seeing, what would serve the students and the community at large,” Lewis said.
“The perceptions and perspectives of women today continue to receive attention, and though not adequately, there have been some gains,” Lewis said. “These gains are for everyone, women, men, young, old and all of life’s global participants.”