Robert Lewis, 71, designer, sculptor of stained glass

April 12, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert Lewis, an innovative designer and sculptor of stained glass whose work graces the Smithsonian Institution, died March 14 of prostate cancer at his Northwest Washington residence. He was 71.

In a career that spanned more than a half-century, perhaps Mr. Lewis' most unusual and notable piece was the glass sculpture he created in 1961 for the Smithsonian's Hall of Glass and Ceramics, which is part of the Museum of History and Technology.

"Innovative in technique and construction, it consists of fluid shapes of flat, stained glass mounted on a concave half-cylinder," said his nephew, David Lewis, a Baltimore artist. "Tall and narrow, it has the effect of a shaft of infinitely colored light, seemingly breathed into the air."

The untitled piece, about 11 feet tall, earned for Mr. Lewis in 1964 the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award.

Mr. Lewis, who was born and raised near Clifton Park, was a 1943 graduate of City College. He began art studies at 16 after receiving a Carnegie Scholarship in 1941 to attend the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He attended both schools at the same time.

At City College, he struck up a friendship with Rowan Keith LeCompte, who is a nationally known designer, restorer and master maker of stained glass windows. Their friendship resulted in a 50-year artistic collaboration.

"Even as a young man in his teens, his artistic gifts were very apparent," Mr. LeCompte said yesterday from his home in Wilmington, N.C.

Drafted into the Army in 1943, Mr. Lewis served as a radio operator with an anti-aircraft artillery unit in the European Theater.

He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was taken prisoner and spent six months in a German prisoner of war camp, where he and other Allied prisoners were starved. When he was liberated by British forces in spring 1945, Mr. Lewis weighed 90 pounds.

Returning to Baltimore after being discharged, he entered a partnership with Mr. LeCompte. The two designed and fabricated stained glass windows in a studio on the top floor of a Park Avenue rowhouse owned by Mr. LeCompte's parents. They later moved to larger quarters in Crownsville.

"We were recoiling from the horrors of the war and were very interested in the work, but were terrible businessmen," Mr. LeCompte said with a laugh.

Commissions during that time included the rose windows in the University Baptist Church and several windows in the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, both on North Charles Street near the Johns Hopkins University.

They also designed windows for St. John's Episcopal Church in Mount Washington and St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church in Ten Hills.

"When we installed the window at St. Bartholomew's during the winter of 1946-1947, we had to work on an ice-covered scaffold, and it was so cold our hands hardly moved," Mr. LeCompte said.

They completed commissions for the Washington National Cathedral, the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, Conn., St. Alban's School for Boys in Washington, and churches in Glen Falls, N.Y., and Westernport.

During the 1950s, Mr. Lewis moved to New York, where he designed costumes, lighting and sets for off-Broadway theater productions. He moved to Washington in 1954, where he continued fine arts studies at American University and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

In 1959, he went to work as a scientific illustrator in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's department of anthropology. He retired in 1985 after illustrating about 50 books, including "The Handbook of Scientific Illustration," published by the Guild of National Science Illustrators.

In 1985, the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit of his illustrations.

He collaborated over 12 years with William J. Ryan, a Washington sculptor, painter and his companion of 37 years. They produced 12 sculptures.

"They combined painted wood, modeled clay and both stained and clear glass in boxes that evoke architectural space," said his nephew.

Mr. Ryan added: "We started them during the Vietnam War and they represent the huge sadness and sorrow we felt for both the war and this country."

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. today in the chapel of St. Alban's School for Boys, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues N.W., Washington.

In addition to his nephew and companion, Mr. Lewis is survived by a niece, Karen Lewis, an artist, of Cambridge, Mass.; and a great-nephew and great-niece.

The Rev. Carl W. Folkemer, 80, Lutheran minister

The Rev. Carl W. Folkemer, a Lutheran pastor in the Baltimore area for more than 40 years who fought to develop a housing complex for the sick and elderly at the Inner Harbor, died March 16 at North Arundel Hospital from complications from a stroke.

The Linthicum Heights resident was 80.

In 1965, Mr. Folkemer was named pastor of the Christ Lutheran Church on South Charles Street at the Inner Harbor. He almost immediately began fighting for a facility for the sick, indigent and elderly, resulting in the building of the John L. Deaton Medical Center and the Harbor Place Apartments. He retired as pastor in 1982.

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