Beetle Song: MFA candidate Emily Lewis fuses trauma and art

What happens when the trauma that can accompany growing up in a small town—gossip mongering, alcoholism, corporal punishment—manifests through multidisciplinary artistic expression?

Portland State Master of Fine Arts in Contemporary Art Practices/Studio candidate Emily Lewis provided her interpretation in Beetle Song, which was on display from May 5 to 13 in the MK Gallery in the Art Building. Lewis’ exhibition is one part of graduating MFA candidates’ capstone presentations, also featuring works of K.C.R. Anderson and Kyle Lee.

Beetle Song is, first and foremost, a graphic novel visualizing the folktale of a girl growing up in Southeast Texas. Lewis’ story and illustrations reflect the culture of the region and its wilderness, a trove of mysterious beauty housing poisonous snakes, alligators, scorpions and spiders.

The region also happens to be where Lewis grew up.

“I wanted to capture a little bit of the culture of that region and the magic of growing up in the Sam Houston National Forest, growing up in nature and all of that,” Lewis said. “I wanted to tell about some of the dangers of the culture there and some of the dangers of the nature. I thought that making a sort of folktale about it would be a nice touch.”

Lewis created a fully immersive, interactive environment for her exhibition through a unique style of installation—the sounds of cicadas and crickets recorded on location, story characters brought to life via claymation displayed on a trio of televisions, and themed backdrops featuring the Loblolly Pines indigenous to Southeast Texas. The interface of the senses engages the viewer and invites participation.

“I’m interested in ways that comics and sequential art can be translated into different spaces and how you can think about a story, how it can get into a gallery and out into real life,” Lewis said. “I think comics and animation share a similar language and structure, and I felt it was a natural progression.”

Her process, Lewis described, consists of first drawing a page in ink, then scanning and working digitally. Beetle Song’s black and white images, with occasional saffron highlights, channel the simple yet high-impact works of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novels.

“I’ve been working with black and white for a while, because I think it’s something that is overlooked a lot of the time,” Lewis said. “Not everyone wants to use black and white because it can seem boring, it’s not as seductive as color. But I see it related to literature. It’s a little bit more literal, and depending on how much value you use it can create a heaviness that I wanted to get across in the story.”

Heaviness fits the territory from which Lewis draws influence. She cites inspiration from a wide range of artists, including the intensely graphic black-and-white video art of Mary Reid Kelley, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, graphic novelist Chris Ware, and Czech filmmaker and animator Jan Svankmajer.

Lewis also read many comics and graphic novels during the process of creating Beetle Song. She hopes interested viewers will embrace the immersion experience and dig into what the work has to offer.

“I have a bench here. I want you to be comfortable, take a comic off the wall, sit and read it and get to know the story and its characters, and feel invited to be a part of it,” Lewis said.

In addition to completing her MFA this spring, Lewis also teaches 2-D Design at PSU, an undergrad course akin to an introduction to art. The course explains value and color, art and design principles, all packaged in a clean and graphic presentation.

Curious viewers can see more of Lewis’ work on her website,, and art fans can see additional MFA exhibitions which will include work by Sarah Calvetti, Hyunju Kim and Amanda Wilson. The second round takes place May 19–27, with an opening reception on May 19 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Gallery Talks on May 26 from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.