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The Art of Reinvention

Artist Josie Lewis ’98 shares the story behind her social media ascension and her passion for inspiring people to create.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

November 15, 2019 | 1 p.m.

Bethel alumna and artist Josie Lewis

Josie Lewis’ behind-the-scene and creative inspiration videos have more than 1 billion views on social media, and her audience only continues to grow.

In the summer months, a visitor to Josie Lewis’ home studio will often encounter several dozen monarch butterflies floating around a flower patch outside her front door. The scene resembles a walk-in butterfly garden, but without walls to keep the butterflies contained. Lewis and her family raise monarchs indoors, in a homemade butterfly house, from the time they’re eggs through the stages of metamorphosis. When released, fully matured, the monarchs often stay close. “Much like the butterfly,” Lewis smiles, “I’ve been in the process of reinvention, for probably the last five or six years.”

Lewis, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, makes art in a variety of mediums, for a number of audiences, including her 1.8 million social media followers. Daily, she shares colorful time-lapse videos of her creative process to TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. Her videos, which have been described as inspiring and healing, have garnered more than 1 billion views—but having such a large platform is still relatively new, and it was never part of her original plan.

After earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Bethel and then later her Master of Fine Arts, Lewis watched her peers go on to become art professors. While she enjoyed teaching, it didn’t feel like her calling, so she started to rethink her career path. Around the same time she was reevaluating her professional aspirations, she faced a devastating series of personal setbacks. 

Lewis and her husband had been expecting a second baby, but the child was stillborn at 37 weeks. Then, four miscarriages followed. “Eventually, we stopped trying to be pregnant, and I also, almost on the same day, decided that I didn’t want to be an artist,” she says. “There’s a parallel between creating a work of art and creating a human life. It was like both of those things were done. I’d had it.”

But she was still making things. While she didn’t have the energy to make art in the way she did before, she found herself painting simple patterns with watercolor. “It felt like journaling. I wasn’t doing it because I thought it was cutting edge, or that it would push my career forward,” she says. “I was doing it because it was the only thing I could do.”

In the process of making these small works of art, Lewis says she began to feel like herself again. “What I was doing was getting into this meditative flow state, and that was really healing,” she says. Flow is a psychological term used to describe what happens in the brain when a person is in deep concentration. “I’m fascinated with flow as it relates to both creativity and healing. When you can find your zone, in your creative space, it can be really powerful.”

Incidentally, Lewis decided to film and share a time-lapse video of herself creating one of her paintings with the several hundred Instagram followers she had at the time. The video collected more than 1,000 views. She started sharing videos daily, and within three months her account had more than 100,000 followers. That was in 2017; her audience has continued to grow ever since.

Josie Lewis’ most-viewed art videos of summer 2019

Lewis receives a great amount of feedback from her social media followers, and one of the things she hears most frequently is that her videos help viewers with anxiety or sleep. She also hears that her videos make people want to make art. “I want to give people the courage to step out and make something,” she says. “There are a lot of different ways to be creative. I think that our life is made complete and fulfilled when we can explore those areas of passion.”  

Lewis recently conducted a poll on Instagram, which 30,000 people took: 90% of people said they were interested in painting and 90% said they felt creatively blocked. “If I can help people move passed those blocks so they can take a risk on making something, I consider that a win.”

Lewis’ influence stretches beyond social media, as well. This past August, she gave a talk at TEDx Minneapolis. She released a book in December 2018 and has another in the works. She’s a small business owner and continues to make commissioned art projects, including a mosaic mural on the walls of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The mural contains over 200,000 colorful tiles that together depict 18 butterflies and moths native to Minnesota.

Josie Lewis' mosaic mural at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

Josie Lewis’ mosaic mural can be found in Concourse F of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Though butterflies don’t often show up in other areas of Lewis’ art, she appreciates the metaphor their life represents. “Hanging around butterflies and watching their process, I’ve witnessed a kind of transformation that I can trace in my own life,” she says. “And it represents a really terrific spiritual metaphor that can apply to the Christian walk as well.”

While Lewis anticipates that she’ll always be an artist—“being a maker” is part of who she is—she is open to how that might take different forms.

“Being an artist means you’re in a constant state of reinvention,” she says. “Creativity involves openness. You have to be able to let go of your ideas of how things should go. We always want to revert to the known and the safe—but that’s not the best-lived life.”

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