Artist Junnel Lewis recalls how at age two, she "decorated’ the white walls of the family’s home with her paints and crayons. She told WMN her parents didn’t panic, but instead provided her with additional art supplies with which to hone her skills. Last month she and her sister, Cleo Lewis, exhibited selected works in Venice, Italy, at the 2023 Canvas Venice International Art Fair – a fair that presents collective and solo projects by leading and emerging international artists.
The sisters received an invitation via email to participate in the fair, and after they did their research and were satisfied that the invitation was legitimate, they approached the Ministry of Arts and Culture for financial support and were successful. They exhibited four pieces: Cleo's Bonita and Orange Me, and Junnel's The Savannah and Golden Forest.
"The privilege of presenting our art was tremendous. We were both blown away by the aesthetics of the location. The sights, smells, tastes and sounds will remain in our memories forever," Junnel said.
The Lewis sisters are from Arima and spent their childhood immersed in art. They describe their mother as someone with "a good eye for style and colour," and their late father as "a talented watercolour artist."
But although they are both in love with art, they have chosen to pursue alternative full-time careers. Cleo, 28, holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Sunderland, in England which she completed in 2022 – an achievement of which she is very proud. Junnel, 42, is an accountant who offers consultancy services to a range of individuals and organisations. Within recent times, however, they have found themselves in the limelight for something they have considered their long-standing "hobby."
Although they had been creating art long before the pandemic of 2020, they had never really shared any of their work with anyone outside of their immediate circle. Their actual entry into the art arena came unexpectedly. As the accountant for the Bocas Lit Fest, Junnel is surrounded by creative people, and it was during a casual conversation with one of her co-workers that she was pointed introduced to the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago and Women in Art. This conversation prompted the sisters to submit work to the society, which led to exhibits. Cleo also recently exhibited at the Rotunda Gallery, where she showcased her My Safety Boots, My Future. She described it as a representation of her journey as she sought to navigate the challenges of making her way to success in a predominantly male industry.
“All my life I wanted to be an engineer because of my love of mathematics, physics, drawing, problem solving and designing…These boots can fit both male and female, and females can do the tasks just as good as males in the field of work,” she told WMN.
She describes herself as a mixed medium artist, but her preferred medium is charcoal. She said her style fits into the area of realism – the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. She prefers pencil and charcoal, but like her father, she dabbles in watercolour painting from time to time. She enjoys doing portraits and vintage buildings, but does not limit herself to those areas.
Junnel prefers abstracts, impressionism, impact and focuses more on portraits, and on forms such as cartoons, movement, dancing and people. Her portraits, she said, would “more likely capture the essence and be more abstract.”
The duo have managed to find areas of commonality between their art and primary careers. Cleo said the technical drawing aspects of engineering aligns very closely with some of her pencil and charcoal work, especially when she does vintage and other buildings. Junnel's accounting background has helped improve her negotiation skills, and helps with legal obligations such as registration and tax compliance – a service she even extends to other artists.
“People tend to view what creatives do as hobbies, and not as business; but the business side of it means that you have to ensure proper bookkeeping, manage your inventory, know how to market yourself,” Junnel said.
The sisters are both members of Women in Art and the Art Society of TT, but their work has been noticed on the international front.
Apart from the April exhibit in Italy, last year Junnel's work was featured in an exhibit in Beijing, China. She said The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts had sent out an open call to local artists to submit pieces for the exhibit, which neither of them saw. It was later shared by a friend, who suggested that she apply. She submitted two pieces and “two months later they kept harassing me for better quality images, with better resolution…” She eventually sent the images and one of her pieces, The Lake, was selected. The painting is now a permanent feature in the National Art Museum of China.
“The accounting side kicked in, and for every question they asked, I had a hundred more, ensuring that they signed certain documents. I was not releasing anything, until I was sure sure!”
Since returning home on April 23, the sisters have stayed busy, and are currently working on their latest project – mentoring the students of Speyside High School, Tobago, winners of the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture-sponsored regional art competition in December 2022. As project financial officer, Junnel recommended they do a mural representing the effects of climate change that will soon be released.