Born in Cocoa, Fla. in 1941, Robert L. Lewis, Jr. grew up in Cocoa and continues to work there today. The third child in a family of six children, Lewis is one of the only Florida Highwaymen painters who is known as a member of the group due to the subject matter and style of his work rather than having directly worked with the group of painters artists Alfred Hair and Harold Newton organized in Fort Pierce, Fla. in the early 60s.
Keenly interested in art from a young age, it wasn’t until Lewis was thrust into an art class that he began developing his skills as an artist and his talents blossomed. “I was forced into an art class due to a football injury that prevented my participation in physical education,” Lewis told the Ocala Star Banner in 2010. “My teacher gave me motivation to continue a pursuit of fine arts.”
It was his art teacher, Alberta Leisure, who is credited with first introducing Lewis to the work of Harold Newton. According to The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, Leisure brought a news clipping about Harold Newton to class in 1958, and that sparked him to begin exploring landscape painting, and the possibility of making a living selling his art.
Encouraged by his teacher, friends, and family, however, Lewis pursued a college education in art rather than striking out on the road to sell his art. He graduated from Florida A&M University with a BA in Art Education in 1966, and then began a career that has always included a connection to art, first as an illustrator for Boeing, and soon after as a teacher in the Brevard County school district, where he taught for 32 years. He also worked part-time over the years teaching art at various community organizations, and for 15 years at Brevard Community College.
Lewis first started selling his painting around central and northeastern Florida and throughout the Panhandle in 1967, but it is teaching that has been his touchstone throughout his life. Lewis’ inclusion as a Highwaymen painter, apart from the timeframe in which he sold on the road and his acquaintance with Highwaymen brothers Harold and Sam Newton, is evident in the subject matter of his paintings – Florida interior, landscapes, and coastal scenes – as well as their stylistic use of color and inclusion of iconic images of Floridian flora and fauna. What sets Lewis apart from his fellow Highwaymen painters is his lifelong dedication to teaching, as well as his formal training not just as an artist but as an art teacher.
Lewis is known for his bold use of color in his work, a constant throughout his six decades of painting. “I use the color to display the mood I am experiencing. Bright colors make the meaning clear. Often, I am focused on there being so many people who are spiritually or emotionally dead and not even aware of it. I want to wake them up,” he told the Ocala Star Banner.
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Lewis’ work hung at the Smithsonian as part of the exhibition A Florida Original: RL Lewis and the Highwaymen Tradition” in 2003-2004, and he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant (2003-2005) for his project Preserving the Highwaymen Tradition. Robert L. Lewis continues to live, work and paint in Cocoa, Fla. today, and is a frequent guest, lecturer, and teacher at schools and galleries throughout Florida.