In a new show at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, artist Tony Lewis fuses poetry and visual art using nothing but Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. The exhibition, called “Tony Lewis: Anthology 2014-2016,” is the Chicago-based artist’s way of paying tribute to a comic that was a huge part of his own childhood.
The installation is composed of 36 poems that take up all of the wall space on the Hirshhorn Museum’s second floor. Lewis took the comic strips and painted over them again and again, being sure to leave only one or two words left showing per strip. Once viewers start to traverse the gallery and look closely, it becomes clear that what seems at first to be a random combination of words is actually poetry.
For Lewis, no ordinary comic strip would do, it had to be Calvin and Hobbes. “It’s my favorite comic strip since I was a kid,” Lewis said in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “Calvin and Hobbes was the first time I saw humor, the first time I saw art, the first time I saw ability to draw, the first time I saw narrative—all at once. And that was super-captivating.”
The idea for the new exhibit came when Lewis realized that he had multiple copies of several Calvin and Hobbes comic books laying around his art studio. When the grime on the books made them unfit to be used as reading material, he decided to repurpose them into art. While Lewis usually works on his bigger pieces in a certain studio, he decided to take this personal project to a different space. Changing studios made the project feel more low-key and intimate, while also helping keep it under the radar.
To actually create the exhibit, Lewis used correction fluid and graphite to block out certain words within disparate comic panels, describing the process as frustrating but rewarding.
“Sometimes you put them next to each other and you’re lucky and it makes sense,” he said. “Or it says something funny, you keep it. Or you blow them all away and they’d be gone. And then I’d try to recreate it and I wouldn’t be able to. It’s sort of like losing your thought in the middle of writing.”
Once he had a phrase that he liked, Lewis would build out the rest of the poem to fit the phrase, utilizing the same number of panels as a typical Sunday comic strip. This gives his work a brief, but impactful quality. By keeping it short, Lewis tries to mimic the way people think random thoughts.
Still, Lewis wasn’t beholden to the themes and attitudes expressed in Calvin and Hobbes. “Some of these poems talk about things Calvin wouldn’t be caught dead saying,” he said. “I think it’s important to talk about things that are happening now or other aspects of life, that have nothing to do with the perceived narrative that exist in the original comic.”