Portsmouth mural artist Mark Lewis talks about life after the Arts Lodge
Mark Lewis made a name for himself 30 years ago after becoming the first person in the world to paint satellite dishes.
At the time the ugly spheres were drawing the ire of conservationists including Prince Charles who moaned that he would never put one up at his Highgrove home.
So plucky Mark, from Southsea, painted one in camouflage colours and presented it to the future king.
It’s just one of the fascinating events the 51-year-old has managed to pack into more than three decades as an international mural artist.
He also spent 17 years as the founder and director of the now-closed Arts Lodge, an arts cooperative in Victoria Park, which ended in heartbreak when the organisation was evicted by Portsmouth City Council in 2016.
The artist has now gone back to what he loves best – simply painting. And he couldn’t be happier. He says: ‘2018 was my best year for mural painting in 30 years.
‘Not only was it the sunniest summer we’ve had since 1976, all my jobs were local, within a quarter of a mile from my home. So I walked or biked to all my jobs. For the first time ever I didn’t have to worry if it was going to rain and the paint was going to run. It was sunny every day. I got the best tan I’ve ever had.’
Mark’s murals have been popping up around the city for many years – the most famous of which being the huge map of Portsmouth on a wall at The Strand, Southsea.
But it was the Arts Lodge which he devoted almost 20 years of his life to so it was a huge blow when he had to leave.
Self-taught Mark says: ‘I created an organisation to reach out and give access to the arts for all. It was a very unique community arts venue for 15 years and I taught more than 300 people how to paint – mainly through schools. I saved the building from demolition and won an award for its restoration. It was Portsmouth’s only arts centre and I saved the council £70,000 a year by running it.
‘It took over a year to finally sort out the 12 lorries-full of stuff that came out of the Lodge. We probably gave £10,000 worth of equipment and materials away.’
Mark was convicted of assaulting two police officers during the eviction when feelings ran high. Well-wishers paid the subsequent fine. It was a dark time for him but gave him the opportunity to reevaluate things.
He says: ‘The Lodge was a big chunk of my life but I had done many things before that.
‘One of my childhood dreams was to open a community arts centre, which I did. What happened (at the end) left a really bad taste but, after 17 years I was begging for a rest. I don’t know how much longer I could have gone on. I worked up to 100 hours a week and I was earning around £5,000 a year. Since then, my life has got a bit easier.’
Following the Lodge’s closure, Mark spent time in Auroville, an experimental township in India, and it had a real impact on him.
‘It was my first time in India and I loved it. It is an incredible place – a real eye opener with beautiful people. There’s no money, everyone works five hours a day. Thousands of people live there.
‘The Prime Minister of India went there for the 50th anniversary. It’s an inspiration.’
Mark feels that there are too many hoops to jump through to do community work in the UK. He says: ‘You get hindered at every stage but over there it is encouraged.
‘The township was donated by the Indian government to humanity. There are places like it popping up all over the place. People are starting to wake up and see there are alternative lifestyles. We can’t carry on taking resources and striving for economic growth, it will destroy us.’
While in India Mark painted a mural for his friend’s farm and helped to paint the town’s post office.
‘I would like to see something like that over here’ says Mark, but laughs, ‘unfortunately I don’t think we would get the weather for it.’
Mark can now spend more time with his 14-year-old daughter Jesma and he is delighted that she is following in his artistic footsteps.
She paints, draws, and makes videos. So Mark hopes she will help him edit the 30 years of photos and videos he has accrued.
After leaving the Lodge, Mark has found time to put pen to paper and is writing the extraordinary story of the Chinese bell he found while refurbishing the Lodge.
It had been taken by the British during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. He contacted Beijing to arrange for the 2ft cast iron bell to be repatriated and Mark says: ‘It was the first war trophy this country has ever given back.’
During his research Mark discovered his great-great grandfather, Thomas Lane, was awarded the Victoria Cross for storming the fort that the bell originally rang in.
The bell now resides in a museum in Beijing where a replacement was made. It sits in the pagoda in Victoria Park.
Having done his bit for international relations Mark is now working with conservationists from Historic England, and Portsmouth City Council, to erect the first iron bridge designed by Isambard Brunel, in Portsmouth, his birthplace.
It was rediscovered in 2004 and kept in storage.
At one stage it looked as if it might be sent to Bristol but Mark is determined to keep it here and there is no doubt he will succeed.
Over the years Mark has painted some show-stopping murals.
The former Aquatic Centre in Powerscourt Road, North End, and the junction of New Road and Kingston Road, in Buckland, where Mark painted a Jungle Book scene, were local landmarks.
Sadly, both the murals have gone, like so many of his others as buildings have been redeveloped. That is the nature of his work.
You can see Mark’s work at Sakura Japanese restaurant, in Albert Road, Southsea, Lord John Russell’s pub, also in Albert Road, and Princess Royal Road, Trafalgar Gate.
There are also numerous homes adorned with Mark's unique murals – he usually has more than a dozen on the go at any one time.
But his favourite mural – and the one for which he is most well-known – is the 3,0000sq ft map of the city and its inhabitants in The Strand, Southsea.
He says: ‘I always planned for it to be my lasting legacy. The wall is on a 99 year lease and there are 78 years left. I go back every year and add to it. It’s a never-ending mural of the whole city. ’
To find out more about Mark’s murals go to artandsoultraders.com.