Campus & Community

Becoming her fullest self

7 min read

Sarah Lewis finds her way back to Harvard

This fall, Sarah Lewis ’01 began teaching the course “Vision & Justice: The Art of Citizenship” as the newest member of the History of Art and Architecture faculty. The topic has long been one of interest to Lewis, whose experience includes early acclaim as a painter — top honors in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics for a still life — and work as a curator at both MoMA in New York and the Tate Modern in London. Now an author and scholar, she chatted with the Gazette about her time as an undergrad and the powerful, sometimes devastating moments along her journey back to Harvard.

GAZETTE: We find you in the Arthur M. Sackler building, home to the History of Art and Architecture Department. Today it’s the site of your office, but you had your first class as an undergraduate here. Does this feel like a coming full circle?

LEWIS: So much has changed, but in some sense it does feel like a return. In fact, as I was designing my first lecture for “Vision & Justice,” I was identifying a work to discuss that seemed overly familiar, personal somehow. I poked around my files and found that I had written one of my response papers on the same work, by [African-American painter] Jacob Lawrence in the Harvard Art Museums, that I was planning to teach from. I read my argument about the work and realized that even at the age of 19, I was thinking about the role of art, vision, and citizenship, topics I’m teaching about nearly 20 years later.

GAZETTE: Your course had to move rooms and format — from a seminar to a lecture course — because of anticipated demand. Are there benefits to being in the big museum space?

LEWIS: I love that the siting of the class in the Harvard Art Museums connects it to the third-floor teaching gallery, where students will access the “Vision & Justice” exhibit. The museums’ lecture halls are a great forum to turn a class of a diverse group of students, who come from a range of concentrations as well as the Graduate School of Design and Nieman Foundation fellowship program, into what feels like a cohesive seminar. In the first class, we had a discussion about how Frederick Douglass spoke about the phenomenology of photographs in a speech given during the Civil War. It led to a dialogue on photography and race, memory and war, and the legacy it leaves us with today.

We finished the first class with a portion of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 eulogy for Robert Frost, which underscored a central point — that the arts are one of the main ways to access self-comprehension. When it ended, it was 12 p.m. on the dot and students just sat there, processing it.

[Lewis finds the audio on her computer and replays a clip from the eulogy.]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

GAZETTE: In what ways are you taking the art out of the classroom, or bringing the outside world in?

LEWIS: We’re doing both. In lectures and sections, we will engage with works from the gallery exhibition, from Henry Louis Stephens’ abolitionist playing cards to the very contemporary Kara Walker black cut-paper silhouette. For the midterm, students select an image or object that they find synoptic of racial injustice or social unrest, tied to a Supreme Court case. Aperture magazine is going to publish five of them online. The course also has guest lectures from LaToya Ruby Frazier and Michael Murphy (GSD ’07) as well as two photo editors from The New York Times.

GAZETTE: Aperture’s summer issue was the inaugural form of “Vision & Justice.” It sold out in seven weeks, and is now on its second printing. Could you have predicted it would have resonated so widely?

LEWIS: No one could have predicted that. Nor could I have predicted that New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts would make it required reading for all incoming freshman for this academic year. Could the issue become kind of a civic curriculum? I knew it had the potential for impact, but I didn’t fully understand what kind of appetite was out there.

GAZETTE: After winning first prize from the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics at age 14, you lost the same award two years later. How did you recover, and how do you teach failure to your students now?

LEWIS: I was a kid; I was pretty devastated by it. The fluke of winning the first time made me feel somehow reduced. The first time I won, Rosa Parks was on stage. Cornel West was also on stage being honored. And when I say on stage, I should emphasize that the Olympiads were held at a football stadium. The prize was a computer and cash, which, as a teenager, was incredible. 

Then I lost. I realized there were extraordinary insights I could gain from the experience that couldn’t have come any other way. I wrote my entrance essay to Harvard about that idea, and, eventually, my book, “The Rise.” I have built into my course a “gift of failure” policy. For the two midterms, the lower of two scores can be thrown out to encourage risk-taking. I want students to have a safe haven to take healthy risks. You can’t be imaginative without the freedom to fail.

GAZETTE: You experienced immense loss right after graduating when, in a span of less than two years, seven friends died in unrelated accidents. Can you talk about that time in your life, and how you came out the other side?

LEWIS: I had a period of compound grief, and it really did bring me to my knees. They were all younger than 23, and I was really brought low by it all.

One was one of my closest friends when I was a student here. We shared a birthday, and she was the person I would call just to talk about anything. She saw where my life was going — toward a career in the arts, which felt like an unpopular decision so I valued her support all the more. She was my biggest champion. I feel her loss all the time.

I went with a friend to Jamaica to get away, and I took a picture on a beach of my hand grasping for the horizon. The photo is askew, which is emblematic of where I was — seven friends dying in a row over the course of a year and a half. I keep it on my nightstand because that moment became a demarcation of a second chapter in my life. Losing so many friends made me want to live in a contributory way. It made me want to become my fullest self to do as much as I can for the common good with as much time as I’m given here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.