Lesionread: Buffalo musician and artist builds new bridges

How UB alumnus Shawn Lewis went from architect to artist


What starts as an average music video for just another rock band becomes a work of art, as the group starts to play in front of a green screen. The upbeat tempo of the drums keep time as the world around the band begins to shift, morphing into various psychedelic patterns and shapes.

The band members become cartoons. Their limbs stretch and twist as their music continues to beat on in the background.

Shawn Lewis turns what could have been a simple music video shoot into performance art for the Sleepy HaHas, a Buffalo-based band.

Lewis, a UB alumnus who graduated with a B.S. in architecture, has taken his life in a different direction than his degree suggests.

Lewis graduated from UB in 2013 from the architecture program, but in his current career as an artist, he doesn’t use formulas or blueprints. He is following his dream of being an artist under the title Lesionread. He creates music and exhibits, showing his exhibits at the Center for the Arts (CFA) and performing his music throughout Buffalo.

“I had to choose between architecture, which would provide me with a job where I’d be paid and being an artist, which would allow me to spend my time pursuing not just one thing, but all of my hobbies,” Lewis said.

A change of heart

Lewis started taking art classes his junior year as a way to fill his schedule. He didn’t expect to enjoy designing installations more than designing buildings. After a couple of classes, he picked up an art minor and continued taking classes for the next two years, engrossing himself in sculpting and media. Many of the skills he had been using in his architecture classes carried into his art classes, like conceptualizing ideas and designing sketches.

The architecture major began to notice a shift within himself during his junior year. He realized his hobbies of creating music and art were making him happier than the piles of work that came with studying architecture. He realized architecture wasn’t his final destination.

“The first two years of the [architecture] program were great, but as I moved into my junior year things became a lot more technical,” Lewis said. “It started to be more about the logistics and the practical elements of architecture and I started losing interest.”

The Buffalo native started making electronic music his junior year of high school, using Adobe Audition to experiment with basic tracks and sound bites. He continued his hobby throughout high school and eventually into college.

When he graduated from high school and entered college, he switched programs from the primitive Adobe to a better program called Mixcraft. The music he created grew more advanced, developing from “bleeps and bloops” to more complex sounds, he said.

It was after he finished his final senior project that Lewis bought Ableton, a more complex program, as well as various other technological gear to improve his music-making abilities. He knew he wasn’t be going into the city to work 80-hour weeks as an architect.

“[The architecture program] helped me get into some of the more conceptual aspects of architecture and think in a more conceptual and creative way with designing,” said Chris Osterhoudt, a friend of Lewis’. “[Shawn] was always one of the more creative students with some of the more far-fetched and provocative concepts.”

Osterhoudt received his degree in architecture in 2013 and is currently pursuing his master’s in architecture at UB.

The birth of Lesionread

Lewis’ projects – both musical and physical – fall under the title Lesionread. Although he didn’t follow a career based upon his degree, the artist uses elements he learned in his classes to develop structures for his shows on a regular basis.

For one of his art projects senior year, he used his skill in structures to develop a helmet for himself in a project titled “Control the Red Man.” Lewis stood outside the Student Union while a friend sat at a table in the union. His friend, using walkie-talkies, would give commands of those who approached his table to Lewis. Lewis’ actions were videotaped and compiled into a video, creating a piece of performance art.

On a much larger scale, Lewis, alongside a friend, constructed a giant robot to be placed on the stage of one of his shows. The 9-foot-tall robot was constructed mostly of cardboard. It took weeks to plan, build and eventually paint, creating a monstrous, intimidating figure. After the figure imposed itself on stage during Lewis’ show, the artist tore it to pieces, destroying what he had created.

Lewis works with his friends on some of his projects and said it makes it “fun to work on” them.

“Having someone next to you saying, ‘C’mon let’s finish this,’ is motivational and that way you’re not stuck finishing such a huge project alone,” Lewis said.

From architect to artist

Lewis doesn’t regret taking classes in architecture. He worked hard to get into the competitive program at UB, as he had always dreamt of being an architect, even sending in pictures of the structures he’d created to UB as evidence of his talent. Once accepted, he was thrilled to be chasing his childhood dream. The classes were difficult, keeping him up long nights in the library but, ultimately, teaching him the value of hard work.

But art classes were a new world to Lewis. He found himself surrounded by peers who struggled to have one creative idea per week, which differed from the constant project building he faced in his architecture classes. He felt everyone around him lacked the motivation necessary to succeed. He took what he had learned from semesters of architecture classes and applied it to his art: Work hard and the success will come.

It was among these art classes that Lewis met Jeanette Chwan*, a photography major who graduated in 2013. In the print labs of the CFA, the two were utilizing the same space for their separate screen printing classes. They made a connection.

Today, the two are in a relationship, both professionally and personally.

“Shawn asks for my opinion and criticism on the way a song might sound, merchandising ideas and design, hand printing posters and other media for shows,” Chwan said. “I also photograph press photos for him to send to websites.”

Louis collaborates with a variety of people he’s met from UB including peers he had classes with or artists he encountered during his shift between architect and artist. Whether or not he’s collaborating, Lewis finds the work rewarding, more so than if he had chosen the field his degree would have provided.

The musician knows what struggling artists are. He grew up with parents who had artist friends. He’s watched them scrape by. He knows that his art will not make him rich. He knows that it will not be easy. But he knows it will make him happy.

“I think whatever he may end up doing, he’ll find a way to have some sort of creative outlet,” Chwan said. “If his career doesn’t revolve around art and expression then he will most definitely use the skills and talent he has to pursue something parallel with the job he would be holding.”

Lewis has been working on his latest project – his first album – for the past few months. The album will be released on Valentine’s Day at a showing at 378 Franklin St. in Buffalo. The event will include an exhibit in addition to Lewis’ music and feature Jon Bap, Planet Three and Sleepy Hahas. Lewis’ goal is to display he’s a musician and an artist. With this album release, he hopes to move on to bigger projects.

Although music is what Lewis is using to fund his career, he continues to work on his visual art like using Photoshop to create psychedelic computer backgrounds or designing installations with complex LED lighting for his shows.

He sees himself going on a countrywide tour within the next year. Whether he will be an artist for the rest of his life is uncertain, but art and music will always be a part of his life – a creative outlet for a former architect.

*Full disclosure: Jeanette Chwan was a cartoonist for The Spectrum in spring 2014

email: arts@ubspectrum.com