“All the detours I thought I was taking from the straight path in my life were actually shortcuts to it,” Mike Lewis, professor of art, told me over breakfast.
“Now I look back, and instead of curves, I see a straight line.” According to Lewis, even becoming a professor of art seemed like a detour at first. He actually majored in economics during his time at Haverford. I was surprised to learn this, as it came from someone who admits to “compulsively drawing” and frequently speaks in spatial metaphors, so I asked him to explain some of the choices he initially saw as veering off his life path but which now seem essential to his development as an individual.
Lewis’ wandering tendencies began long before he arrived at the College. “I had this rock band that started in college,” he said. Lewis’ band did parodies of punk rock songs, like “Lick the Eel of My Fetish Boot,” and often got into trouble. One such incident involved some shirts Lewis had gotten from a friend living his dorm, called Rhodes, which featured a large rat and the caption “Rhoadents.” Three of the members of his band happened to be wearing these shirts when they went out to eat at a diner. “As we stepped in the door, we saw a huge rat scurrying around between the feet of the diners. Suddenly, one of the diners saw it too and screamed. Then she looked up, saw the three of us standing in the doorway, and said, ‘They did it!’ It looked pretty bad, and there was no reasoning with her,” Lewis said. “We just ran like hell.”
Unfortunately, his band never made it big. “We had a good singer, a good bassist, a good drummer … just never at the same time,” Lewis said. “A few of us will get together and play for old time’s sake if the opportunity arises, but we’ve all moved on.”
Lewis made a few other detours before he wound up at the College. For example, he took a semester off of college to write a novel. “I still remember the expression of wordless disgust I got when I handed it to a friend of mine who was an author,” he said. “I deserved it.”
He continued his explorations after college. “I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do,” he said. “I got this Fulbright to go to Germany to study how cities were rebuilt after the Franco-Prussian war, but I didn’t know where that was going to go.” Lewis showed up in Germany having minored in German in college, but he quickly realized that understanding German literature was not the same as being able to converse fluently. “The first day was terrible,” he said. When he walked into a shop to buy something, the shopkeeper asked him if there was anything he wanted help with. “All I wanted to do was say, ‘No thanks, I’m just looking,’ but I didn’t know the words,” he said.
Despite a less-than-promising beginning in Germany, things did improve rapidly for Lewis. Not only did he become so proficient in the language that he considered living the rest of his life in Germany, but he also met a man who served as his mentor and catalyzed Lewis’ lifelong appreciation for architecture. “In order to get a Fulbright to Germany, I was told, ‘Name names on your application. Specific names,’” Lewis said. Unfortunately, he didn’t know anyone in Germany, so he spent some time flipping through recent scholarly articles in architecture to see if anyone else was doing research related to his project. He found one man who had written a few things, so without knowing much about this author, Lewis put down his name as someone he wanted to investigate and promptly forgot about the matter. Then, while walking down a hall one day, Lewis came upon a name that was oddly familiar. “I saw this name, ‘Kokkelink,’ on an office door, and I realized, ‘That’s the man whose articles I’d read.’ And then his door opened,” Lewis said. “Kokkelink was the one who really got me excited about buildings and the rewards of collaborative research.”
Indeed, Lewis was so excited that he came back to Germany a second time to continue studying architecture. “Buildings express what a society values,” he said. “Their architecture is shaped by their ideals, yet buildings also have the power to change societal ideals – to change how we see ourselves and to change who we want to become, to change how we act and feel.” What began as a detour became the basis of Lewis’ career when he returned to the U.S.
After all these adventures, Lewis has learned to appreciate the unexpected. “You never know where your life will take you,” he said. “A small investment can turn out to be life-changing. You just have to be patient for the rewards.”