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Handcrafting history

JFK sculpture

David Lewis’ statue of President John F. Kennedy is displayed prominently in front of the JFK Museum in Hyannis.


Sculptor David Lewis finds redemption in art

Like many histories of families on Cape Cod, Osterville sculptor David Lewis’ family history is a curious blend of lore and real memory handed down through the generations. An interesting detail is that the Lewis family insists their ancestors arrived on Cape Cod—not on the blue-blooded Mayflower, but on the unmemorable second ship. There’s no denying the Lewis family roots run deep on Cape Cod, and deep roots that cling tenaciously to this sandy peninsula, roots that do not let go, are what are needed to endure when storms rage in off the Atlantic, or into your life. Ultimately, it was his roots in the Osterville community, and a wife who never gave up on him, that kept Lewis from washing out to sea, and ultimately allowed him to become one of the most sought-after sculptors on the Cape.

For Lewis, the past—his immediate past—starts on a 32-acre family farm that’s no longer in the family, on which his father, John, was born in 1907. During the Depression, his grandfather sold the farm for $5,000, and today it’s conservation land, the Town of Barnstable having bought it to deter development.

Lewis was born in 1941, the third of four children. In school, he was co-captain of the football team. The only artistic quality he displayed at the time was the ability to draw better than most of the other students. For three years after high school, Lewis worked as a deckhand on the research vessel Atlantis out of Woods Hole, taking summers off. Summer on Cape Cod meant sunshine and girls, so why give that up, he thought. “Port Captain Pike knew I would do the work and wouldn’t mess around in port, so he’d keep hiring me even though I took summers off,” Lewis says.

He would lifeguard on Craigville Beach during the day and then hit the town at night. One night, at the Vet’s Club in Hyannis, he met a young woman from Columbus, Ohio, a student at Ohio State University. She had heard about the sun and the beaches and the boys of Cape Cod and got herself a summer job as a maid to see it firsthand. “We had a standing date on Tuesday,” he says. “I got paid on Friday, but by Tuesday I was broke, and Tuesday was the day she got paid.” Based on that tenuous arrangement, the two developed a relationship, and Lewis proposed marriage to Nancy before she returned for her final year of college.

They married in 1964, he got his master’s license in plumbing—following in his father’s footsteps—and they had four kids—three girls and David Jr., born on Guam, who they adopted when he was six weeks old. He died at age 39 from a heart attack. “From too great a distance I watched my son become the man he became,” Lewis recalls.

Lewis hated plumbing, though he was successful—he had several crews working for him and even had a side business with a truck delivering heating oil. Things just weren’t right, and by 1977 he and Nancy had split up for the fifth time. The breakups were caused by his drinking.

As with many human endeavors—businesses, marriages, life in general—either something changes, or the thing dies. Nancy told him that if he didn’t join Alcoholics Anonymous, she was going to leave him for good. So he joined AA. And he hated it. He hated it worse than plumbing.

“A buddy would take me around to meetings and I’d think, what a bunch of losers,” Lewis recalls. But AA was the best thing that happened to him, he says. AA made him face the truth about himself, good and bad, and while there was a lot of bad—he had caused hurt and suffering to people he loved—the good was he found the truth about himself: He wanted to be a sculptor.

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