Sculptor Evan Lewis was in his studio last year when he got an intriguing phone call: A scout who finds artwork for movies was in search of some kinetic wind sculpture.
The film, the movie rep explained, would be about scientists who chase tornadoes.
So, the Chicago artist thought, "Why not?"
He corresponded with Warner Bros. executives, sending them photos and videos of his large, wind-powered sculptures that move and sometimes tingle with the wind. Before long, he found himself working furiously to meet a deadline for works the designers wanted.
One year later, Lewis is getting recognition in a way he could have never predicted. It is perhaps best described in the words of a man who identified Lewis's work at a recent art show in Chattanooga, Tenn.: "Hey, you're the 'Twister' guy!"
" 'Twister' guy" may not exactly be the title Lewis hoped for after more than 10 years as a kinetic sculptor, but for now, the recognition is a welcome windfall.
Lewis's sculptures are featured prominently in the blockbuster movie starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as Jo and Bill Harding. When we meet Jo's Aunt Meg we learn that not only does she make great steak and eggs, but she also creates curious kinetic sculptures.
Lewis says he's pleased when people identify his work by "Twister." "It's very flattering to me. It means I have a style that's recognizable," he said in a phone interview.
To be sure, Lewis is not the first or the only artist to have artworks featured prominently in a motion picture. Painter Paul Deo, for one, is known for having works in "Malcolm X" and "Waiting to Exhale."
But what makes Lewis's situation somewhat unusual is that the designers needed a body of work, not just one or two pieces.
As the artist tells the story, his sculptures were just "under consideration" when director Jan de Bont just happened to be strolling by a viewing room where one of Lewis's videos was playing. "That clinched it," Lewis was told. De Bont chose him, despite hearsay that Steven Spielberg reportedly had someone else in mind.
The next task was deciding what to feature in the movie. The designers asked Lewis for some 20 works, ranging from large-scale sculptures to interior pieces, such as lamps and a mirror.
A few sculptures they asked for were older works that Lewis had either sold or had already scrapped, so he had to start again. "Basically they wanted me to rebuild what no longer existed," Lewis says. One was "V Floater," a large piece measuring eight feet high and 25 feet long made from steel and corrugated, galvanized sheet metal. As rumor has it, that went home with Jan de Bont.
One finished piece had to be rented from the owner in Buffalo, N.Y. In another move, the set rep, Phillip Edgerly, sent Lewis old farm items so he could complete the piece "The Farm Sculpture."
Another work - "Tall Boy" - was rented, set up, and partly repainted, "but it never made it in the movie so far as I could tell," Lewis says.
When Lewis saw "Twister" on opening night in Chicago, he was pleased at the time his pieces were given on screen. But the act of seeing his pieces in the movie wasn't as "big a deal as doing the project," Lewis says. "The crowning moment was going to Oklahoma and setting up the things [for filming] and being treated so well."
The recognition hasn't brought him a whirlwind of fortune, however - at least not yet. Lewis says three people have contacted him as a result of the movie, only one of whom is interested in buying. Prices for his sculptures range from $1,000 to $40,000.
When asked if he would do work for another movie, he replies, "Are you kiddin' me? Yeah." Motion-picture companies often entice artists to simply lend their works, saying that the exposure alone is payment enough. In that light, Lewis says, he feels fortunate. "Their demands were extreme: They needed a lot of stuff and they needed it soon." Warner Bros. has even approached him with the idea of recommissioning pieces to add to their permanent collection of movie art.
Lewis's penchant for craft grew out of his years as a cabinetmaker during grade school and high school. He started producing and exhibiting outdoor kinetic wind sculpture in the early 1980s; in 1988, he was commissioned to make a wind/sound sculpture for Expo 88 in Australia.
After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1990, he won several prestigious competitions and awards. In 1994, he completed "Cielo y Tierra" (heaven and earth), perhaps his most ambitious piece at 30 feet high, commissioned for a Denver shopping center.
These days, Lewis is devoting close to 75 percent of his work time creating handmade mostly metal furniture. "Furniture," he says, "is equally important sculpture."
But kinetic sculpture, while perhaps not as predictable for income, is still on his mind. He's now working on a piece for a regional sculpture show.
Overall acceptance of public sculpture seems to have grown, too. "The general public seems to get it pretty well, this whole concept of kinetic sculpture and what it's about," Lewis says.
At the end of the day, Lewis says, he wants his work to be a positive experience for people. "I want them to be intrigued, and I want them to be delighted."
Lewis himself muses: "I'd love to be in a park with all my work."
Then he adds: "Now when I think about it again, it might be a little scary."