Greg Lewallen is a Senior Lecturer in Drawing, 2D Design and Illustration in the Department of Art and Art History at Baylor University.
His intricate insect drawings, executed with technical pen and pastels in sometimes unorthodox techniques, weave together portraits of the specimens with handwritten text on the collecting adventure and are detailed in his book, “Insect Narratives.”
Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock, making her Waco writing debut in this issue after a 40-year writing career, talked with Lewallen on a recent afternoon in his office on art, teaching, finding your life’s passion and how the road to that passion isn’t always the simplest or straightest.
WACOAN: Where did you grow up?
Lewallen: I was born and raised in Waco; I’m a true Wacoan. I grew up on Meadowbrook right on the Robinson city line – On Meadowbrook, I had neighbors whose front yard was in Waco and their back yard in Robinson. I lived at one end of the street most of my childhood, then on 26th Street over one summer, and then in a rent house on the other end of Meadowbrook during my junior high years. My family is all from Waco.
WACOAN: What was your first exposure to the natural world?
Lewallen: At home, we played all around what’s now called Cottonwood Creek, but what we called Dead Calf Creek. That’s where we did all our rompin’ and stompin’, my brother, Rodney, and I, collecting insects, reptiles and amphibians. Rodney was older than me by three years; he passed away in 2007. My mom was an old country girl who loved being outdoors and our family camped a lot. Her parents, whom I called Nana and Granddaddy, lived at the fishing camp they managed at Gorman Falls, now a part of Colorado Bend State Park – between Lampasas and San Saba. It had eight cabins and camping areas on the Colorado River, and a beautiful spring-fed pool that fed into a waterfall with an 80-foot drop into the river. So all during my childhood, that was my second home; we spent time there in summers and on holidays and had free reign to do everything that we wanted to do outdoors.
WACOAN: How did you get interested in collecting nature specimens?
Lewallen: We did that just naturally playing outside at home in Waco and at my grandparents’ fishing camp. My brother, Rodney, and I also amassed a huge collection of preserved reptiles as junior curators of the Strecker Museum, which used to be in the basement of the Sid Richardson Science Building at Baylor and is now incorporated into the Mayborn Museum. My brother was a junior curator first, but when I came of age in about seventh grade, they let me join them. We traveled all over the state collecting specimens on weekend expeditions to east or west Texas. We had these four-pronged potato rakes that we used to flip rocks to find the lizards and snakes we were collecting as specimens. So as a junior curator, I would come in on Saturday mornings. They had this exhibit of amphibians and live reptiles, from a 16-foot reticulated python to a 10-foot boa constrictor, and we fed them and cleaned their cages. Our reward – as if that weren’t reward enough – was to go with the biology grad students on their weekend field trips. That’s where I learned the scientific methods of record-keeping, methodology and recording observations. On my first trip, we were doing a survey of turtles; we were in the biology van east of Mexia and the professor had lined up three or four farms for us to catch turtles in their stock tanks. We were seining them, and though I was the youngest and smallest in the group, they gave me the deep end of the seine and I almost drowned trying to hold up my end. That was a kind of initiation – then I was in.
WACOAN: How did art figure into your childhood?
Lewallen: I was always known as the kid who could draw, which I did all through elementary school on a red Big Chief tablet. There were 21 kids in my first-grade class and at the end of the year I gave each one a drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex fighting a stegosaurus, with all the plants and erupting volcanoes in the background. My dad worked at The Waco Tribune, where he was in charge of the mailroom. The Central Freight representative would come by and leave a handful of #2 “gimmie” pencils with red erasers, grouped in a rubber band. Dad would give them all to me, and for years that’s all I drew with, on a piece of slick mimeograph paper. Do mimeograph machines even exist anymore?
WACOAN: Did you have any specific artistic influences on your drawing?
Lewallen: I didn’t really have anyone specifically who encouraged me in my art. There were no local artists that I knew personally, and I only took one art class in high school. But one of the artists who influenced me the most was (Texas Hill Country wildlife artist) Charles Beckendorf, who was starting his career as an artist when I was a kid. Every year, Nana and Granddaddy gave me a subscription to Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine as a Christmas present. Charles Beckendorf started selling his drawings in the ads in the back of the magazine, and I would copy them. He was drawing with charcoal on paper that had a tooth (texture) to it, but with my #2 pencils on mimeograph paper, it took forever to copy that effect. I always anticipated getting that magazine every month so I could copy his drawings. After I started teaching at Baylor, I walked into class one day, pulled up the roll sheet and saw that there was a Sophie Beckendorf on it. I asked if she was related to the artist Charles Beckendorf and she said, ‘Yes, that’s my granddaddy!’ And I couldn’t believe it, because he was my hero and greatest artistic influence as a kid. I wanted to be a wildlife artist like him, but I never imagined I’d be able to do that, plus travel and teach like I have.
WACOAN: What were your initial career goals and who influenced you?
Lewallen: In January of 1979, I married my wife Roxann, who was my high school sweetheart. She had graduated from Robinson High School while I graduated from Midway, but we had dated at church. I was behind in earning my BFA in art because I had lost two years being a music major, but I was in summer school trying to catch up. My grandmother, Nana, called me over to her house and asked me if Roxann and I were starving to death with me not having a job, and I said yeah, pretty much. She said that my Uncle Porky, her brother, had a job opportunity I might want to consider. (My uncle was skinny but called Porky because he liked pork and beans.) Uncle Porky was the parts manager at the John Deere dealership in Hewitt. I have an F on my Baylor transcript in studio art because I walked out of that summer school class and went to work; I never set foot in that class again. I thought I’d get my art degree soon and become an artist, but 17 years later I was still working at John Deere. I eventually became the parts manager there and actually replaced my Uncle Porky. Then the best thing that happened to me was that they fired me in 1996. The dealership had been bought out by a company with an in-house inventory control office, so my position wasn’t needed anymore. That made me available to go back to school. My kids were in junior high and high school, and my wife was in nursing school at MCC. I figured it would take me three semesters to finish, but I didn’t have the money.
WACOAN: How were you able to finish your degree after more than 20 years out of college?
Lewallen: The December after I lost my job at John Deere, my Uncle Bill – my dad’s brother, who was an eye surgeon in Pueblo, Colorado – called me and said that my grandmother “Mom,” his and my dad’s mom, wanted to spend Christmas in Colorado. She didn’t want to fly, and he asked me if I’d drive halfway there and he’d meet me and pick her up. I didn’t have a job, so I said, ‘Sure.’ They went on from Pueblo to Phoenix, Arizona, and I picked her up in Amarillo, halfway. That last night before I brought her back, Uncle Bill and I were talking and he asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I had applied for every job I knew, and I was willing to stock shelves at 7-11 if I had to. I was in my 40s then and it was tough to find a job. I told him I had thought about finishing my degree, but it would take three semesters and I didn’t have the money. He said, ‘I’d like to see you finish and I want you to go.’ I told him again that I didn’t have the money. And he said, ‘I’ll pay your tuition and expenses. I’m not going to write you a check for the whole amount, but if you’ll tell me how much it costs each semester, I’ll pay for it.’
WACOAN: How did insect-collecting adventure travel enter into the picture?
Lewallen: That’s another example of how one conversation changed the course of my life. My aunt also worked in the John Deere dealership where I was fired in the summer of 1996. She stood in my doorway one day and tossed a copy of The Waco Tribune in my lap and said there was an article in the Neighbor section that I might find interesting. It was about a lady from Lorena who had just returned from an expedition to Venezuela. She owned a greenhouse, so she was interested in botany, and had gone up the Orinoco River. I read that and was more jealous than anything. I thought, ‘How can someone from Lorena, Texas end up on an expedition to Venezuela?’ So I called directory assistance to get her phone number, and then called her. She invited me to visit her, which I did, and she told me she’d gone with a group from UT [the University of Texas] and gave me the contact of Dr. Gibbs Milliken, the trip leader. I called him that night and said that if they were ever going again, I wanted to go and collect bugs. That August, I went to an organizational meeting for their next expedition in January 1997 and right afterward the meeting, lost my job. My wife could have told me to get a job before I thought about going on an international expedition. But that year for Christmas she gave me a canvas gear bag, her way of telling me to go with her blessings. She knew how badly I wanted to go on that trip. And so I went on my first expedition January 2, 1997.
WACOAN: What happened on that first collecting expedition?
Lewallen: We flew to Caracas and hopped on a puddle jumper to the southwest frontier lands of Venezuela. Most of the other people on that trip were ichthyologists, fish scientists – some had even had new species named after them – and they had permits to bring back specimens in their luggage. It was my first trip out of the country, and we were there two weeks; we spent most of our time in a El Carmen, a little village on the Parguaza River, a tributary of the Orinoco River. I sort of piggy-backed on the scientists’ specimen permits to bring my own back from that trip. I’m not an actual entomologist (an expert in the scientific study of insects), but I can hold my own discussing entomology with almost anyone. As soon as I got back from that first trip, I wanted to go again. So I went back to Venezuela with the UT group the next year, when I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Baylor.
WACOAN: How did you begin combining written text with your insect drawings as part of your artwork?
Lewallen: My son, Josh, and I had been collecting together as soon as he started expressing interest at about age five. I went on that first expedition when he was 14 and promised him I’d keep a journal on the trip, so that’s when I really started writing along with my drawing. He went with me on the next expedition and turned 15 on the trip. On the second trip, Dr. Milliken had made me an expedition assistant, and I was so involved in the organization of everything that I thought, ‘I can do this.’ From then on, I did all the trip planning on my own. I’d plan a trip around a particular bug or region and take two or three major expeditions a year. My daughter, Leska, went with me on one trip to Venezuela, but mostly it was me, my brother, Rodney, and Josh, who went on the collecting expeditions.
WACOAN: Then what direction did your career take?
Lewallen: I graduated from Baylor in December of 1998, and in 1999 went to work for a buddy in Dallas. He had three retail operations called Science Projects that sold science supplies to a clientele that was mostly homeschoolers – he had a Ph.D. in chemistry. He wanted me to run the north Dallas store and I already had plans to go to graduate school at the University of Dallas. So I went to work for him and lived during the week in Dallas, but my family was still in Waco. One Friday night, I was driving back to Waco from Dallas and there was a huge wreck on I-35 near Waxahachie. I had left the store at 5 p.m. but I didn’t get home until 11, and I thought, ‘This is insane.’ I worked in the store from January to August of 1999, but then I said to my wife, ‘What am I going to do? I’m not going to go to graduate school in Dallas because I’d be caught up in traffic all the time.’ And she said, ‘I think you and your brother ought to buy that bug business in Fort Davis.’ We had heard about the owners, the Taylors, from the curator of the Living Insects Exhibit at the Ft. Worth Zoo. I had asked if they knew anyone that sold insects for a living and the lady immediately replied, ‘Oh yes, that’s Terry Taylor, the Bug Man.’ She gave me their contact information, I called and talked to Mrs. Taylor, and she invited me and my brother to come out and meet them, which we did. After that, we did supply a few specimens to them. Their family company had two railroad cars full of cabinets with bugs that they sold all over the world. And they wanted to sell their business to retire. My brother and I went to go talk to them and worked out a deal. We couldn’t give them a lump sum, but we convinced them that by us paying it out, they’d end up with more money. So then I moved to Fort Davis during the week while my wife and kids, Josh and Leska, stayed in Waco, since they wanted to finish high school in Robinson. We changed the company name from Combined Scientifics to Insects International. The (previous owners) Taylors had been doing their business by snail mail and we developed a website; they laughed at us when we said we were going to do all of our business online and by email. We sold to every major university that had a bug collection. Of course, Fort Davis was even a longer commute than Dallas, but I was doing something I loved.
WACOAN: Where does teaching at Baylor come into your career?
Lewallen: After leaving Fort Davis, I was looking for a job again, and in my 50s, it seemed like nobody was going to hire me. I wondered if any of my old professors were still at Baylor. So that summer, I went back to the art building, which was empty, and I was looking at the student art on the walls but couldn’t find anybody to talk to. I was heading out the door – literally stepping through the threshold – when somebody called my name from the far end of the hallway. I saw a silhouette and it was John McClanahan, then chair of the art department. There was no small talk; he just said, ‘I want to talk to you.’ So we went to his office and he put his elbows on the desk with his fingers interlocked and said, ‘Before I say anything, I just want to say that I can’t promise anything, but how would you like to teach?’ And I almost fell out of my chair; that wasn’t even on my radar! So I said, ‘I don’t have any experience.’ And he said, ‘I think you can do us a good job.’ And I replied, ‘Based on what? And what would I teach?’ When he said ‘Drawing and 2D Design,’ I said, ‘I had 2D Design in the Fall of 1977 and I couldn’t tell you the elements and principles of design now from the man in the moon; do you have a textbook I can look at to refresh my memory?’ He said, ‘We don’t use a textbook but I can put you in touch with somebody who can help you.’ And when I said, ‘You know I don’t have my master’s degree,’ he said, ‘I think that’s a hurdle we can get over.’
WACOAN: So in your 50s, after a career of selling John Deere parts and insect specimens, you began teaching art at Baylor?
Lewallen: There in the moment with (art department chair) Mr. McClanahan, I felt like Moses at the burning bush, full of excuses of why I couldn’t teach art, but I told him I’d go talk it over with my wife and get back to him the next day with a decision. I left and went home, and she was at the kitchen sink and asked, ‘How was your day?’ And I said, ‘Interesting. I saw Mr. McClanahan and he offered me a teaching job.’ She put her dishrag down and said, ‘You’ve always been a teacher – you just didn’t know it. You didn’t see it in yourself.’ The next day, I called Baylor and asked how to fill out a job application, that’s how much I knew. You didn’t fill out an application; you wrote a letter of application, so I did and somehow it got to the right people, and they set me up a job interview on a Monday at 8 a.m. I had already committed to go on a mission trip to Montana with my church and we were scheduled to get back on Sunday before my Monday morning interview. But we had a flat tire on the bus and didn’t roll into Waco until 4:30 a.m. Monday; I didn’t even have a chance to go to bed. I hadn’t brought any clothes with me when I left Ft. Davis, so I showed up at my interview with no suit, tie or dress shoes, in blue jeans and Ropers. I didn’t know then that my life was about to change, that for the first time in my adult life I would be given the chance to do exactly what I was called to do.
WACOAN: What about the master’s degree you were going to earn but postponed?
Lewallen: I was being hired as a lecturer at Baylor from year to year. I felt like they were telling me that was the end of the line since I didn’t have a master’s degree. After Mr. McClanahan retired, the new department chair, Mark Anderson, said they could let me teach another year as a lecturer but that if I got started on my MA (Master of Arts degree), I might could throw my hat into the ring for a position as a senior lecturer. So I found an online program through Savannah College of Art and Design where I could go to school and still teach. And I earned my MA (Master of Arts degree) from there and did become a senior lecturer.
WACOAN: What does teaching at Baylor University mean to you?
Lewallen: I used to wonder why I wasted all those years in a job that I hated, in an office with no outside window. But it provided a steady salary and I raised a family on what I earned; I still drew at night because art was just in me. And really, I wouldn’t have been ready then to teach at Baylor. People who have known me for a long time have asked me if I weren’t teaching at Baylor, would I teach somewhere else? The answer is no; I couldn’t live out and express my faith in a way that Baylor gives me the opportunity to do. I get to live out my values in my interactions with students and have the opportunity to affect them in a positive way. One of my students had graduated and had been gone for a year when I got an email from him. He was a Vietnamese student whose parents came to the U.S. after the war and (he) wanted to go to graduate school in a program for designing ergonomic products. His parents were pushing him to go to law school. I would never counsel someone to go against their parents, but what little I know of Asian culture is that elders are given a lot of respect. I advised him to do as much research as he could to find out about real-life income potential in that area and discuss it with his parents. He did that and his parents told him to go with it, and he went on to graduate school in his passion. You never know what life will throw at you and what opportunities will arise.
WACOAN: You’ve written and illustrated a book, Insect Narratives. How did that come about?
Lewallen: Insect Narratives came about because people kept telling me I should write my stories down. Here’s the description on my website: “Insect Narratives” are portraits of insect specimens in my collection that I caught myself. Each bug is like a photograph in a family album in that when I peruse my collection, all the sights, and sounds, circumstances, people I met along the way, even smells, come flooding back so I can relive the experience all over again. The writing on each drawing is my recounting of these experiences, and the emotions and thoughts they evoke in me. Tales of deadly snakes, being stalked by a jaguar, men with guns, living among the Indigenous People, and the excitement of finding a species new to me are all told on these drawings.
WACOAN: How does drawing make you feel? How do you communicate that in teaching art?
Lewallen: There’s a scene in (the 1981 British movie) “Chariots of Fire” where (Scottish Olympic runner) Eric Liddell has been invited to present ribbons to the winners but ends up running the 100-meter in his dress slacks, blowing the other runners off the track. His sister, Jenny, is put out with him to be running when she says he needs to make a decision on raising funds for his missionary parents in China. And he says to her, ‘You’ve got to understand: God made me for a purpose and my purpose is China. But He also made me fast and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’ When I saw that scene in the movie theater, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, ‘That’s what I feel when I’m drawing; I feel God’s pleasure.’ I know I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be: drawing and teaching because I feel God’s pleasure. I tell my students that story at the start of every semester. I tell them, ‘Don’t neglect the gifts that God has given you. To feel His pleasure is worth more than any amount of money that a career will bring to you. Doing exactly what God has created you to do is like nothing else.’ I feel so blessed and lucky. You’ve seen turtles in the rivers and lakes around here in the early spring? They crawl out on a log to face the sun and stretch out their legs and necks, just basking in the warmth of the sun. That’s what it feels like to me to feel God’s pleasure, to be doing exactly what He created me to do.