Class Acts: Erin Lewis

Erin Lewis is a member of the first graduating class for the MFA in Illustration & Visual Culture. Photo: Joe Angeles/WashU.

Posted by Liam Otten April 16, 2021


This story is part of the annual Class Acts series, a celebration of remarkable graduating students at Washington University in St. Louis. 

“I remember thinking, I must be doing this whole cancer thing wrong,” Erin Lewis said. “The world is telling you that you’re an inspiration and a warrior and all of these wonderful things. But that’s not how you feel.”

Lewis was 23 and had just started teaching high school art when she was diagnosed with stage 2 papillary thyroid carcinoma. Treatment, though difficult, was ultimately successful, and Lewis has remained cancer-free for going on five years. But some scars heal slowly. It was a long time before Lewis was ready to grapple with the experience in her art and writing.

“You have to let intense emotions breathe,” she said.

Now a master’s candidate at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Lewis is completing an expansive, multidisciplinary body of work that collectively forms her “cancer tool kit.” The project, which also serves as Lewis’ thesis for her MFA in Illustration & Visual Culture, ranges from surreal zines and autobiographical comics to sharply worded birthday cards growling with humor. At the heart of it all is her illustrated memoir, “Pretending to be Happy.”

“I just try to explain, to the best of my ability, what I went through and how it felt,” Lewis said. The book bluntly recounts the circumstances of her diagnosis, how treatment logistics reordered daily life, and the sense of estrangement she felt from her own body—enemies “forced to share the same space.” It also critiques the emotional toll, and silencing effects, of reflexive “You got this!”, “#[expletive]cancer!” positivity.

“My feelings about cancer were made to feel bigger than they should have been because I could not talk about them freely,” Lewis wrote. But therapy, along with the process of making—writing and drawing; presenting to classmates and professors; continually analyzing and refining—have taught her that confronting taboo subjects helps to lessen their power.

“Cancer. Cancer. Cancer,” Lewis wrote. “It’s not a dirty word and I will say it as much as I please.”

Thesis Exhibition

Check out the thesis projects by the graudating MFA in Illustration & Visual Culture students in an in-person exhibition, on view May 1-15 at the High Low Gallery. An online exhibition will also be available.

The 2021 MFA in Illustration & Visual Culture candidates are Racheal Bruce, Taylor Dow, Stephanie Gobby, Austin Ickes, Leah Kurth, Erin Lewis, Weike Liu, Jonathan Smith, Benjamin Snyder, and Madeline Valentine.