Jessie Jane Lewis '65 attended The former Philadelphia College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Diagnosed with a slowly progressing form of multiple sclerosis (MS) in her early 30s, her illness would gradually influence the direction of her art. Jane, as her classmates called her when they were students, was employed as a Certified Recreation Therapist, leading activities for elderly patients in nursing homes and hospitals. She was on the board of Woodmere Art Museum from 1972-76 and was an avid member of Nexus Foundation for Today's Art. In 1989, she added acting classes at Wilma Theater to her studies and began incorporating performance and video into her work. As her disease progressed, her art focused on her experience and her frustration with the realities of her disability.
An exhibition of her work, Chronic Creativity, was featured in the Barbara Crawford Gallery this past fall. Her work encompassed painting, printmaking, and performance art. She made paintings using her wheelchair using the wheels as paintbrushes, rolling over old paintings. She also created video work focusing on artists with disabilities. Her work and story inspired dozens of lessons with SCH students this past fall and winter. (Read more about her in the spring 2023 issue of our magazine!)
Jessie Jane Lewis worked tirelessly to hold private businesses and governmental offices accountable, and her activism led to the ability of Americans everywhere to vote, no matter their physical ability.
With the progression of her MS, she turned toward activism to support the rights of people with physical disabilities. In the early 2000s, she became involved in voting rights and was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against The City of Philadelphia for failing to provide voting machines and polling places that were accessible to everyone regardless of physical ability. “It’s not how you walk,” she said, “it’s where you stand.”
Classmate Karen Quinn Doman says, “As the years and her illness robbed her of the ability to live a life of physical normalcy, she looked for other ways to continue her activism on behalf of justice for those who needed it. She left a legacy that has improved the lives of people who face the challenges of disability. Jessie exemplified the ideals towards which Springside inspired us all to strive. She is truly a distinguished alumna.”