All his students at Winthrop University called him "Big Ed," but it's likely that many of them realized what a treasure it was having Edmund Lewandowski around, those who knew him well say.
"He was humble," said Mary Lynn Norton, a former Lewandowski student.
Despite that humility, the late painter, teacher and mentor made his mark as an American artist long before coming to serve as chairman of the art department at Winthrop in 1973.
And with his passing in 1998, he left behind quite a legacy.
Now Winthrop is celebrating Lewandowski's life and work by hosting a retrospective exhibition - "Edmund Lewandowski - Precisionism and Beyond" - on display for the next three months in the Winthrop galleries.
The show opens today and runs through Dec. 9. The opening reception for the exhibition is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday.
Winthrop also will host two lectures and an art workshop later this fall to complement the exhibition.
Organized by the Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Mich., the exhibit traces Lewandowski's development as a painter - from his early works exploring the beautiful and dark aspects of industry, to his later years when landscapes became planes of abstract shapes vibrating with color.
Lewandowski is credited with helping form the Precisionist movement in painting - instead of rendering reality, precisionists transformed what was often industrial and mechanical scenery into sharp geometric forms.
But Lewandowski's style varied over time, a point curator Valerie Leeds wanted to illustrate when selecting works for the show.
Looking at his work is like "jumping into a swimming pool and swimming through the colors - it's that exciting," said Norton, former student and friend of Lewandowski.
Born in Milwaukee, Wis., Lewandowski spent most of his career in the Midwest, studying, teaching and creating works. He made paintings for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project in the 1930s.
The program, an effort by the Roosevelt administration to enliven communities, put artists to work.
"Because he was located in the Midwest, unfortunately some of his work has not been properly recognized," said Tony Rajer, art conservator and instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"This exhibition helps to set the record straight and put him at the forefront of American art in the '40s and '50s."
Rajer will visit Rock Hill in October to talk about his experiences restoring Lewandowski's work and conduct a workshop for artists.
Big Ed's big impact
Norton and Lewandowski had a special closeness. He gave her away at her wedding, and she was one of the few students who had the privilege - and the responsibility - to clean his brushes.
"He had order to every single thing he did," Norton recalled. "He had a specific way of cleaning his brushes and, by God, you followed that way."
They also spent a lot of time together. Lewandowski, Norton recalls, made exciting even the simplest things - like going to the mall - with his wonder and curiosity.
And then there were his memorable quirks.
"He had this monotone hum," Norton said. "You always knew when he was upstairs in his office working."
Lewandowski also had a terrier named Duncan that developed a similar hum. Norton recalls hearing both man and dog coming down the hall in harmony.
After Lewandowski found out he had cancer, he asked Norton to catalog all the slides of his artwork.
"I worked on that until shortly after he passed away," she said. "I don't think a lot of students really recognized what a jewel and what a noted painter we had teaching us.
"He never inflicted his Precisionist style on any of his students. You didn't follow his genre of painting, but you did it right - did it with intent, respected your tools and respected your vision for your work."
Tom Stanley, chairman of Winthrop's art department, agrees.
"I would sometimes ask him to come talk to a class," he said. "When he left the class after his slide presentations, I would often ask the students, 'Do you realize who was just here?' "
Lewandowski was always generous toward Winthrop.
"He cared for the community where he lived," Stanley said. "He probably could have lived anywhere."
Lewandowski painted the dogwood flower on a Rock Hill water tower. Both Stanley and Norton remember old Lewandowski going up the water tower to check on the painting.
"He became an example for us as to what the citizen artist was all about," Stanley said. "As an artist, you don't isolate yourself away."
Want to know more?
The opening reception for "Edmund Lewandowski - Precisionism and Beyond" is set for 6:30-8 pm. Friday in the Rutledge and Patrick Galleries at Winthrop University.
Conservator and educator Tony Rajer will present "Ed Lewandowski: Restoring His Art and Legacy: A Personal View of a Great American Artist," at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 in Rutledge 119.
Rajer is also hosting a three-day workshop Oct. 22-24 - "The Business of Art and Workshop" - which will cover how artists can run their lives like a small business and other topics. The workshop costs $125, $50 for students. Space is limited. Call 803-323-2493 to register.
Curator Valerie Leeds will speak on "Art and Industry: The Career of Edmund Lewandowski" at 8 p.m. Nov. 18 in the Rutledge Gallery.
Visit an educational website on the artist, made possible in part by ACE Projects at Winthrop: birdnest.org/Lewandowski.
For more information on events, call the Winthrop Galleries at 803-323-2493.