ON THE COVER of last week's issue of The New Republic a plane plunges downward, spewing flames, against a black backdrop with a headline that reads "The Wreckage of Flight 007."
And on the September cover of the Washington Journalism Review, photograph cutouts of media heavies Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and David Hartman are propped in a field of gold coins under the headline, "Are They Worth Their Weight in Gold?"
These covers are the concoctions of artist Alex (short for Alexandra) Lewis, who has illustrated a variety of topics such as:
Drought (a faucet in the sky dripping over cracked, parched ground, for Nation's Business).
Newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch (copies of the New York Post stuffed in garbage cans sitting next to a garbage truck for a New Republic headline reading, "Rupert Murdoch, King of Trash").
Medical technology (for Chem Tech, a photograph of Carl Djerassi, inventor of birth control pills, surrounded by a semicircle of pills).
She does it with found objects and items that she puts together on boards in collage form or assembles in a stand-up scene. The assemblage she is currently working on for Chem Tech is set up in her living room. It shows a photograph of the Supreme Court with a photograph of a gavel coming out from the court. In the foreground are pictures of scientists in white coats and of miniature aerosol cans she has made from lipstick caps. It's a mix of textures and images in three dimensions. A photographer then photographs the scenes for publication.
Lewis, 32, has been doing collage and assemblage commercially only for the last two years, since she moved to Washington. Before that, she lived in New York and, before that, Paris. At different times, she was a stuntwoman, a circuswoman and an actress. She played a small role in the James Bond movie, "Moonraker"("I gave the countdown for the Moonraker blast-off") and also served as the stand-in for Jessica Harper in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories."
"I love doing collages," says Lewis, who studied at the Corcoran for two years in the early '70s and took courses in New York at the School of Visual Arts. "When I was in Europe, I was always cutting collages. I have about 50 collage notebooks. Instead of keeping a diary, I would do collages."
Her grandmother did it before her. Lewis has an old, carefully kept notebook of collages her grandmother started in 1910.
Lewis' airy 16th Street apartment functions as a studio and a virtual treasure trove of found objects and tchotchkes, delightfully arranged on windowsills and tables or neatly stuffed into corners and cabinets. There are whimsical miniatures, and she even serves coffee in demitasse cups. Her kitchen is devoted to work and storage space. ("I don't cook" she says. "I eat out.")
One kitchen wall has cupboards filled with little trains and cars and planes. There are plastic trees on a top shelf and Carter and Reagan puppets (bodies she made with cloth and topped with head shots of the two men) from the Aug. 8 New Republic cover sit in a cabinet. "I use an incredible range of stores," she says. "Doll house and toy stores, hardware stores, architectural supply stores."
On another shelf is a lineup of tiny plastic people, including some in their own separate box with water skis and a beach scene painted behind them. "I got these in Berlin when I visited with Ed Kienholz," she says, referring to the artist known for his huge assemblages called tableaux. "Someone might ask me to do a beach scene."
The plane from last week's New Republic cover sits charred on a kitchen counter top. To do that cover, she suspended a toy airplane from a bent coat hanger, attached felt to the plane, doused the material with lighter fluid, and let it flame in front of a dark backdrop. She repeated this several times in front of a dark backdrop so the photographer could catch the plane in several stages of burning. The photo session took place in her friend Chris Middendorf's art gallery. "I couldn't have shot it here," she says of her apartment. "This place would have gone up."
Since she often works on a tight deadline, she relies on a voluminous, well-organized stock of pictures and objects. "I may not have time to collect everything," she says, pulling open file cabinets in her kitchen, thick with picture folders alphabetically arranged under labels like amusement parks, dogs, dinousaurs, graves, houses, windows, wines and Washington.
For inspiration, she watches other people's giant assemblages: "I go to movies constantly," she says. "Grade B movies, adventure films, spy films. I'm very influenced by what's happening in cinema."
She cut her own acting career short because she spent more time working at getting work than actually doing work.
Since she came back to Washington, she has had little problem getting work. Since August, she has had four covers: WJR, New Republic, Common Cause and Nation's Business.
She's worked regularly for The New Republic, but, on the other side of the political spectrum, she's done a few covers for the Conservative Digest. "I don't necessarily agree with the editorial views," she says, "but that doesn't stop me from working for them."