(Host) Commentator Lois Eby remembers a friend and colleague who died last July. G. Roy Levin would have been 73 today.
(Eby) At a time when many of us are asking what our lives and work mean in a world of terrorism, G. Roy Levin’s commitment to art and to society can provide inspiration. Levin came to Vermont in the mid-sixties to teach at Goddard College. In 1991 at Vermont College in Montpelier he founded the first low-residency masters in visual arts program in the country. Along the way he created his own body of work from the kind of materials that the rest of us routinely throw away.
Levin liked to ask “why.” “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing it this particular way? What relevance does it have to the society in which we live?” For a long time I thought he had answers to his questions, a preconceived idea of how one ought to work and how one ought to contribute to society through art. Only gradually did I realize that for him, wrestling with the question was more important than either easy answers or a certain kind of art.
Levin’s own work reflects this. His Holocaust paintings are a major body of work painted on pieces of old fruit and vegetable crates, strips of slatted wood held together with wire. Levin used these materials and the broken images painted on them to suggest both the cast-off human victims of the Nazis and the fragmented nature of keeping alive their memory or approaching their experience. These works have been shown widely in the United States and Europe and now will be housed and exhibited at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond.
In addition to slatted fruit crates, Levin used other refuse, from wine tops and empty cigaret packs to clothespins, to make art, revealing a playful creative spirit. While some of his themes are tragic, others are lively, funny and reflect everyday matters like dancing and ironing. But his work always deals with human life in its social context.
Levin’s ideas also found expression in his teaching. He once wrote that “the real rewards in making art come from struggling with the process and not from the perfection of a shiny, fashionable, saleable object…artists are not lone geniuses, but both exist and take on their significance through a relationship to the world.”
Perhaps there is odd and necessary hope in focusing on process instead of product. It’s a way of continuing to commit oneself to better work and a better world, when shiny perfect outcomes are no longer possible. The work that G. Roy Levin created out of scraps and refuse has just that quality of rough, imperfect, human hope.
Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues and civil rights. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.