Lauren Levato draws bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. Sometimes they stand on their own, quiet in their stillness and repose. Other times they appear inside a woman's belly; we peer inside of her, privy to the experience of an unseen swarm, while she stands gracefully, oblivious of theirs and our presence. A ribbon dangles from her hand. Levato is fascinated with insects, fairytales, anatomical illustration, the grotesque, the color white, ribbons, albanism and reliquary. "We turn these moments of death into artifacts and imbue them with power," she says. One such moment occurs when we save a lock of hair from a deceased love one as a momento mori because, as she says, "we believe it has the power to connect us with the spirit world." Levato’s drawings are a conflation of wonderment and realism, of death, life and the possibilities that lie beyond.
It wasn't always so. Levato began her career as a reporter and poet, and transitioned into a visual storytelling language. CAR Visual Arts Researcher Alicia Eler interviews Levato on the shift from word formations to image manifestations.
CAR: You are a visual artist but began your career as a reporter and poet. Do you still write?
Lauren Levato: I am always a storyteller first. Some stories are better told with language, some with images, some in fragmented, non-linear, poetic formats. So it’s really about choosing the format that best fits the narrative, even if it’s a non-narrative. Yes, I do still write. Currently there is one poem out in the experimental poetry journal Moria. The visual format rules right now however. At one point the written word dominated. My degrees are in writing, literature and political journalism, and I spent 10 years as a reporter, then an editor, and then in communications/PR. I just gave that up last year to focus more fully on my studio. I’ve published three books of poetry, but I’m also working on my seventh solo show. I guess it’s worth adding here that I don’t actually have an art degree, well not one that would be “recognized” by an establishment—not an MFA—but I spent years in an atelier studying classical methods and then studying with Steven Assael and some other masters beyond that. I wanted and needed a high level of skill. My training was brutal at times but I’m so happy I did it.
CAR: When and why did the visual take over?
Lauren Levato: Well I’ve always had really intense, clear visualizations in my head and I tried to get them out in words first. Mostly poetry, and it worked quite well for a time. Eventually the words weren’t correct anymore and the visual took over, and at some point my visual skills weren’t enough either so I went to learn the technique. For reference I was a full-time undergrad, full-time reporter, and part-time gallery assistant in 1997. I published my first poetry book in 2005, and my first solo show was in 2006. Now I finally feel a sort of balance with them all. Literature, poetry, mythology, biology, evolutionary development, zoology, human anatomy, sixteenth-century drawings and anatomical studies, fairy tales, magic, gnostic Christianity … all this influences my visual work and I look at but also read works in these areas voraciously. For my taste visual artists don’t read enough and their work suffers greatly for lack of literary experience. Viewers suffer for it too—it depletes the entire landscape.
CAR: So why are stories so important to you?
Lauren Levato: They give us context. They are like latitude and longitude on the map—how can you understand where you are without them? Where to go next? Who is next to you and how did they get there, and how you might help or better understand them?
My grandfather was a storyteller. He would lean back on his cane and he would speak these glorious stories about his regular life, of stranger’s lives, and people adored him. He could relate to anybody because he could tell a story. I was in awe of that man’s ability from a very young age. He passed it onto my mom, and she then instilled me with a love of language. I was a spelling-bee-champ/read-all-the-books-in-the-library kind of kid. My mom made me look everything up, and she still does! Ask her what the language in an autopsy report means and she’ll make you get the diagnostic manual to look it up, even though she knows it.
I’ve written many successful grants and public relations campaign materials for people using traditional storytelling methods. I don’t care how advanced we become as a technology driven society our brains are still wired toward context. We still seek signs and symbols, we still want and need poetry. Visual art provides this, at least I believe very deeply that it should.
CAR: What are five suggestions you might give someone who is trying to start a visual art practice but has a background in literature and writing?
- Follow what you see in your head and if you don't have the skills to make what you see, go get those skills.
- Do get actual skills. It's a fun creative exercise to write without using the letter E or to avoid punctuation or some overly clever thing but it's not going to really connect with many people. Same with art.
- Look at and talk with the great narrative artists working today. If you need a list contact me. I met painter Vincent Desiderio when I was in residency as a poet. The day after his artist lecture I asked for a painting studio and here I am today.
- Use your literary contacts to try your work out with your community. I published much of my work in journals and poetry magazines as I was developing. That led to book covers which gave me some of the experience and the confidence to keep going.
- Don't quit. There's a whole bunch of really crappy years. Just keep going. Do it every day, just like writing.
LAUREN LEVATO is an artist and writer. She is presently working toward her seventh solo exhibition, Wunderkammer, opening January 11 at Packer Schopf Gallery. Levato just successfully funded a significant USA Projects campaign for her work. She received classical atelier training at the School of Representational Art and studied privately with other master artists such as Steven Assael. She holds degrees in professional writing and women's studies from Purdue University and in political journalism from Georgetown University. Levato worked as a reporter and editor for a decade, has published three books of poetry and her writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She has exhibited her work internationally since 2003 and has worked with more than two dozen galleries as an exhibiting artist, gallery director, curator, and many other roles.
Currently she works part-time at The Virginia A. Groot Foundation. She is represented in Chicago by Packer Schopf Gallery.