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Six of the Best, Part 10

Part 10 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity (Part 1Part 2Part 3,Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9). Today's artist is Lena Levin, a painter living in the Bay Area of California.

"Chabot Park," oil on canvas panel, 20" x 16"

Philip Hartigan: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Lena Levin: Oil paints. My work is focused on colour, and oils feel more "native" to me than any other painting medium I've worked with (watercolour, tempera, gouache, acrylics, pastels). They offer just the right balance between freedom and constraints for me.

Philip Hartigan: What piece are you currently working on?

Lena Levin I am working on a series of 154 paintings, each corresponding to one of Shakespeare's sonnets. They aren't intended as illustrations in any usual sense, but rather as "translations": from each poem, I try to go the place where the difference between art forms disappears, and return with a painting, linked to the sonnet both semantically and formally. The idea of this series was originally inspired by Helen Vendler's book "The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets". This is a long project, three years at the very least -- I had been preparing myself for this work for a couple of years, but only started actual painting this January.

Philip Hartigan: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

Lena LevinThe major surprise is how this work realigns for me the history of visual arts, from the Renaissance to our time, and shows it to me in new ways. Shakespeare was remarkably inventive in how his sonnets were done technically, and in how he brought in and juxtaposed to one another imagery and metaphors current in his time. My search for visual counterparts of these poetic inventions gives me unexpected insights into seemingly familiar paintings and painting styles, and confirms the basic premise of this series, the essential unity of all art forms.

"Self-Portrait after Gauguin," oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

Philip Hartigan: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

Lena LevinPoetry (hardly surprising by now). Not writing, but reading. I was introduced to poetry at a rather early age (with the voice of my father), and now I can read it in three languages (Russian, English, and German), so my head is filled with poems. More often than not, they replay themselves in my mind as I paint -- which was one of the major motivations for the sonnets project.

Philip Hartigan: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

Lena Levin I started drawing and painting before I can remember myself, so the drawing I'll tell you about was certainly not the first one I made, but it's the first one I recall very distinctly (reconstructing the   circumstances, I must have been about eight or nine years old at the time). It was a portrait of my mother. What I remember is looking at it and thinking that I haven't captured my mother at all -- rather, it's a generalized face of a "generic" woman, and the only thing she shares with my mother   is curly hair; I remember being rather disappointed in myself. It was probably the first conscious glimpse of what I really wanted to be doing. 

"Sunflower," oil on canvas, 24" x 20"

Philip Hartigan: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

Lena Levin I was not sure how I would answer this question until I read Mark Castator's version in the first interview of your series. He said that the sculpture class he attended almost by accident was the only one in his college experience where he knew all the answers and everything seemed obvious. It strikes me that my experience was completely opposite: my painting and drawing classes were the only one where there were no obvious answers, but infinite, never ending challenges. In every other class, I was quite happy to get my effortless top marks for simple and "correct" answers, almost never bothering to look beyond what the school had to offer. Painting, however, always tempted and compelled me to stretch my abilities, and skills, and knowledge, to the point where they weren't enough, and I had to seek more. It still does. 

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

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