In the Studio with Diane Levesque

In February, Curator of Exhibitions Lena Vigna interviewed RAM Artist Fellowship Recipient Diane Levesque.

Lena Vigna: Please share the basics of your art career thus far, such as your education, years working, etc. How long have you been a part of the Racine/Kenosha community?

Diane Levesque: I earned my BA at SUNY Plattsburgh, in my hometown in upstate New York. I moved to the Midwest when I received a scholarship to attend The University of Chicago where I graduated with an MFA in painting in 1983.  After graduating, I established a studio in Chicago and exhibited at numerous galleries, including Struve Gallery, Hokin Kauffman Gallery, NAME Gallery, The Chicago Cultural Center, and The Art Institute of Chicago. While living and working in Chicago, I was a member of the woman’s co-op gallery Artemisia where I exhibited regularly, including a one-woman exhibition. In 1987, I received an Illinois Arts Council Grant.

In 1991, I moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where my husband and I bought a house, and began a family. Within a short time I started to make connections with local artists in Kenosha and Racine. I continued to exhibit my work at numerous locations, including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the James Watrous Gallery, Rockford Art Museum, and RAM’s Wustum Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1999, I was awarded the Gradiva Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis in recognition of the psychologically based imagery of my work. In 2000, I was awarded a Wisconsin Arts Board Fellowship Grant.

I began teaching as Assistant Professor in Art at Carthage College, and Director of the H.F. Johnson Gallery of Art in 2004 where I still work

The 2014 RAM Artist Fellowship allowed me to rent a large studio space in Racine, where I have been able to work on a larger scale. This space has also allowed me to share my work with the public during regular open house events as well as make new connections to Racine artists.

Vigna: Would you please describe your work—what materials you use, what subject matters you explore?

Levesque: I use acrylic paint on various surfaces, such as canvas, wood panels, and paper, often combining collage materials as a mid-layer.

As for subject matter, I often incorporate multiple narratives in my work that hint at personal, philosophical, literary, and political references. The desire to transform memories and personal observations into compelling images leads me to combine various objects and figures in metaphorical tableaux. In many cases, the objects appear in relationship to a main figure that is the subject of the painting. Scale is distorted to suit a symbolic order, much like the hierarchy of religious figures as seen in sixteenth-century Northern Renaissance paintings. I manipulate spatial elements in unexpected ways to make the world of my paintings seem a bit unstable and liminal. This allows hidden meanings between the objects and figures to intertwine.

The substance of the objects is important to interpretation. Glass objects are seductive because of their transparency, which distorts what lies behind the objects allowing a momentary rupture from normality. Glass implies fragility and danger, calling to mind the adage about "glass houses." Measuring devices such as rulers, compasses, hourglasses, clocks, measuring tapes, and measuring cups bring a reassuring domesticity, yet they also serve to remind us that we might not be quite measuring up to our potential, that we have taken more than our fair share, or that the years are passing us by.

The combination of reappearing motifs within my work is a source of joy to me. One possible journey to understanding and meaning is the juncture where word, idea, and image play out in the daily dramas of life; a place where the real and the imaginary are signposts to guide us in our travels through life informing us what has meaning and what doesn’t. If my work appears labyrinthine or bewildering it is because the images are meant to act as a mirror of those aspects of our lives that are unwilling to yield important secrets, or let us view things that are too horrifying and too wonderful to gaze fully upon. In my work I hope to uncover meaning in various forms by sharing my fascinations with things unusual, beautiful, strange, dark, light, foreign, familiar, wise, and foolish. I seek a reconciliation of opposites and the potential of finding beauty as part of the outcome. There is satisfaction that comes from understanding life’s complexities that enlarges a way of living, seeing, and feeling by which we gain knowledge and insight into ourselves and the world we live in.

Vigna: How often are you in your studio? Do you work outside of your studio much or at all?

Levesque: My studio schedule depends on my teaching schedule, which changes every semester. I try to maintain a discipline of going to my studio three days a week when classes are in session and five days a week during breaks and in the summer.

In my Racine studio, there are absolutely no distractions so I’m painting or drawing nearly the entire time. I may stop to write in my journal and read a bit. I also manage to work in my home studio on the weekends on smaller projects or practice my work in polymer.

It seems that I am always carrying my work around with me in my mind, so I’m often thinking about a painting while I’m driving about, shopping, or cooking dinner. Like my father, who was a taxidermist, I find that I’m always on the lookout for a telling moment or a tantalizing object. I also find teaching and observing my students to be quite inspiring for my own practice. 

Vigna: What inspires you most these days? Also, what do you go to bed thinking about most nights?

Levesque: Inspiration always occurs when a combination of events, people, objects, and the book(s) I’m reading synchronize into an image. Many times there is a news event that triggers the association to a person and things, as in my recent series titled The Plague Years. I was re-reading Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, and painting a portrait of a man I had known a few years ago. While I was working on the painting, The New York Times featured the news of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. As I continued on the next three images in the series, the Ebola outbreak became an epidemic so the images I created reflected both the fear and reality of those events.

I read a lot and the diversity of my interests has an immediate effect in my work. The author of something I am reading may appear as a character in a painting, or in as part of an ongoing series, such as The Existentialists.

At night, I am always reading books that connect to my current work. And of course, there is the dream world, the deepest source of imagery I know.

Vigna: Why the RAM Artist Fellowship? Since we are midway through the process, can you assess how you are feeling at this point? Are you where you thought you would be? Have your plans changed since the fellowship year started?

Levesque: RAM is one of my favorite museums to discover the surprising power of art. The 2009 exhibition, Bigger, Better, More: the Art of Viola Frey, changed my life, as did Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads in 2012. These, and many other, exhibitions at RAM have profoundly affected my work as an artist. The RAM Artist Fellowship is a great gift to the community of artists in this region that will help to foster important and significant works to come.

At this midway point, I am experiencing a great sense of freedom alternating with flashes of panic. The fellowship allowed me to obtain a large studio in Racine enabling me to create large canvases, something I have not been able to do for many years. While this has given me a new expressive freedom, I’m concerned that the gamble won’t work. This is not new in my experience. We all have our moments of exuberance and doubt. I would be suspicious if I felt 100% confident in what I was doing regardless. But overall, I’m confident with the progress I’ve made.

My plans have not drastically changed. I knew I wanted to create three large paintings with smaller pieces to accompanying them. The theme of The Lonely Man arose from a painting I had started just after applying for the RAM Artist Fellowship. What did surprise me was the deep resonance of the archetypal meanings behind the symbol of the lonely man figure.