ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
Few artists paint the ice, but an artist in Carrboro does.
Often risking her fingers to frostbite and her life to polar bears, Nerys Levy prefers to paint on site or outdoors. She has painted both in the Arctic and Antarctic, accompanied by rifled officials with strict safety protocols.
The Local Reporter interviewed Levy for Women’s History Month, putting a lens on a woman who has impacted the arts in meaningful ways and the larger community through outreach.
What’s special about painting on site is that “it’s immediate and you’re documenting the land,” Levy explained. “It’s a very honest, emotional encounter with nature.”
Heart-to-hearts with nature are becoming a necessary practice as we account for our place in the state of climate irregularities and ecological destruction. Levy has been at it for several decades.
Originally from Wales, she moved to Carrboro in 1990 after living in California where in 1980 she began serious studies in painting. “I saw so much abuse in coastal regions and the fire risk even then was very obvious.”
Levy has lots of landscapes from global locales in her portfolio, including North Carolina. Part of a landscape painter’s tradition is to travel to find fabled places to depict and interpret.
The “upper latitudes,” as Levy calls them, are not a common subject for painters. She decided to highlight Polar regions as “landscape indicators” because she feels there’s an arrogance inherent in established schools of landscape painting, as there is a “disregard for what makes the ‘middle latitude’ possible.”
“It’s because of these ice caps and the animal life there that you can have middle latitude sunsets,” she said.
Early ecological awareness and witnessing the retreat of the planet’s ice as she was documenting it led to Levy’s art-based educational and social outreach work. Today the Arctic and Antarctic section of her website is used by organizations around the world for educational purposes.
The list of areas Levy gives in locally is long. She’s an artist member of FRANK Gallery and spearheads the nonprofit’s outreach and education activity. Particularly notable is Karen Youth Art Group. The Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) is an ethnic group in Southeast Asia. Many are refugees from institutional violence against them in their homeland of Myanmar (Burma).
The KYAG self-published a bilingual children’s book which they illustrated and wrote themselves. The book tells the story of their agricultural traditions in times of peace and how as refugees in Chapel Hill apartments, they felt disoriented and disconnected from the land. So, they launched a community farm called Transplanting Traditions. You can order your CSA produce share from it.
Students associated with KYAG have pursued higher education. After graduating from Guilford College, Ree Ree Wei is now the Executive Director of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm.
Levy pointed out that Lah Htoo Boh, armed with a fine and digital arts degree from UNC Greensboro, “is now helping teach the students at FRANK and will be teaching drawing at the ArtsCenter.”
Levy has been instrumental in establishing the Carrboro Branch Library, long housed at McDougle Middle School and now finally arriving at a new complex (after the stopgap Century Center location) at 203 S. Greensboro Street around Spring 2024, an effort—to have a library in a permanent setting—Levy has been involved with since 1991.
All along, however, she has been exposing everyone, and especially children, to art and artmaking. Levy initiated the Library Art Committee, a community arts program that ran for 25 years before the library’s closing at McDougle in July 2021. “We showed groups, we showed artists, we showed over 2,000 local artists,” she said.
In Levy’s mind, this meant having the library there, together with all the art being exhibited gave young minds exposure to fine art, which is significant considering many wouldn’t have gone to a museum or to see art elsewhere.
With Carrboro’s ArtsCenter relocating to an ultramodern facility on Roberson Street and FRANK Gallery being forced out from University Place mall to reopen at 370 E Main Street and ongoing discussions about arts programming at the new library (according to Levy), downtown Carrboro is set for a major injection of the arts in the next year or so.
Levy also runs the Horace Williams House Art Committee. A Preservation Chapel Hill property, it’s the only historical house open to the public. One of its rooms is dedicated to exhibits by local artists. “We take our FRANK students there. We take them to museums, they meet artists, we go to artists’ studios,” she said referring to the cross-pollination that happens between the various arts programs she leads.
When you look at Levy’s own paintings, there’s an immediate sense of simplicity and childlike quality to the forms she paints. She attributes this to being exposed to Chinese calligraphy. You can still tell the sheep, from the polar bears and penguins but the work is sketch-like, which is the foundation. Mostly working with water-soluble multimedia, Levy finishes with paint, giving character, mood, depth and local details to each piece.
It takes special skill to draw or paint a form in broad strokes, only hinting at it and still make it identifiable. The flatness of her images and the clean lines tend to bring an abstract quality as well. You know you’re looking at an icescape, but it’s also a dream of blue and white that tells other stories.
Levy sometimes uses a scene from nature as a metaphor for human experience. In Frontline: Conquering Covid #2, she explained, “The greens represent the trees. The tree trunks represent the frontline workers. And the red represents the virus.”
As if all she does isn’t enough, Levy also hosts the annual Community Dinner. Created by Mildred Council (Mama Dip) of Mama Dip’s Kitchen on West Rosemary Street, since Council’s passing the event has been renamed Mildred Council Annual Community Dinner. The next one is on April 30. A yearly tradition fostering inclusion and diversity, that includes entertainment, Levy described the dinner as “a happening!”
To see new works Levy has available, visit FRANK Gallery’s new location after it opens.
Pamir Kiciman is a freelance writer, artist, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://my.visualcv.com/pamirkiciman or contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org .