CAR Artist Story: Lauren Levato / Chicago Artists’ Resource

How An Artist Transitioned from Textual to Visual Language

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 amomento 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.

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