A Conversation with Cara Levine

All images courtesy Cara Levine

Cara Levine is a Los Angeles-based artist exploring the intersections of the physical, metaphysical, traumatic and illusionary through sculpture, video and socially engaged practice. She is currently a senior lecturer in sculpture at Otis College and has worked in the disability arts community since 2011 with various progressive art studios on the West Coast. She received her MFA in sculpture from California College of the Arts (CCA) in 2012. Levine has taught sculpture at California College of the Arts, University of California at Berkeley and Lewis and Clark College in Portland OR. She has shown work in various places including the Wattis Center for Contemporary Art in San Francisco, YoungArts Miami Art Basel and The Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv. She has been a recent artist in residence at The Arctic Circle Residency, Santa Fe Art Institute for Equal Justice, Sim Residency in Iceland and Anderson Ranch in Colorado.

Disparate Minds: You’ve been involved with self-taught artists with disabilities for years, and you’ve made that experience a prominent part of how you describe yourself as an artist.  How did you become involved with progressive art studios or artists with disabilities initially?

Cara Levine: I initially became involved with progressive art studios in graduate school at California College for the Arts. I qualified for an internship through their Center for Art and Public Life (not sure if it still exists), in 2011 and began a 9 month internship with NIAD in Richmond CA. My work had a lot to do with access and ability already - I had lived with a chronic injury in my leg for nearly 10 years at that point, and was making a lot of work around my experience with pain and the medical world. I was encouraged to work with this population, as I might find a kindred community - which I did!

DM: Could you describe for us in more detail your personal history in and experience working with progressive art studios over the years, and any insight you’ve gained from the relatively rare position of having been part of several studio communities?

CL: Here’s a little timeline of my experience:

  • 2011 - 2012, 9 month internship with NIAD, Richmond CA

  • 2013 - 2015, Ceramics instructor at Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland CA. (best work environment ever)

  • 2014 - 2015, curated Indigo Mind: A Celebration of the Work of Oliver Sacks, which was an exhibit at StoreFrontLab in SF and pulled together many artists from CG along with many other artists exploring perception, the mind and ability

  • 2015 - Visiting Artist Creative Growth Oakland, making a project titled A Tale of Two Cities in collaboration with UCPLA Washington Reid Gallery in LA

  • 2017, Visiting Artist at Project Grow in Portland OR

  • 2017, I helped organize and curate Self Taught Artist Fair: Flying Like a Rock with Public Annex in Portland and PNCA

  • 2018, Community arts instructor at ECF Westside Art Center, helped launch and run Miss James Residency for artists from ECF.

I’ve gained so much from working with these artists. On my first day at NIAD in 2011, I remember when an artist walked by with her cane, she was blind, and she said loudly and proudly: “Oh yeah, I used to be a butterfly.” Hearing that opened me up. I felt like: yes, these are conversations I want to be a part of. I have never felt any different, per se, than the artists at these various centers and have developed profoundly loving, playful, honest and rare relationships over the years. I feel blessed to have been able to step into the creative stream with so many powerful thinkers and makers.

I also teach college-level art and find the two to be so contrasting, and likely not in the way one would think. In the progressive art studios, I have found my role to be more as an artist assistant to professional artists. They are most often only looking for support in a process they have already envisioned - as opposed to the college art students, who are looking for real guidance, both technically and subjectively.

DM: How has working with artists in these studios influenced your personal art practice, as well as your understanding of art more broadly?

CL: This is a longer question - better answered in dialogue. In short, I have been wholly inspired by the artists I have worked with. As my own art practice continues to mature, I am more and more interested in empathetic experiential practices - how can we learn through the process of making? How can we teach one another through the same process? So much has to do with deep listening and constancy.

One example of an artwork I made that was inspired very directly by one of my clients at Creative Growth were my Blind Carvings from 2014. I worked with an artist named David Parsons. David is legally blind but was dedicated to making scientifically accurate drawings and sculptures of animals. His process of engaging his sense of touch to closely investigate form inspired my carvings. I attempted to carve two identical wooden pillows. I carved the first object using my sight. I then used that first carving as a touch-guide to carve the second form, while blindfolded. I wanted to strengthen my touch-sense and better understand David’s experience with limited visual ability. It was a profoundly taxing project. After I completed the pillows, I decided I had to do it again to feel I’d really understood the process, and I carved these floaties.

Floatie Sighted 19 hrs, Floatie Blinded 30 hrs, Jelutong wood, each approx. 8" x 4" x 10", 2014

Pillow Sighted 24 hrs, Pillow Blinded 38 hrs, Bass wood, each approx. 24" x 18" x 6", 2014

This is a direct response to my experience with these artists, but I believe my work has also holistically been influenced by them.

I also experienced new forms of chronic pain while working at Creative Growth, through living with debilitating migraine. The artists I worked with there were never afraid of my pain and always encouraged me not only to take care of myself but to express myself creatively. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the community of artists who supported me through that hard personal time.

DM: How do you feel this movement - the convergence of artists working in progressive art studios with the wider contemporary art community - has evolved over the past ten years?

CL: It appears that on the whole, the convergence is strengthening. I think most of this is for the good. I am a huge advocate for artists with different abilities, and more than anything, want them to reap the reward of their hard work: exhibition, sales, positive social relationships. I know many of these artists feel (and are) on the outskirts of society and thus, so is their work. I think this is a disservice to all of society. We need much more integration. The Bay Area is a great leader in disability rights and over the last few decades, in the celebration of artists with differing abilities. Having been in Los Angeles for a little more than a year, I have encountered a lot of incredibly dedicated people working towards a similar vision, but with still significantly less impact.

Just like with any artists, some want to stay at their desk and work diligently and are not interested in commercial success, but many are. And more than that, I believe fundamentally, art is a tool for communication. We have hundreds of artists communicating to us from these Progressive Studios across the country and I hope we can listen!

DM: Your response regarding the experience of providing instruction for art students versus assistance to artists in the progressive art studio setting feels reminiscent of one of your letters to Don Quixote. You wrote, “I admire your willingness to ride out, free of affect and certain with mission. Yes, it is your certainty that I admire more than anything else.” We can relate to this idea because that free, bold certainty of vision is a quality we admire among many of the artists we work with in these studios. Later in the same letter you seem to reference this directly:

You would almost definitely be considered crazy now. The world has become further narrow minded, diagnosis oriented, and outsider wary … Maybe I have a stronger filter—I don’t respond as directly to my experience as some of the people I work with, but I wish I did. It seems courageous and unabashed. I feel cultured and coached. I want to scream sometimes. I wish I knew how to be more wild. I want to play wildly.

For us it points to an aspect of progressive art studios that is so important, beyond the production of art, as environments that support and value highly original ways of being. Could you tell us a bit more about these letters and your admiration for Don Quixote as it relates to your work in progressive art studios?

CL: I really love that you looked at my letters - they feel far away from me now. But Don Quixote was a really seminal fictional character in my creative practice. The book I find to be probably the best novel I've ever read; it's often hailed as the best novel ever written, or the first novel. Inasmuch, one of the most powerful elements in it is that Don Quixote has this self-awareness of himself as a character in a book that he is living out, and he's also not able to play to the archetype of his “true self” as an old man in the village, in spite of the fact he still has an awareness of himself in the book, being written about. There are so many layers going on - his layered consciousness and layered experience, and he still is adamant about his pursuit of the odyssey that he is on in becoming a knight.

I just find it to be very true, very earnest, and no matter where the world is trying to push him he’s still very clear on his path and nothing will abate that. In fact, in the end of the novel he dies, and I think he dies because he has to become aware of how others have viewed him. His family convinces him to stop his adventures and be an old man and he loses his spirit. And then he dies. It's really tragic, it's really heartbreaking.

I think one thing that I always find in working with this population of artists, is this similar kind of clarity of mission and clarity of voice. A decisiveness around who they are. Obviously i’m generalizing, but who they are in the world and what they want to express, by any means necessary. For example, recently at ECF I was working with an artist named Natalie, who is really obsessed with certain Disney movies and story lines. No matter what medium you give her to work in, she still goes down the same stream creatively. She’s still coursing the same path. It's so powerful to be around somebody with such a clear vision of what they want, what they make, and what they care to speak about.

I know for me, in my studio I often have insecurity about what I want to talk about, asking myself, “Is it good? Is it worthy? Does it cross different media?” So I’ve often admired that kind of clarity.

DM: Looking at another side of that same idea; in our experience, there is this phenomenon of creative ways of being that aren't art necessarily which manifest so frequently in progressive art studios. What I feel is happening is that for many people who have developmental disabilities there is a gap to cross to be in the world, so it’s a creative problem-solving process just to exist. So part of that clarity of vision comes from just living it; art-making isn't just an esoteric thing they do, but a necessary part of their way of being seen and being present in their communities or their world.

CL: Yeah! I worked with an artist at Creative Growth named Terry Bowden. She makes life-size portraits of her friends out of foam core and carries them around with her all the time. Also she makes them for the teachers that she gets close to. I think I may have sent you a picture - I was honored to have been made by her. Those are her friends who are with her on the bus commute, so she constantly has this company of her friends that she has constructed, and it's a really important tool for her - it's not necessarily an artwork. I think that's a really powerful distinction.

However, I do think that we do that sort of thing, neurotypical artists as well. One of the things that is difficult for me is this very severe separation between us and them. I just recently had a conversation with a friend. She was in my car and noticed this notepad I had in my car that had scrawled thoughts and things I’d seen, and she said, ”Is this part of your art practice?” I always have to write down these things that I see and it's never been a part of my art practice. Often, honestly, I lose them; it’s just my own weird habit that helps throughout the day as a way to understand the world I’m living in.

Terry Bowden at Creative Growth, with an altered image of Levine

DM: Certainly! I think that’s one of the things that draws neurotypical artists into these programs, because it’s one of the things we relate to so much - these creative, inventive ways of interacting with the world that may not have an obvious connection to your work.

Your blind carving project with pillows and floats, which you describe as an effort to understand the experience of David Parsons, is compelling. Like much of your work, it’s conceptual, but also positions you in an interesting space between concept in art, as it is utilized by you, a neurotypical artist, and as concept exists for David Parsons, which is distinctly different.

In progressive art studios, the way the conceptual dynamics of these artists’ work is understood seems to be one of the most radical and unresolved elements of the movement. For neurotypical artists it’s often presumed or expected that there’s an intentionally contrived concept ascribed to a work or process. For artists with disabilities, this issue is often different. In the case of David Parsons, his personal experience with sight becomes an important part of the work conceptually, even though it's incidental to his way of being. In the case of artists like Kerry Damianakes, a robust and nuanced concept is apparent, but the true nature of that concept remains largely a mystery. And in the case of artists like WIlliam Scott or Larry Pearsall, there’s a fairly explicit conceptual element and underlying narrative throughout the body of work. The viewer may presume the narrative is fictional, but it isn't necessarily conceived as or understood to be fiction by the artist; they may believe it to be real or somewhere in between reality and fiction.

CL: In the case of David Parsons, it is true. In his process, his impaired vision dictates an aspect of the work that he makes - but it's also his incredulity or adamance. He seems hyper-focused on representation and that doesn't have to do with his ability to see. That’s his conceptual artist mind saying “I want to represent this as well and as realistically as I can”, in spite of his vision and lack of vision.

He makes beautiful drawings that are attempts again and again and again at touching into that sense of realism that he's trying to get to. And, when I moved to mimic his process, I was not trying to have the same visual outcome.

In his work there will be, for example, part of a bird on one part of the page and another on another part of the page, with lots of erasures and pencil lines over them; it looks like the animal is kind of in motion because of the way he’s seeing, while looking at the picture and back at the page. In clay, it’s a similar process in which he looks back and forth between the two-dimensional picture and the clay. He would have these objects that have four eyes or a leg in the wrong place, but he’s trying really hard to represent it accurately.

So when I went to mimic it, my interest was also, like his, to try to represent accurately - what my eyes could see through just touch. So, in a way, I had the same concept, I was just borrowing the idea of depending on my hands. And in fact, I'm not sure he depends on his hands as much as he could. I think he works with his eyes more. He is trying really hard to use his vision.

All this to say: I wanted to train my hands to be able to see better, like I thought he was doing inherently. But not that I wanted the image, or for the outcome to look like his work in some way. So I think that it wasn't super far from his conceptual intent.

DM: So, do you think that working with these kinds of ideas has informed the way you think about concept in art?

CL: Yes! Definitely. I think that not all of the artists I work with are concerned with concept as an idea, but they’re more concerned with completion and often really concerned with saleability. For example, at ECF there is an artist Vanessa who makes a lot of abstract work - a multitude of marks on a page - color on top color on top of color on top of color, until they are super thick pieces. She just loves the process of making - getting dirty, making marks, making sound, and taking up space. She’s much less concerned with the finished piece; she is really attached to the process. It gives her a sense of autonomy, power, independence. Her own sense of identity, which I think is also so crucial in these organizations.

DM: In your work, there is often a fairly explicit concept. In your recent This is Not a Gun series, there is this idea referencing various objects being mistaken for guns and the danger that puts people in - and exploring that idea - so when presenting your work you have that explicit idea, but when you are championing this type of work, you’re introducing a totally different idea of how to think about the artist’s intentions. I wonder, how do you approach doing that - sharing with people, when you’re talking about the work? How do you approach making that okay, to have this different way of thinking about the artist’s intentions or their concepts?

CL: I think that if you can think about art as universally a tool for communication - a kind of language. I believe, fundamentally, that most artists aren't interested in working in a vacuum, and rather are interested in using their work to communicate themselves, the world they live in, and about the feelings they are having - that that is really so much of what's happening with these artists. And part of why I’m often trying to just get this work shown and seen is so that it can be that language; it can be spoken AND heard and received. It can communicate, as opposed to just kind of…go in a drawer.  

I know that through my own experiences as an artist, once the dialogue begins, so much more can happen in there - you know? Then you’re in a conversation about the work, which is a conversation about your feelings and how you are creating new language with different tools and methodologies. It's bringing forward a way of thinking about the world that wouldn’t otherwise be considered. I think that it's a missed opportunity on the part of people who aren't looking at this work. Some of these artists have been working for 50 or 60 years, and it’s undeniable that they’ve honed very clearly their own language in their work, that’s speaking very truly and clearly about something they care about - which is just what everybody else is doing as artists.

It's not all really mature and work ready to be seen or sold or whatever, but much of it is, and yet it’s still unseen. Also many of these artists aren't being hailed; these artists are being kept at the margins and I think it's sort of a tragedy.

DM: Yes. When you start to really see it, it’s staggering how much potential there is.

CL: We are in a moment in culture where people are interested in “outsider artists” - which is an idea that I don't fully believe in --and there is a kind of fetishism that is going on in some corners of the art market. But I think if there was greater integration, between people and ideas and works, it wouldn't be that way. It would be more democratic - it would be more like “Oh my god, look at this artist’s work, let’s get him in here, let’s LISTEN to him.” Then it becomes a tool to hear what this person cares about in the world BEYOND this discrete piece of work.