Lauren Levy's house doesn't look like the other houses in her Shoal
Creek neighborhood. Wine bottles stick out from posts in the front
yard to form folk-art bottle trees, the brilliant azure glass mirroring
the sunlit sky. A dozen or so brightly colored bowling balls border
a flower bed.
The 43-year-old mother of
two is surely the only woman on the block who spends a weekday morning
in her kitchen dyeing pounds of vintage buttons a bright shade of
green, then laying them out to dry on cookie sheets on the sunny
back porch next to the pot that one of the family's cats has staked
out for a nap. And Levy may be the only Austin artist to request
that a studio addition to her house be designed in such a way that
she has a straight line of sight to the family room so she can keep
an eye on her 11- and 7-year-old children.
Of course, none of this is
really all that surprising when you consider that the sculptures
Levy creates -- infant-sized works made of thousands of vintage
buttons strung on wire and then formed into symbolic figures --
don't look like anything else in the local art scene. What's more,
three years after she started professionally exhibiting, her work
has become a hot commodity. At D. Berman Gallery, where her sculpture
is currently featured in an exhibit, she is a big seller.
Levy's beguiling sculptures
may be so appealing because they are at once familiar and unfamiliar,
domestic and eccentric -- not unlike Levy herself. The petite, energetic
native Austinite lives with one foot in the home and one foot in
the creative realm.
The road to her success has
been circuitous. After studying art at the University of Texas,
she headed to nursing school. "I felt like such a blank slate
during art school -- like things really weren't coming together
for me," she says. "And so I figured I needed a profession
that would provide me with a decent income." After nursing
school, Levy took a job in Santa Fe, N.M.. And then she started
knitting. "It was cold and it was expensive to do things in
Santa Fe and I needed something to do with my hands," says
Levy. "I couldn't just sit still -- I have to do something
with my hands."
Yet her knitting needles produced
more than the usual mufflers and pot holders. She'd create wildly
inventive patterns, sometimes using as many as 200 colors in a single
complex garment. And when she was finished, she would unravel it
and start again. "It was just about the process of making something
-- figuring out how to do it, and how to do it again," she
says. "It wasn't about the final product itself."
A few years later, after she
had married (her husband, Marc Levy, is a physician), Levy became
interested in metalsmithing. She wanted to mimic the techniques
of knitting: how threads can weave around each other to form an
entirely new object, how you can make a familiar object out of an
unexpected material. Or maybe, as her current work suggests, she
was striving to make an unfamiliar object out of a familiar material.
But her forays into metalsmithing
came to an abrupt halt when she had her first child. "Suddenly
I had no time to make anything," she says, noting that every
time she fired up her torch she would have to put it down and tend
to her baby. Nurturing and creating sometimes conflict with each
She had to find something
else to do, some way to feed her need to make things with her hands.
"I just felt possessed, I had so much energy and drive, but
I had to find a way to channel it."
A lifelong devotee of junk
stores and antique shops, she started to collect buttons. "There's
nothing like running your hand through a big pile of old buttons,"
she says. "They conjure up so many thoughts: They speak of
the loss of the people who used them and also the loss of their
own function and value as objects."
Sorting them by color became
a meditative task for the new mother. Drawing on her experience
knitting and metalsmithing, Levy began stringing beads on wire,
then weaving them onto wire armatures. It was a type of art she
could create while mothering -- working on them for a few minutes
here, a few minutes there, keeping the buttons and wires tucked
into plastic containers out of reach of the baby.
From the beginning, Levy's
button sculpture resembled child-sized figures -- and many of them
still do. Others look like recognizable household objects, such
as potholders or cups. And still others are imaginary -- though
anthropomorphic -- forms. Yet Levy's chubby "children"
are empty -- the figures really garments without a body. And her
other pieces, though beguiling simply in the sheer number of buttons,
are rife with a sense of absence.
These are pieces that are
not quaint evocations of family life. Rather, Levy has imbued them
with her adult ideas and emotions. "I'm interested in the mysteries,
the dichotomies of life," she says. "The joy of belonging
and pain of not belonging, the thin line where presence ends and
absence begins, where elation stops and fear takes over."
Which is, perhaps, why Lauren
Levy's house doesn't look like the other houses in her Shoal Creek
Back to previous page.