Faythe Levine is a do it yourself guru level 15. She is also the curator of a gallery. Check her interview out!
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m Faythe Levine a 34 year old do’er of various things based out of Milwaukee WI. I’ve lived there for the past 10 years. Often I only get interviewed about a certain slice of my life and when I try to explain all the stuff I do it overwhelms people. In my mind it all overlaps and intertwines and I’m excited to get to talk about it all in one place.
Growing up, you lived in a bunch of different places. What is it about Milwaukee that keeps you there? What do you love most about it?
People often asked me how I ended up living in Milwaukee. My parents moved a lot which I loved as a kid. I was born in Minneapolis, they bought a van & our family of 3 traveled for a year. I went to elementary school in Santa Monica, CA. My parents migrated to the suburbs in the early 90’s where I went to Junior High & High School. That was awesome because who I am today has to do with what was brewing in the Pacific Northwest at that time. Moving a lot paired with being an only child made me good at adapting to new surroundings.
Anyways, I always had a lot of penpals and one lived in Milwaukee and in 2000 I was living in Minneapolis with a boyfriend and went to visit. I liked what I found and moved here. That was over 10 years ago with one 4 month stint of living in New Orleans for a Mardi Gras season, that was too wild so I came back.
What keeps me here is simple. I’m a working artist and the magic of Milwaukee is it’s affordability, the space that’s available and the central location within the United States, since I travel a lot for work it’s great that it’s no more than 3 hours to fly to either coast and Chicago is a quick 1.5 hour train ride away.
You are the curator of Sky High Gallery, which started off as the stock room for a skateboard shop. What’s the story behind the creation of the gallery?
The story behind Sky High Gallery is actually a love story. I used to run a gallery/boutique space called Paper Boat [2005-2009] that was located 2 blocks away from Sky High. My business partner and I closed down Paper Boat due to the economy and I fell in love with my neighbor, Aaron Polansky, who has owned the Sky High Skateboard shop for the past 11 years (Sky High opened in 1988 in Racine, WI). He had recently relocated the shop from the Milwaukee suburbs to our neighborhood called Bay View. Aaron and I share similar views surrounding community and merging my love for art with his shop just seemed to make sense. From what I’m told, the skate industry has shifted a lot in the past few years effecting independent shops lie Sky High have to compete with online shops and Zumiez-type mall retailers. It’s the now age-old story of struggling independent businesses that can’t compete with the larger retailers lower prices. By adding a gallery space into the skate shop we are able to bring more people to our building and create events that merge art, music and skate culture. It’s been awesome to offer that to our local community, that’s something that web exclusive shops and big retailers will never be able to do.
As the curator, what do you look for in art that you choose to exhibit? Besides exhibits, what other activities does SHG host?
As a curator I’ve always gone with my gut. I’ve recently been pigeonholed into a craft corner, but in reality my love for photography will trump everything. If I see something online or in a gallery when I’m traveling I just email the artist and introduce myself. It’s led to many long-term relationships with artists that have had great careers. I am interested in bringing a lot of work to Milwaukee that wouldn’t normally get shown here. For some reason the younger gallery scene struggles with consistency, so I just try to keep things booked a year out and flowing through. Keep things moving, organized and open to the public. If I had more money and a more legit gallery space (square footage, people who bought art, budgets, etc) I would plan such wild shows, I day dream about this all the time, but right now I’m doing what I can in what space we have to work with, and it’s great.
Aside from rotating gallery exhibitions that tend to run between one and three months, every year I curate a pop-up shop for the month of December. The pop-up allows me to satisfy the itch of missing having my own retail shop. It’s a blend of artist made and imported items. I am able to continue to work with some of the artists I developed relationships with at Paper Boat (my old store). This way when I travel I can buy the rad stuff I find & offer Milwaukee an alternative spot to get cool presents for people.
Another one of our ongoing projects is called The Temporary Mural Project that invites local artists to paint 8’x8′ murals. We’ll display them for 3 months. I am currently looking for an outdoor location where we can display 2 years of murals to show the work in a single place.
We have also hosted a movie screening’s most recently with Bill Daniel. We did a really intense installation with San Francisco based Monica Canilao that we let run for 3 months. There have been a few shows with local bands and we also do a skate jam on our block for the 3 months of summer. We have to get a street permit but we get to close down traffic for thrash action.
It seems that both the skate shop and the gallery are cultural hubs in your community. What are some of the principles that drive your vision and work?
Aaron & I are both invested in our neighborhood and city. But personally (because I shouldn’t speak for him) what motivates me is a desire for the place I choose to live to have a sense of community. I want to nurture living in affordable places so artists don’t all feel like they have to go coastal to be successful. I lived in the suburbs of Seattle when I was a teenager and there were amazing things happening that influenced me for the rest of my life. So I guess thinking that I can contribute to the foundation of someone’s positive creative growth is awesome. I want people to know there are options outside of what is offered to them, and community is built from ground up, it’s a lot of work but worth every ounce.
Your interests are extremely varied. Can you give us a brief rundown of all the different forms of art that you personally do? Do you have any formal training?
I do like a lot of different stuff, but the things I am drawn to and work on I am very passionate about. The main vein that has been consistent in my work over the past 10+ years is my obsession with documenting and collecting. I have taken photographs from a very young age, my folks signed me up for a black & white photography class at the community center when I was 10 and I was hooked. So aside from always taking photographs the other largest influence on me was zine culture. When I found out you could just photocopy ‘stuff’ and make it into a book it changed my life. I would take the bus into the city and buy as many zines as I could afford, write letters to everyone, trade, and connect with people. I loved and was totally addicted to the fact that there were no rules. It altered my reality along with the riot grrrl movement that was happening at that time in the Pacific NW.
Photos, zines, collage, painting, sewing, collecting, playing music (my old band Wooden Robot did the soundtrack for my first film), making flyers, writing letters, building a community, which all eventually led to making documentary films. Really it’s all overlapping. You listen to a friend’s music and then design a flyer for their show. They get a record deal and you do an album cover, then their label wants a music video and you work on that.
Oh and no formal training or college, just solid work ethic. But I always feel like I should state that I’m not anti-school, it just wasn’t in my cards after High School and I haven’t slowed down since to make time.
You have a passion for do-it-yourself arts and crafts, producing the Art vs Craft show, as well as a documentary+book Handmade Nation. What does the show consist of?
I’ve been producing the show Art vs. Craft since 2004 and the vendors we showcase are pretty across the board. It’s a juried event so everyone has to apply and show examples of their work. I want the show to be approachable to a wide audience, since unlike Brooklyn or SF we don’t have 5,000 hipsters to come support a shopping event. Because of that there is a balance between super experimental far-out work and very traditional craft as well.
What did you learn from making your documentary and book? What role does the DIY ethos play in American culture? Do you think that the trend of DIY yourself is increasing or diminishing in the United States? What do you think about websites like etsy.com?
When making my first film I can say I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. The accompanying book was published by Princeton Architectural Press, also a huge learning experience, but I didn’t have to handle the back end of things. I believe that DIY ethos has always played a role in American culture and it varies depending on what community you look at. I was interested in how women in their 20-30’s were re-appropriating traditional techniques and methods and making them contemporary. For me DIY is a part of my lifestyle and not a trend but on a larger scale I can only hope that the trend sticks and people learn that the empowerment that comes from doing anything for oneself is addictive and positive. When Etsy.com launched I couldn’t have been more excited, it allowed me as a designer to have a user friendly platform to sell my work online. Since then it’s morphed into a shopping beast that I still support, but since I’m not selling my work its role has changed in my life. But I feel it still offers the same benefits to sellers and shoppers, I get really overwhelmed when I go there without direction since there is so much stuff, a lot of which I’m not interested in.
Do you have an opinion on the subculture known as hipsters?
Not really, aside from getting tired of certain design trends. If I was to say anything it just makes me sad that there is no community behind a style that I relate to. It used to be that if someone looked a certain way you knew your values were on the same page, or at least in the same chapter. Now, I could see someone covered in tattoos with a style that I consider fringe culture but they may have a totally different context. I guess I’m talking about punk.
I can’t imagine growing up with everything at your fingertips. Interested in a band, you get to hear it immediately. There’s no work in finding the good stuff anymore. But on the same note I love the accessibility of community on the internet. I embrace it.
Your latest project, a documentary+book called The Sign Painter examines the lives of sign painters across the USA. Signs inhabit a niche between art for the sake of art and practicality. What are some of the common characteristics that you have found among professional sign painters?
I should start by saying that when I started this project with my collaborator, Sam Macon, I thought I knew what sign painting was all about and I’ve been schooled. Sign painters have gotten the short end of the stick forever. They have contributed so much to our visual landscape and received no credit. And as much as I’m drawn to (and will always be) a certain style of sign (maybe defined as a Folk Art style) I now know that a perfect sign can be the simplest looking thing that you may not even notice. That’s why it’s perfect. It does the job and you don’t even know that it did so. To put it simply this project has blown my mind into a new level of awareness, I can’t wait to start educating people on sign painters, their story is wild.
For others who are interested in making documentaries, what would your advice be in making it a reality? How did you get the funding to travel around and interview all those people?
Let’s see. I’m all for going for the gold and not thinking things through which isn’t necessarily the best way to start when it comes to film. Working with another person is always good, finding a team. I don’t work alone, with Sign Painter’s I co-directed with Sam. We have a solid team, director of photography: Travis Auclair, producer: Timm Gable, editor: Chris Thompson and assistant editor: Cole Quamme. All these people are friends that have worked together on other projects. That’s the best part of having a creative community, being able to team up and help one another. Favors turn into jobs and it all comes full circle, hopefully.
With my first project, Handmade Nation, I went down the evil path of funding the film on my credit card which was both good and bad along with a lot of community fundraising and my folks kicked down when I was in a pinch. I also applied for local artist grants, didn’t get most of them but a few panned out and helped me a lot during the project. To put things into perspective I started HN in 2006, it was released in 2009 and I made my final payment just last month. It took 6 years to pay off. I based the interviews around big events where we could meet a lot of people at one time but really I just did it, cold called/emailed people and many responded.
It should also be noted that I’m willing to live check to check; monetary stability has never been my main concern. I didn’t have health insurance for 10 years and although I got it this year through the state of Wisconsin but our Governor, Scott Walker ruined that for me so I’m back in the majority of being uninsured. And it should be noted I don’t have kids which of course adds a huge level of freedom, so I just figure it out as I go.
I’m also a big promoter of finishing what I start so I think it’s good to set deadlines, that way there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Your passion for art and life in general appears inexhaustible. Do you have an explanation of how you got to be so tirelessly enthusiastic?
There’s so much to do and get excited about I never understand when people are bored or unmotivated, I mean what else am I going to do, watch TV? Hell no. I’m not very good at relaxing though and I’m trying to work that out, but not this year, first we have to finish this movie.
In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what DIY craft will prove itself to be the most useful?
Resourcefulness. Being able to look at the big picture is the most useful day to day skill with or without zombies. But our house would be on lock down for sure so bring it.
Thanks for answering. Feel free to add any other information that you think would be of interest to our readers.
Two upcoming things in my schedule I’m really excited about:
#1) I was invited to be a part of a group exhibit at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee called Sleeping Inside our Bodies, March 2- March 30th. It’s rare I get to work on my own artwork these days so I’m looking forward to the opportunity. This exhibition focuses on artists who use textual and visual narratives to tell stories of their own personal identity, particularly of their identities as women. The show will include work by myself and: Mequitta Ahuja, Dana Hoey, Peregrine Honig, Swoon and Della Wells
#2) Hamburger Eyes is releasing a zine of my photographs in 2012
Way’s to keep up with my projects:
My site: www.faythelevine.com