Once the fear of COVID-19 settled into Bucks County, everything shut down.
“Even the Y,” lamented photographic artist Diane Levell. “It was awful. Swimming laps is how I solve problems.”
Nor could she travel to the places where she had photographed her well-received Michener Museum show, “The Intrepid Alchemist.” “Gallery visitors stopped in awe when they encountered Levell’s work. It was just so peaceful,” recalled Amy Ferracci, Michener director of Marketing and Public Relations.
“As humans we are very sensory-based,” explained Dr. Cindy Baum-Baicker, Doylestown psychologist. “What beauty does is take us somewhere. In COVID, particularly, where our wings are clipped, we can take ourselves out of a really lousy situation by accessing sensory input – by looking at art that speaks to our senses – that gets us out of our heads and into our experience.”
Confined to her home, Levell realized, “There was nothing left to do except throw myself into work.”
She had been experimenting with a series of lush, exuberant compositions derived from the shapes of flowers in her garden. In the midst of pandemic gloom and the hovering specter of death, she was trying to capture spring’s emerging life force. But it wasn’t working.
“I woke from a dream, my head pounding,” she said. “What I was doing was just not different enough. It was too meek, too conventional.”
Frustrated, Levell abandoned her camera altogether. She began to compose directly on her scanner. Starting with freshly cut bouquets, she had only hours to arrange the blossoms and scan the images before the flowers withered. Snatching beauty from certain death became her obsession. It powered a prodigious amount of work. She made almost 500 images within weeks.
“This series, ‘Rebirth,’ recalls Dutch vanitas paintings,” said Michener Curator of American Art Laura Igoe. “It reminds us that life is fleeting. If one flower dies, a new plant will flourish in its place. I think Levell sees these images as escape, as a way to keep focused and working – to provide beauty at a time when many of us are struggling.”
Levell is no stranger to work. She grew up in Buckingham Township. When her parents split, she and her mother had to survive on their own. She attended Buckingham Friends School. Even on full scholarship, it was difficult. The vice principal recommended Levell to Pearl Buck, who wished to hire a companion to play with her adopted, bi-racial daughter. The little girls bonded, doing art projects and exploring nature.
Levell recalls meals at the Buck estate. An elegant table, Asian art, greenhouse bouquets, and especially, sumptuous Chinese food that Pearl Buck would prepare herself. “But most amazingly, she would talk to me as if I were a grownup. About her writing, about her travels, about urgent social problems. I think that helped me realize what an artist does.” It also forged a strong connection between gardens, food and art.
Levell has 12 different gardens, cultivated over the last 22 years.
There is always a pot of something on the stove or in the oven. Her home is fragrant with the transformation of nature’s bounty. “It’s all part of the same thing,” said Levell, referring to how she works out structure, rhythm, harmony. “When there’s not much going on, you look forward to creating meals. They should be beautiful and tasty.” Deliberate meal preparation evokes sensory experience. “Ugliness and anxiety are replaced with stability.”
Levell’s first photographic interest was in antique printing methods – photo etching, photograveure and cyanotypes. She became known in Heidelberg, where she and her husband were living, during one of several sojourns in Europe. Her success with these technically demanding processes won the attention of curators. Her work was shown in significant German galleries and museums.
But just as her career was taking off, family issues forced the couple to return to the U.S. Levell had to start over to be taken seriously by the professional art world.
“I’ve never been afraid of hard work,” she declared. She has worked in every photographic medium: large format photography, special darkroom techniques, and lately digital photography. She is fascinated with what scanners, printers, special kinds of paper enable her to produce.
Her work room has piles everywhere. But she has used enforced sequestration, to reassess decades of work, framing favorite pieces, turning her home into a mini museum, documenting the evolution of her skills and vision.
“There’s still so much to do and so little time,” said Levell.
“When we learn to deal with COVID, I want people to come over. Visiting my home, you get the totality of my work, my environment, and everything I do. “It’s a gift I can share, this sense of beauty and calm.”
There is sure to be a pot on the stove and visitors will leave, nourished by more than food.
Jeanette Lerman is a writer and filmmaker, a specialist in art and culture, who is interested in stories of resilience and moral courage. She spends a significant amount of time in Bucks County.