A Great Interview by an Argentinan Art Class

On Wed, 21 Oct 2020 an art teacher who will go the extra mile wrote to me from Argentina:

“Hi Tamar! I’m sharing herein the questions the students want to ask you […]
They are truly enthusiastic about your participation in the project!”

The distance between Brussels and Argentina is 7,008 miles or 11,279 kilometers

Here’s how I answer:

Hello! Hello!
Let me answer the questions each in turn.

What would you like to know about TAMAR LEVI?
1. How did you start being interested in art?

I enjoyed playing with paints, mark-making and trying to build my own stories in pictures since I was little, but I became most fascinated around age 13 when I learnt there are lots of symbols in paintings.

You may learn to read a story in a painting the way you would read a story with words.

You can ask yourself some questions to help you read what’s going on:

What visual symbols are in this picture? (E.g. a skull, a rose, a goblin sitting on your chest while you sleep, and what might those mean death, love, a nightmare sensation… )

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781

Any more complex symbols? (E.g. mythology will tell us what this swan is doing that he shouldn’t be doing.)

Leda and the Swan, Ancient Greek Vase Painting

What emotions are conveyed with that colour choice? (For Wassily Kandinsky, this blue represents his creative energy.)

The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter), Wassily Kandinsky, 1903

What emotions are conveyed by these shapes? (For Salvador Dali both lobsters and telephones were erotic forms and he felt they achieved greater eroticism when put together like this.)

Lobster Telephone, Salvador Dali, 1936

What can we learn about the story behind the picture by the way the artist painted it (e.g. stabbing, splattering paint effects, a focus on the mother character, lots of yellow or dark red/black paint)?

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893

What information can we get from the materials? (There’s a very interesting 12 metre sculpture in Athens, Greece made out of sharp broken glass. It appears to be running at a sprint. Does the chosen material/construction help with the impression of motion?)

Dromeas (The Runner) by Costas Varotsos 1994

I’m going to share the very first painting I remember being FASCINATED by! I saw the original in The National Gallery when I was that 13 year old visiting London, and the Art History student giving tours explained how one could “read” the story.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid by Bronzino

This painting is absolutely STUFFED with symbolism. It’s very big but I chose this image because these look like the closest colours to the original. Sometimes called “Allegory of Venus and Cupid,” sometimes called “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time,” the analysis describes it as a visual puzzle. When I understood some paintings are intended to be puzzles that help us unlock an artist’s worldview, I was hooked.

I remember the young enthusiastic tour guide pointing out the theatre masks on the floor next to Venus’s feet, the tortured face in the center left, and he made us lean close and see the angel Folly (the one with the rose petals). If you looked closely at the original, you could see that little angel is stepping on a dropped rose’s thorn, which reminded me that sometimes laughter is followed by tears, that we must enjoy joy while it lasts.

Allegory of Venus and Cupid, Thorn Detail

Why is Cupid’s mummy giving him a kiss while about to put an arrow in his back? Or is that mother’s love: something you cannot choose to be hit by, even if you wish to be in control.

Allegory of Venus and Cupid, Arrow Detail

The most amazing symbol I was impressed by is the symbolic act of Father Time pulling a big blue blanket over everyone enjoying that moment, meaning it will all be gone the next moment.

Time pulling his blanket over this brief moment.

The other thing that I learned looking at this painting was that you can twist your characters around and they can still look realistic. The artist Bronzino could make bodies look real when, really, he was making them do what he wanted them to do. Imagine how long this neck would unnaturally look if Venus’s arm were not right there? Try Cupid’s pose when you’re at home tonight.

Just try Cupid’s pose

2. Did you study at college? Where was it?

I studied Philosophy at King’s College London and then Psychology at the University of Cambridge. However I’m a visual learner so I wanted to illustrate the ideas from my philosophy books. That’s how I started out in children’s literature: I made my own little books illustrating big ideas like “Do flowers have feelings?” They were not picked up by publishers at that time so I went on to illustrate other people’s books before writing my own again later.

Thoughtings, authored by Peter Worley and Andrew Day, Illustrated by Tamar Levi

When I was in London I wanted to take an art class that taught some classical skills, e.g. glaze and paint mixing and varnishing skills. It was really difficult for me to find a class that taught the practical skills. There were loads of classes around about theory and history of art, but I realised the practical stuff was better found in books. I did a three day course at Camberwell college that was meant to be an introduction to oil paints but I think, at that time, I would have learnt the same amount of info from books or the internet. 

3. How do you manage to live on art?

I don’t. Not anymore. You can be well known and popular and still not make a lot of money at this. It’s incredibly difficult to earn a living at the fun side of art and pay your rent and feed yourself. 

Your salary is not reflected in how many interviews you do.

I’m going to be completely honest with you because I think it’s important to demystify the serious stuff. I cannot rely on full-time income from my art as of today because the global pandemic has changed the way people engage with galleries etc. It remains to be seen how I must adapt with these times. Maybe after the needs of my family become lower maintenance, maybe then I could return to producing more and earning more.

Finding assistance in the family

As an artist/mother I find my art struggles to exist in the margins of my responsibilities. Those responsibilities are primarily keeping my family alive and well, while taking into account the domestic labour and house management side. I could joke that I’m Minister of Internal Affairs at our house. But it’s no joke. The emotional, physical and psychological burden of chronic fatigue and parenting while creating collections of paintings needs to be discussed with people who are looking at a possible career here.

Hey Tova Niovi, here’s a work of art by me called Hallerbos. Hey Hallerbos, here’s Tova Niovi, a work of art by me.

Choosing to have a family AND have a creative life is a constant time and energy juggle that needs a consistent discipline to return to the cyclical process of project completion and promotion. You cannot do it ALL unless you have a strong network of support around you (friends and/or family who will give to you as much as you give to them with regards to childcare etc), otherwise something will feel compromised. Someone wiser than me said it better, “it’s a myth that you can do everything at once. You can do everything, but not all at once.”

Here are the best ways that I know of at this time, however they might change as the world is changing a lot during this pandemic and more people are buying more things online. Ways I think you might be able to earn a living in or around the art world:

  • Teaching art at school or university, the practical or the theoretical side (treat your art teacher well, she’s your magic key to this whole world)
  • Artwork / storyboarding / creative thinking for advertising companies or fashion companies
Storyboarding for TEDx
  • Architecture / interior design/ furniture making /product design
  • Comic books / animation / gaming industry work
  • Building a niche following in social media and selling workshops and merchandise to them
  • Museum / gallery curation
Curating a show at the European Parliament
  • Series / film / theatre /live performance industry / costumes / makeup / storyboarding / choreography / music video making / film editing
  • Publishing graphic novels, picture books, photography for magazines or book jacket design
MY AUTISM BOOK: I co-authored AND illustrated this book AND designed the cover concept!
  • Website and app design
  • Painting / illustrating / photography / sculpture / crafts.

With regards to the latter: be aware of not selling your work for less than the value of your expenditure. Often funded by getting student loans, prizes, patrons or government subsidies or institutional support. Here’s a visual sketch I just did last week for a government application to take my live art performances into schools here in Belgium. It won’t be very much money, but it’s a useful stipend.

4. What inspires you?

When it comes to every day: a very yellow afternoon light often inspires me.

Preview this painting of De Haan's Sand Dunes in Belgium as viewed in your home.
My painting of De Haan, Belgium

When it comes to portraits: super wrinkly and well-lived faces inspire me. Asymmetric faces inspire me. Characterful people inspire me. Beautiful people do NOT inspire me. Adorable curious humans inspire me. No matter their size or age. 

Manolis Glezos, Tamar Levi, 2016

When it comes to landscapes: a sense of space, a huge view, a WOW moment in nature.

Santorini Volcano, Tamar Levi, 2020

When it comes to book illustration: a phrase or idea that is very tricky to understand inspires me to make a visual that will make sense of that idea.

When it comes to getting my big projects done: death inspires me. My best friend was killed and sometimes I remember her and am reminded that life is very short and there are lots of things to get done. I want to have completed DELPHI my graphic novel comic book all in one line before I’m on my death bed.

5. Do you work/ paint at special times of the day? Do you have a fixed routine for painting/ drawing?

I used to beat myself up for not doing things every day with a very rigid routine. Lately I’ve realised I’m a “burst of energy” kind of person, I work intensely very very quickly, sometimes for many hours of hyper focus, then not again for days. Once I accepted that’s just my way of working, I’ve stopped beating myself up so much!

Portait I completed in -3 minutes

6. Do you have any tips you would share about painting?

Tips on the theory behind painting:

Don’t compare yourself to too many artists or everyone that’s online. It can be overwhelming when we see how many people might be “ahead” in their process. We are all on different journeys. Also, don’t take advice from too many people, only a very limited few who have an aesthetic intelligence you admire. It gets confusing when you get notes from a wide range of people who all think and feel different things. Everyone can discuss how they experience your art differently, but you don’t need to take it all as advice. Be selective.

Tips on the practice of painting:

Clean your brushes. Look after your favourite ones. Mix your own colours. Don’t just work from the tube. It looks elevated when it’s your own palette of your own favourite colours you’ve mixed yourself. Use the best quality materials you can afford. You can sell things for more money when done with better quality materials and you will improve faster because your tools will not be slowing you down. Also: USE YOUR SKETCHBOOK!

Image by Anja Strelec for BRUZZ

7. How did you feel when you were invited or you had your first exhibition?

I was excited and worried because the exhibition was in the UK and I was living in Greece, so it was a complicated journey!

For my last performance, for TEDx’s international platform on YouTube, I spent all my time and physical energy preparing the show, but too much mental energy worrying about how I looked on stage. I wish I had done more work on unpacking body positivity before I had to stand in front of so many cameras and such a massive global audience.

Myself and Flautist Kalliopi Bolovinou

8. Do you only know how to draw in this style or have you tried different styles and techniques?

I’ve tried so many styles.

In black and white:

I do these zenlike continuous line, mostly contour, drawings and paintings in a nearly-abstracted minimalistic form of portraiture.

My continuous line illustration developing a Family Planning project about consent

In colour, I use hand mixed acrylic paints in a classical realism style with a mixed media of oil pastel on the top.

Hallerbos, from my IMMENSITIES Collection 2020

In my sketchbooks I use watercolour and ink.

My watercolour sketch of Piraeus, Mikrolimano, Athens

Sometimes I used pencil as a child but it never felt bold enough. I tried a dip pen and ink jar, but the quill wouldn’t move in the circular motions my “handwriting” in art likes to move.

So that kind of pen was not ergonomically correct for me. I ended up using Sharpies and uniball pens to go with my deep black line’s flow faster.

I’ve had to start using big ones so larger audiences (700-1200 people) could see the line develop.

I really like a certain illustrator named Shirley Hughes who uses gouache to paint her books, but every time I use guache the colours feel too matt for me.

Anthology of Shirley Hughes’ children’s book illustrations.

I used to work with felt tip markers a lot. They were great for my publishing work,

Image “Identity is Like a Puzzle” from MY AUTISM BOOK, 2013

but didn’t like how they fade away in the sun when I want to display them.

Portrait of my neice that faded in the sun 🙁

I did a LOT of photography as a child and teenager and that helped me understand how I align my perspective on the canvas.

My one line drawing of Marie Antoinette

I used to make A4 sized illustrations.

One line portraits, from the GREAT MINDS collection

And A4 sized portraits.

Then miniature landscapes.

Lately, I’ve realised that there’s something portable and giftable in miniatures.

My miniature landscapes at the European Parliament

Yet giant canvases are truly liberating. They satiate a need for freedom during this pandemic.

Temple at Sounio
My painting of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio, 2020, IMMENSITIES Collection

For now the black and white minimalist zenlike one line portraits are really calming,

Women in Journalism, Literature, Philosophy and Physics

and the colour pictures satisfy my need for deep textures in paint. I think I’ll try even bigger canvases for my next project. 

This painting of Tervuren was the biggest canvas in my last show.

9. What is your favorite painting?

My favourite painting by another artist has always been this portrait by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun of Countess Golovine .

Portrait of Countess Golovina, ÉLISABETH VIGÉE-LEBRUN, 1797/1800

I first saw it in a book when I was 12 and I was so impressed by the warmth and dynamism. She was painted in such a lively way, a nontraditional pose, and her direct look at the camera gives me a really clear feeling that this is a very good likeness of a kind and intelligent woman. It was historically unusual for women to be painted as individuals rather than objects. Perhaps it was because she was a female artist painting a friend, and that’s what gave her subject an individuality and unique sensitivity that was so uncommon at that time.

Red pops next to yellow #colourtheory

I also liked the rich red cloth which popped visually against a huge gold frame. Maybe I identified with the artist, maybe I identified as the subject, but I’m sure I’ve been doing variations on this theme for my whole portraiture career.

My favourite painting by my own hand is this picture of a wave which was the first oil painting I ever painted in my life! I did it with only one palette knife and I still enjoy the wave’s movement and how thick the paint is sculpted. Look at how I couldn’t even sign my name properly in the corner! That’s how wobbly my coordination was with a brush right at the beginning!

Lefkada, Tamar Levi, circa 2000

10. Who is your favorite artist?

For portraits:

I spent a lot of time looking at David Hockney’s early works and sketchbooks when I was a kid. I’m not in love with his current work, but definitely got influenced by the casual portraiture of his friends and family in his early sketchbooks.

David Hockney, Sketchbooks, 1970

For landscapes:

I’m a little bit obsessed with an artist called Ori Reisman who worked hard to represent the shapes of the landscapes around where my father grew up. I don’t know how he layers colour, I wish he was still alive so I could ask him.

Ori Reisman, Cabri Collection

For illustration:

There’s a French artist called Joann Sfar I met in London.

Joann Sfar’s sketch of me, 2008

His early work of pen on watercolour influenced me hugely.

His early work

I haven’t explored his recent work, but I love the humanity and eroticism in his inky wiggly lines.

Joann Sfar’s sketches of my then-boyfriend, now-husband Vasilis Katsardis, 2008

I used to be very into this niche cult figure Edward Gorey, then realised I enjoyed consuming his books but they didn’t galvanise me. I wasn’t engaging with them in a non-academic, passionate way that moved me forward in my own practise.

The Doubtful Guest, Edward Gorey, 1957

I think that’s an important distinction: I like Ernest Hemmingway and his very direct and unadorned prose style, but I shouldn’t waste time trying to emulate him in my writing, my way of writing is closer to the style of Anthony Burgess… very descriptive and playful.

Similarly, when finding an artist I admire, I need to check in with how they make me feel. If they make me feel othered, alienated from their practice and make me feel like giving up, then I need to turn away from their work. If they make me feel like I want to dance with their themes and bring my own ideas into a dialogue with the discussion their works instigate, then I need to remember to reach for them when I need motivation.

It’s kind of like friendship. If someone is negating you, negging you, pulling you down, then don’t waste time, rise up and move onwards and away. If someone applauds you and celebrates you for who you are and sparks your interests in a positive direction, you invest in that friendship to keep them around you.

11. Are you interested in and willing to take part in other types of art expressions such as music, for example?

I wish I could sing. There’s a narrative movement in the journey of these one line drawings that I’m doing.

Dr Eugene Feygelson brought his neuromusicology expertise to an improvised classical music and continuous line collab

So I’ve asked fantastic musicians to collaborate with me.

A super short timelapse of our performance on the stage at Clique Art, Belgium, 2018

They play music while I do live painting performances.

Live art and music collaborations with Kalliopi Bolovinou for TEDxULB, 2020

I like to dance. I think there’s something primal and communal in circular folk dances. I’d love to engage with fashion more. A collaboration with a fashion company to put my art on their clothing and bags feels like an exciting step into another realm of artistic expression.

12. What is your perspective of art?

There are few ways I could interpret that question. Either you are asking my perspective on the art industry, my perspective on the history and direction of art as a practice, or perhaps you mean what perspective do I apply in the themes I employ within my personal art practice.

My perspective on the art industry: 

There are not enough government grants or academic awards to support early career artists. Therefore mostly only people with capital (i.e. financial freedom) have the support at the beginning. This is a problem in our socioeconomic system as a whole, not just for artists.

Preview of the painting Oxilithos, Evia, Greece, on a gallery wall.
Oxilithos, Evia Greece, Tamar Levi, 2014

The gallery and auction system is elitist by necessity. It has to be selective to judge what’s good, and be able to value it for the higher price tag. I’d like there to somehow still be a standard of quality maintained while providing egalitarian accessibility online as well as still in beautiful museum spaces but I definitely need an economist or director of monetisation to step in and explain how that could possibly work!

My perspective on the history of art/journey to present day art:

Artists are made famous when they move the game forward, provide something people haven’t seen before, become collectable brand commodities or do something better than others or provoke and make “woke” the audience in a compelling way.

My most affordable products, made accessible by mass printing and international shipping

I’m curious to see how the accessibility of more affordable art-transcribed products, as well as the transparency of social media will unveil the art industry’s elitism, and hierarchy of art collectors, and how the information revolution will change how non-dynastic collectors and public individuals engage with art for their homes and art for public spaces. What art is “good” for galleries is very different than what the internet consensus deems “good art.” I can’t wait to see where this is going.

My perspective in my personal art practice:

The perspective I bring to my art is the belief that I wouldn’t want something gruesome or depressing on my walls. We’ve got the news on tv for that. So I try to make sure my artworks provide a positive uptick in people’s moods when they walk into their homes.

I couldn’t stop laughing at how much pleasure and emotional power this viewer took from one of paintings.

13. How long does it take approximately to write a book?

It depends how good you are at returning to your manuscript to get it done! The autism book I co-authored and illustrated in 2011-2012 took about 18 months to get to publication. That might be because there were people involved who are not easy to work with. They were not good communicators. Before that and since then every other project was and has been much more pleasant and gone more quickly. When people respect and credit you appropriately, without exploitative agendas, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish together.

18 months to get to publication yet with ongoing problematic communication patterns, still to this day!

A few years ago, I noticed that I was using too much visual description in my writing. I needed to move from traditional high literary works towards graphic novels in order to cut a lot of the text and represent it more in illustration. So this DELPHI publishing project has taken me 15 years! And it’s still not done!

An early draft of DELPHI

I have moved countries 3 times and given birth to a human and lived a very full life in between though, so it’s almost excusable!

14. Do you frequently attend social events?

I used to, before this pandemic! One problem with moving countries too often is that my network gets chopped and changed so I lose a lot of connections with every move.

Socialising today

However, here in Brussels we’ve met some INCREDIBLE new friends that are very similar to us and it’s made socialising much easier.

15. Have you studied something else which may not be related to painting?

I studied Philosophy in London and Psychology in Cambridge, but I bring themes from both those areas of research into my painting work, so I think they are related. For Philosophy, I make sure my art engages with the big ideas that excite me. For Psychology, I learnt a lot about what happens in the brain when we see clear faces, when our spatial reasoning witnesses certain shapes, what happens in the brain when certain colours are prioritised over others… it has all been very useful.

An illustration I did for MY AUTISM BOOK, 2013, called “Every Brain Is Different”

16. Have you ever had a gap year? If not, would you like to have one?

I was really lucky to work for a year before going to university. Among many small jobs that year, I was an Au Pair in Barcelona. Growing up in Alaska I spent a lot of time painting portraits, but in Barcelona the architecture was so special I started painting buildings for the first time and I was shocked how fun they can be… and they don’t fidget like people-subjects do!

I can’t find an early Barcelona sketch so I found one that was made about 3 years later in Moscow, inspired by that same series.
Here’s a sketch of architecture done in Athens 10 years after the Moscow sketch above. You can really tell how much my style changed in that time.

17. If you weren’t an artist, what would you like to be?

I would probably be a Psychologist. In fact, I’m wondering whether I should develop an Art Therapy workshop based on my research at Cambridge and my experience as an art teacher, because I feel there are a lot of calming benefits to be had through this continuous line drawing method I’ve been developing. Paul Klee said drawing is “taking a line for a walk.” It’s very relaxing. There’s a lot of anxiety going around nowadays. Perhaps therapeutic art practices could help with that?

Portrait of Simone Weil painted in one continuous line. Let your eye take a walk along the journey of the line.

18. How would you define you?

More deeply, I would define myself as a recovering Perfectionist, renegade Philosopher, erstwhile Psychologist, suffering from chronic Trying-To-Do-Too-Much, sparked by Childlike Wonder in curious people and places.

Photo by Iris Haidau

Slightly more simply put, I’m a triheritage, multilingual, bisexual positive-thinking human who just likes to get better at playing a long game with paint.

Let me know if you have any more questions! Good luck with your exams!

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