During The Pandemic: A Conversation with Barney Levitt, CM

Written by: Francesca Sinnott

Pictured above: Oranges and Cobalt, oil on canvas, 8” x 16”

 

Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Levitt_HeadShot.jpg

Pictured: Barney Levitt

Barney is both a Copley Master and “master of realist painting” who can capture every day objects in unique and life like poses, while bringing meaning and sentimentality to the simplest of compositions. Barney’s calm and serious demeanor belies a sense of humor and playfulness. “I love the genre of still life because there are so many stories that I can explore with objects. He smiles as he describes how “sometimes a painting will make people stop and look more closely. I want the viewer to feel something, whether or not they relate to the scene that is unfolding in the painting. In this way my work appeals to a wide variety of people ”. His paintings are representational, humorous or serious, sometimes creating unique and metaphorical narratives yet always deriving from the Dutch Master traditions.

Barney was accepted to Co|So as a Member Artist in 2004 and believes this prestigious affiliation validated himself as an artist. “Co|So contributed greatly to building my confidence and I became committed to painting full time. He entered competitions and won regional, national and international awards. He has been on the membership committee for 7 years and is regularly in shows including the latest Holiday Small Works where he received an Award of Merit.

 

Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Levitt_GreenBottleWithHolly_Oilonpanel_6x8_650 (1).jpg

From Holiday Small Works: Green Bottle With Holly, oil on panel, 6” x 8”

The pandemic shut down exhibits at Newton Open Studios (The Newton Art Association) and Jamaica Plain Open Studios where Barney has shown his work for 4 years and 20 years respectively. “These open studio events provide an opportunity to get out and engage with the public and other artists. I’ve missed these opportunities to connect with people”. A solo show at the Newton Free Library was cancelled. “I lost many opportunities to sell my work during the pandemic”. One positive outcome was that it forced Barney to improve his social media presence. Barney revamped his website with FASO, a world class website developer.

He is now posting regularly on his Instagram account: barneylevittfineart. “I am not very good at self promotion but I’ve learned that to make a living from your art, you must be your own cheerleader”. 

Although Barney took on some themes with more profound and somber messages in 2020, his paintings are generally infused with whimsy. “Humor was a big part of growing up in my family and it shows in my work.  I love it when I hear someone laugh after looking at a whimsical painting.”

Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Levitt_MoreThanYouCanChew_Oil_12x9.jpg

Pictured: More Than You Can Chew, oil on canvas, 12” x 9”

One painting shows an iron crushing some eggshells. “This image is a metaphor for how the weight of this pandemic is crushing our fragile human ecosystem”.

Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Levitt_TheWeightOfTheWorld_9x12.jpg

Pictured: The Weight of The World, oil on panel, 9” x 12”

In another painting Barney used the objects on the Monopoly board as a metaphor to reference the questionable political machinations of the GOP.

Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Go Directly To Jail (1).jpg

Pictured: Go Directly To Jail, oil on panel, 9” x 12”

Barney is very passionate about the environment. In this painting he uses a butterfly and a (tromp l’oeil) tear as metaphors for how removing environmental protections is jeopardizing wildlife.

.Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Infringement.jpg

Pictured: Infringement, oil on panel, 8" x 10"

A recent piece called “Ascension” is deeply personal in honor of his mother who passed away in December at 92.  “The wise old tortoise represents her earthly presence and the snowy egret is her spirit’s ascension in to heaven.”

Macintosh HD:Users:francescasinnott:Downloads:Levitt_Ascension_Oil_30x24.jpg

Pictured: Ascension, oil on canvas, 30”x 24”

Introverted from a young age, Barney discovered drawing.  At 12 years old, he began painting with oils and realized it became a passion. He graduated in 1978 with a BA in Studio Art from S.U.N.Y. Oswego where he bonded with realist painter and teacher Robert Sullins. “Abstract impressionism was in vogue then, but Robert was passionate about teaching me the value of drawing skills and championing the genre of realism".

Trained in the style of the Dutch Masters, Barney’s paintings are carefully composed, showing extraordinary technical ability with great attention to detail and accuracy. “I have always admired the Dutch painters like Johannes Vermeer who could capture light and its reflection on objects.” One can also see in Barney’s work the influence of American artist and narrative master, Norman Rockwell, as he executes his scenes with humor and respect for his subject matter. American Contemporary artists whom he admires include Scott Fraser and Scott Prior.

Barney is happy to “lose himself in his home studio” with its exposure to the afternoon western light. He will work for 8 hours straight sometimes without realizing how much time has passed. “I stretch all my own canvases, working on as many as 4-12 paintings at once due to the amount of layering involved. I will under paint with a tint of burnt sienna, then make the initial drawing to get down the bones of the composition.  I take a lot of photographs and then use photo shop to set up the composition before I begin to paint.” Using objects as his models has a lot of advantages the main one being that the objects don’t move; only the light changes. A visit to Barney’s home studio in Ashland, MA reveals a vast assortment of objects that he has collected over the years at flea and antique markets and on his travels.  He proudly shows me a ceremonial monkey skull headdress he found in the Philippines. He also has his own home gallery where over 100 of his paintings are hung.

Barney’s advice to young artists: “Do what you love, work hard, persevere. It’s a myth that you will be ‘discovered’. There will always be setbacks, disappointments, and rejection. Weather the criticisms that come your way and be open to learning and improving your work, and have FUN along the way.”