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When the Image Is the Word

The art of Corwin Levi

A sign on the window outside Corwin Levi’s summer studio reads “Please don’t tap the glass. Feeding the animals, however, is strongly encouraged.” Since Levi’s arrival, he has transformed the white walls of his studio into a three-dimensional dreamscape of dragons, pipe-cleaner stars, modeling-clay flowers and paintings. It’s not uncommon for passersby to be so pulled into Levi’s world that they bump into his studio window or, despite the sign, deliberately tap on the glass.

Inside, Levi (Law ’05) leans over a piece of plywood balanced on his knees as he prepares for “Marks and Remarks,” his show at the Second Street Dové Gallery in Charlottesville. “Jack,” Levi’s final piece for the show, is stretched over the wood. In the piece, fragments of text referencing fairy tales are interwoven with line drawings of children, stars, clouds and tangles of what might be vines.

“For the viewer,” writes Second Street executive director Rebecca Schoenthal (Grad ’98, ’05), “[‘Jack’ is] a tight, concentrated, intense study. The eye never rests, looking, reading, looking, reading, in an endless cycle. There is no way out, only in, over, through and back in again.”

The web of images and words Levi constructs with his pen resembles the work of a crazed spider or, perhaps, simply a lawyer accustomed to drawing connections among ideas. Just last year, Levi was working in a corporate office building as a litigation associate at WilmerHale. But, as Levi hunches over his canvas in a button-down shirt, jeans and flip-flops, he seems to have found his element in the studio.

“The allegory paintings, of which ‘Jack’ is one, are two overlapping systems of words and images, not just words illustrating images or images illustrating words,” says Levi. “More generally, I am exploring instances where images and words come into existence as expressions of one idea.”

Levi, who entered law school after completing an MFA in painting at Temple University, is the first to admit that the intersection of words and images in his own life has led him down an unorthodox career path.

Long before becoming a full-time visual artist, Levi was taking intricate, visually stunning law school notes at UVA. Levi was awarded a solo show based in part on the artistic merit of his law school notes, though it was UVA’s law library that first exhibited his notes as artwork.

“His work—it’s a strange and beautiful thing,” says classmate Nilla Watkins (Law ’05), who recalls looking over Levi’s shoulder at his notes during their contracts class. “Therein you will surely find aspects of his analytic mind, but you will also spot his unconscious, flying unfettered.”

During his three years as a full-time attorney, Levi had little time to make art, but he continued to generate ideas for future art projects. “I had a pad of sticky notes by my computer … and suddenly these artistic ideas would flash into my head,” says Levi. “I would write them down on my sticky notes and put them in a jar. I had all this creative energy I was unable to use that I just kept bottling up, and then at some point the jar just overflowed and I said, ‘I guess it’s time to give my notice.’”

Since giving notice, Levi has had his plate full with nearly a dozen exhibits and residencies. “Marks and Remarks” falls fast on the heels of “Ruptured Walls,” his first solo show at the Hillyer Art Space in Washington, D.C.

“In my daily life, I use words to make grocery lists, as an illustrator I tell stories with pictures and as a lawyer I try to persuade people in whatever way I am able,” says Levi. “But in my paintings, I get to play with words, images, history and, really, everything, in an attempt to bring the stars down to Earth and let people ponder over them.”