Faythe Levine has single handedly, and in collaboration with many others, put Milwaukee on many maps. She started the first indie arts and crafts fair, Art vs. Craft, in 2003, and later, innovative galleries like the now-defunct Paper Boat and the very-much-alive Sky High.
Levine spends one-third of her life traveling, generating creative work and discovering other's, some of which she brings back physically or conceptually to share with Milwaukee. And although she spends so much of her time providing and receiving artistic inspiration, she says the Midwest is in her blood and, at least for the foreseeable future, she's here to stay.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where did you grow up and how was art a part of your childhood?
Faythe Levine: Although I was born in Minneapolis I spent my early childhood in the Los Angeles area. Then my family moved to the Pacific Northwest for my junior high and high school years. I ended up back in the Midwest by default ending up in Milwaukee via Minneapolis. Aside from a short, four month romance in 2001 with New Orleans where I worked as a paint matcher at a prop house for Mardi Gras parties, I've been in Milwaukee for 11 years. I think the Midwest must be in my blood.
Art was an integral part of my upbringing from early on. Both of my parents were amazingly supportive of any creative drive I had so I ended up in a lot of really awesome after-school programs along with Girl Scouts and summer camp. My public high school also had this incredible art department with three art teachers. One who taught visual arts, a photography teacher and ceramics teacher. Each teacher even had their own classroom and actually the ceramic department had it's own building. I'm pretty sure that's not there anymore.
OMC: Did you formally study art or are you self taught or both?
FL: I did not formally study any art after graduating high school. I did not go to college. I have just stayed very motivated and very busy since then.
OMC: How would you describe your art / work?
FL: My overall work is difficult to explain because I do a lot of very different things. All of them are fulfilled by my creative drive, some are promoting other people's work and others are creating content that is of my body of work. Over the years, my preferred medium has varied and I've dabbled with a lot of things, finding that I have a hard time staying focused. But the constant has been photography, it's a way for me to document what I am doing and also share with others. If I had to pick, mixed media collage and textile work would be the runners up.
OMC: When did Art vs. Craft start? How did you get the idea / how did it evolve?
Art vs. Craft was spawned after I participated as a vendor in the first Renegade Craft fair in Chicago. What I saw there was an event that supported artists and added positive content to the community. I wanted to bring that to Milwaukee. In 2004 the first show was held at Turner Hall thanks to the support of Jillian Imilkowski. There were 100 vendors and over 1,000 people came. I had no idea what I was doing. Since then the show has had some massive changes mainly surrounding quality control of work being sold and the size of the event. From 2004-2006 I produced two shows a year. Then, as other big projects I was doing gained momentum, l decided that one event a year is plenty. I am a believer that bigger isn't always better.
OMC: How has Art vs. Craft changed over the years? How much longer do you think it will go on?
FL: Over the years I've striven to keep the amount of vendors who are accepted on the smaller side. Over 300 applications are normally submitted and approximately 75-100 vendors are accepted depending on what space we are hosting the event in. This way they sell a lot of work and the shoppers don't get too overwhelmed with options.
In 2013 we will hit our 10-year anniversary. At that time I will assess the future of the event. If I decided to wrap it up I think there are other community events like Hover Craft that have sprung up in Milwaukee that can fill in the roll Art vs. Craft has played in our community.
OMC: You've owned numerous galleries in the city. Can you give us an overview?
FL: My current gallery, Sky High, is in Bay View. It's tucked in the back room of my partner Aaron Polansky's skateboard shop. We opened the gallery space two years ago. I had closed Paper Boat and missed being able to host art events so Aaron gave me his stock room. Unlike Paper Boat, Sky High Gallery focuses mainly on art shows, not retail. We showcase all types of work. In 2011 there was photography, tapestries, site-specific installation and paintings. Opening April 20 will be our first ceramics exhibit, a collaboration between two Milwaukee artists, Beth Eaton and Tom Stack.
In addition to the art shows in December I curate a retail pop-up holiday boutique for the month. Throughout the year I am searching for unique beautiful things to bring to Milwaukee and showcase and it's the perfect opportunity to keep an ongoing relationship with designers from around the world. Sky High also hosts a Temporary Mural Project on the front of the building that showcases an eight-foot-by-eight-foot painting from a local artist for three months at a time. We are on our 9th edition so far. Eventually I'd like to find an outdoor space where two years worth of murals can be displayed at one time. Our gallery programing for 2012 and additional information about the mural project is on our website.
OMC: I heard you are working on a documentary. Can you tell us more about it?
FL: My main focus over the past three years has been working on a documentary with my collaborator Sam Macon on sign painters. Keep an eye out for our book based on the film coming out this fall published by Princeton Architectural Press and the documentary to soon follow (release date TBD).
OMC: How much do you travel?
FL: I would say on average I am on "the road" about one third of the year, give or take a little. In the past few months I have been to Ireland, Sweden and just returned from an amazing visit to rural Alabama where I was the visiting artist and did a seminar with Alabama Chanin. Since I was very little my family traveled a lot and it's just a part of who I am. Although as I get older I've found that I do crave some sort of routine, I know that I would get stir crazy after awhile. Being gone every three weeks does take a lot out of you. My biggest challenge is getting exercise and eating right. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to eat well when you are always away.
OMC: Any plans to, you know, "settle down?"
FL: Having a very busy and supporting partner is key for my lifestyle. Aaron and I both are constantly working on lots of different things so we just have a master calendar and keep in good communication about our schedules. If there were kids or pets in the mix, things would be a lot different. But for now we are happy with what we have. The thing is that Aaron is pretty much a full time roll-model to kids in our neighborhood with the skateshop as it is. A lot of people call him Uncle Aaron, kids and adults alike. We have our hands full.
OMC: What is on your wish list for Milwaukee?
FL: I'm always wanting more healthy eating options and support for the arts in the monetary sense.
OMC: Who do you admire / get inspiration from in this city and why?
FL: When I first see a place with a fresh eye is when I'm the most inspired, so when I first moved here I was the most influenced by the area. A lot of the things I loved have been painted over and demolished. Milwaukee city planners are making the mistake a lot of places do where they are tearing down or "revitalizing" iconic landmarks. It was gone by the time I moved here but how awesome would it be if Oriental Drug was still there instead of some rotating restaurants that can't stay open?
OMC: Do you ever get bored?
OMC: Do you still play the saw?
FL: I played the musical saw for five years with a local band called Wooden Robot. Our last recording was made right before our accordion player Eilis O'Herlihy moved to Montana for grad school. It was also right before I began traveling with programing for my first documentary Handmade Nation. After five years we just decided to wrap it up, but you can hear our music as the soundtrack on Handmade Nation – a lot of people don't know that. I don't play regularly anymore but you don't forget how to play the saw, so the option is always there.
OMC: What neighborhood do you live in and why?
FL: We live and work in Bay View. Aaron owns the Sky High building and our apartment, where my studio/office is just a convenient two blocks away. When I first moved to Milwaukee I got an apartment in Riverwest by chance. After that I migrated to Brewer's Hill, then over here. Really every neighborhood has something unique to offer, but I'm pretty comfy living here now. A lot of my good friends own their houses within a mile, we can walk to a variety of bars and restaurants owned by people we know and the lake is a 10-minute walk. It's ideal in many ways.
OMC: Why Milwaukee? Why not Portland or NYC or San Francisco? Do you think you'll stay here forever? Or at least for the foreseeable future?
FL: Milwaukee allows me the affordability to lead a lifestyle I prefer. I can work for myself 90 percent of the time, filling in the other 10 percent with bartending at Palomino. The space you can get for the price is still more than most cities our size and with a lot of my work being online I don't need to live in a cultural hub. I also find that living somewhere that everyone is "like" you can prove to be very uninspiring. I'd much rather create content for an art community than be lost in a sea of galleries and events. We have no plans on leaving Milwaukee any time soon, but forever is a long time to commit to.