Pictured Above: Inside the working studio of International Photographer, Diane Levell. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein For Arts News Now.
Endless Experimentation: Diane Levell, New Hope Arts’ 2023 Legacy Artist
By Louise Feder
Turning off Route 202 in Buckingham, onto Diane Levell’s gravel driveway this summer, I couldn’t help but smile. It had been six years since my last visit to the photographer’s home and studio – then, in celebration of her inclusion in two exhibitions curated by Kelsey Halliday Johnson at the James A. Michener Art Museum: Tête-à-Tête: Conversations in Photography (2016) and Light & Matter: The Photographic Object (2017). Now, with Levell’s work being celebrated at New Hope Arts in their 2023 Legacy Exhibition, Diane Levell: Women in Photography – Unique Images of Progress and Process, it was an absolute joy and a privilege to revisit Levell’s home and her work.
Levell welcomed me, alongside Arts News Now’s Editor & Founder, Mandee Hammerstein, and New Hope Arts’ Executive Director, Carol Cruickshanks, into her kitchen, which was just as cozy as I remembered. An addition onto a barn conversion, the light filled room has the exposed, original exterior stone wall, a counter full of peak-season tomatoes, and above the main entryway, right off the bat, examples of Levell’s experimental photography.
Pictured Above: Photographer Diane Levell welcomes Arts News Now writer Louise Feder in for a tour of the photographer’s home studio. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
In less than five minutes, Levell is already in her element, explaining the process behind a cyanotype to Hammerstein. An abstract of rocks in Ireland, Levell produced it for an exhibit at the Hunterdon Art Museum. “For every color, you have to do three printings,” she says, beckoning us in for a closer look. “With three or four colors in each piece, it was quite a few printings!”
“She really is experimenting at all times,” says Cruickshanks of Levell, as we walked into the living room. The walls are filled with old work as well as super-saturated florals, a newer scanning project Levell took on during the pandemic. “Look at this direct printing process. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg!”
Pictured Above: Photographer Diane Levell’s Brandywine series #10. Photo credit: Contributed.
In this most recent exhibition of Levell’s work at New Hope Arts, Cruickshanks has selected photographs from Levell’s landscape series from Bucks County and Brandywine as well as rare images of a now extinct exotic tree farm in the Doylestown area. Over 30 works are included by Levell, and all the work was produced over the last four-year period – a remarkably productive time for the artist.
Pictured Above: As part of her flower series, Photographer Diane Levell is known to always explore new photographic techniques . Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
The label “legacy artist,” certainly applies to Levell. A Bucks County native, she grew up attending the Buckingham Friends School and then the Solebury School. Following a degree in architecture and interior design at Endicott College, a BFA in fine arts at the University of Delaware, and an MFA in photography from George Washington University (she was the first woman to graduate from the program), Levell lived in Cambridge, MA with her husband Jim, and then moved to Europe. After living and working in southern France, the pair relocated to Germany, spending 15 years in Heidelberg. There, Levell taught at Big Bend College and the City Colleges of Chicago’s branches in Heidelberg before working as a graphic artist and chief photographer for the US Army in Europe.
Levell and her husband Jim moved back to the States from Heidelberg some 25 years ago. “Our jobs and everything ended in Europe. At first, we went to New England, and then we got a car and came down here. My mother was getting older, we were going to have to help her. So, the idea was the three of us would live here.”
Pictured Above: A loose print memento of Levell and husband Jim, situated amongst decades of photographic work within her studio. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
The plan was to renovate the barn next to Levell’s childhood home, where her mother still lived. Together, the three of them would begin a new phase of life in a new space. But sadly, Levell’s mother died before they could merge their households.
So Diane and Jim were left to take on the project on their own. The plans for the building shifted to allow more space for her creative work, room for printing, displaying, and gathering. A dark room was added under the attic stairs, a studio designed for the second floor. Their tenant, renting the family house next door, pitched in too; with a saw set up in the kitchen, they worked together to finish the barn conversion: gardens, cabinets, kitchen, and all.
Pictured Above: The working studio of photographer Diane Levell and husband Jim, a poet. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
“For three years we were working on the house, on the weekends and at night,” Levell remembers. But their work paid off. In the end, they had a home designed especially for the two of them, including space to work, and room to exhibit.
“I opened up my home for years,” says Levell. “Twenty-five years ago, once we finished the house, I started having openings. Sometimes with a sculptor and myself and inviting people and serving food… And I was waiting for just the right person to come in, but no one really knew what I was doing.”
Pictured Above: Photographer Diane Levell provides a tour writer Louise Feder through the many corners of Levell’s home studio. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
Levell’s techniques are certainly not immediately obvious to the casual observer. A student of historic and alternative photographic processes – particularly cyanotype, gum bichromate, photogravure, and Van Dyke Brown printing – her work often involves combining several processes, layering formats, colors, and textures to produce something entirely unique.
Rounding the corner off of the second-floor landing, we side step a spectacular, large framed work leaning against the wall. In it, two abstracted colorful nudes reach for one another, their arms elegantly outstretched. Hammerstein and I stop to admire it; Levell shares that it’s from the late 1990s, titled The Creation.
“This, this is my masterpiece.” Levell says, gesturing at the work with a smile. “This I did before I left Heidelberg in my kitchen. And it’s a nude, but to me it’s the creation. I was inspired by the Sistine Chapel, the hand of God. The negatives are as big as the prints, and I just kept moving the prints down, doing the exposure with a sun lamp as a source. It’s cyanotype, it’s gum [bichromate], and there’s oil painting.”
Pictured Above: “The Creation” by Diane Levell. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
The result is something fluid and painterly – so much so that it’s almost a challenge to recognize the final piece as an example of photography. But as Levell describes her process, layer by layer, intervention by intervention, her passion for and expertise in the medium comes shining through, reveling in all that photography can be when its limits and boundaries are tested.
Examples from one of Levell’s most recent series, Maine (2019), are on display in the upstairs hallway and studio. Glowing, shimmery landscapes, the feathery textures of grass and pine trees are elegantly echoed in the rice paper each image is printed upon. An unconventional choice in medium, Levell has also printed her Bucks County series (exhibited at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Levell’s solo exhibition, Intrepid Alchemist in 2019), and Brandywine series on rice paper.
The choice has ties back to her childhood. As a playmate of one of Pearl S. Buck’s daughters, Levell often visited the Buck family home and admired the many examples of Asian art on display. To Levell, the art and prints on rice paper carried a mysterious quality and – wanting to imbue her landscapes with a familiar sense of mystery – she decided her landscapes should be printed on the same material.
It took six months to figure out how to print her work on rice paper. “The biggest thing was getting it through the printer,” Levell remembers. But looking at Levell’s prints, still incredibly crisp on top of the beautifully organic paper, her efforts are clearly worthwhile.
The years since my initial visit to Levell’s home have been busy ones for the artist. In addition to those two exhibitions, she was the subject of a 2019 solo exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Intrepid Alchemist, and has 25 pieces in the Museum’s permanent collection. She also completed several new series, including Maine, Brandywine, Flowers, Flowers II, and most recently photos from an exotic tree farm. Each of these series are experimental and eloquent, educational and exciting. Seeing them together, on display at New Hope Arts is a fitting tribute to Levell’s long, ongoing career.
Pictured Above: Negatives lined up on the ledge of Levell’s home, Carol Cruickshanks in the lower distance discussing Levell’s show at the New Hope Arts Center. Photo credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.
“Diane is sort of on the brink right at this moment of breaking into a new market as it were,” says Cruickshanks. “And part of one of the things I’m trying to emphasize with this [exhibit] is Diane is a treasure who has been here for a long time. This is a perfect opportunity for [visitors] to find something that is going to be elevated in a different way after it leaves Bucks County and goes to these other places.”
As with any solo exhibition, this 2023 Legacy Artist exhibit prompts Levell to look back on her career. “A lot of people told me, ‘You can’t do so many different things; you’re supposed to just do one,’” she says to Hammerstein and me.
“Well, that’s no fun,” Hammerstein chimes in with a laugh. “It’s boring!”
And, considering Levell’s significant body of work, I’m inclined to agree.
Diane Levell: Women in Photography – Unique Images of Progress and Process has been extended at New Hope Arts through September 30th. Work by four other contemporary women photographers (Suzan Gottshall, Michelle Kott, Susan Kott and Denise Marshall) is also currently on display. A closing reception is planned for Sunday, September 30thfrom 3-5 pm. Gallery hours are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from noon to 5 pm. Visit the New Hope Arts website for more information about the exhibition and other programming. More information about Diane Levell may be found at her website.