story by mary ellen thompson photography by susan deloach
” I love happy colors; it takes too much energy to be negative.” Such is your introduction to Renee Levin, her art work, and her attitude towards life. Her home and art studio are filled to the brim with lovely paintings, most of which are her own. The array is as eclectic as Renee’s own dry wit and she explains, “You can’t say I have a style; I don’t do well with trying to repeat things.”
It all started when “I was twelve, it was depression time; my mother had a friend, Miss Maimee, who was an art teacher. From her I learned to draw using pencil and charcoal. I had to draw a black frying pan with eggs, a glass, and a paper bag. They all had to look like you could pick any of them up; if you succeeded then you graduated to using two colors. I always liked to draw. I wasn’t as good at music, I could read music and I enjoyed playing the piano, but I wouldn’t say I was multi-talented!”
An only child, Renee was raised in Savannah which was also the birthplace of that wonderful organization for young women, the Girl Scouts. Renee fondly remembers being a Brownie and Girl Scout and eventually she became a leader of both organizations, as would as her husband and son become similarly involved with the Boy Scouts.
When she was fifteen, the family moved to Ritter, SC, south of Walterboro, where Renee finished high school. After graduating, she went to Brenau Academy in Gainesville, GA for a year before she attended the University of Georgia. From the University, she received a BA degree in fine arts with a major in drawing and painting, and a minor in ceramics. While she was studying art, Renee gave little thought to how that would translate in the job market after graduation. “We received no career counseling in those days. I knew I liked to eat though, so I took a course in education. Somehow I got into a class on how to take tests and I thought I’m not going to waste my time on this.” I was ready to get my master’s degree but I came home from college and went to a party in Beaufort with my mother and daddy where I met Julian, and that was the end of that.” Julian Levin was from Beaufort, and was practicing law here. The courtship was a brief four months, they were married in 1951.
Soon after getting married, Renee found a group of artists in Beaufort, who she says, took her in. “There were six of us. Miss Greenwood was our teacher who lived in Tabby Manse (also known as the Thomas Fuller House on Bay Street). “She wore black pants which was outrageous in those days, red high heels, and smoked cigarettes with a long gold cigarette holder while reclining on a chaise longue teaching and critiquing us. We painted in oils and if she thought you hadn’t gotten it quite right, she’d take turpentine and wipe the paint right off your canvas!”
For a couple of years Renee taught drawing and ceramics at Parris Island. She recalls with a laugh, “The ceramics were pretty much a disaster because they wouldn’t let me work the kiln so I had to train recruits to do that. That was fine up until they deployed and I had to get a new one who would turn the temperature too high and everything would go ‘fllluughgh’.
“In the late 1950’s, I was in a group that had art shows on the walls of the department store, Wallace and Danner, on Bay Street. There were about ten of us and Catherine Wolfe thought we should be an organization, so that’s how the Beaufort Art Association (BAA) evolved.” As one of the founding members of the BAA, along with having held every office possible for the Association, Renee explains, “The BAA has always been a cohesive group that has not had cliques. Everyone is very willing to help everyone else, it has always been a group of friends. Anyone can exhibit as long as they are willing to join, and then sit in the gallery one day a month; it’s not juried.”
When asked what element is her greatest joy in painting, Renee responds, “Trying to have somebody feel what I’m trying to express, feel the same joy, to be happy. I don’t like negativity.” How do the paintings come to her? She laughs and says, “A friend said a psychiatrist would have a fabulous time with me! If I’m somewhere and I see something I like, I will sketch it and go back at some point and paint it; I have a very photographic memory. But if I don’t like a painting, I’ll gesso over it. Do you know what gesso is? They tease me that I should sell my paintings by the pound!”
Renee painted in oils until “One day, behind the couch, one of my boys painted his sister with alizarin crimson, which is a red paint with a strong staining property. We got as much off the furniture as we could but she had to remain pink for awhile.
“So I switched to watercolors and I love watercolors. When I was using oils I made some really beautiful mud. I usually had two paintings going at once; I would think the oil paint was dry and would apply another coat, but it wasn’t, so I was piercing the skin of the paint and mixing the colors. I now use acrylics and I really do love them and I’ve always loved good paper.”
Aside from painting, Renee’s life has always been busy; she and Julian had four children – Arthur, Julian, Marie and Sam. Marie lives in Arlington, VA, Sam lives across the river from Renee, Arthur lives next door, and Julian is in Charleston so they are not too far away. There are eight grandchildren and for Thanksgiving every year they all get together. Although Renee can strike a balancing yoga pose with ease, goes to LifeFit three times a week, rides her bike daily, she says that what she loves most is being with her children and grandchildren.
She fondly remembers the days of the family’s weekend camping, boating and fishing expeditions when the children were growing up. Did she fish along with them? “I was right there with them, but I also had to pack the clothes, fix the food, and administer the first aid.” When asked about the first aid, Renee sighed and patiently explained, “Well it wasn’t too bad, but there were those fish hooks…”
Still part of her Thursday painting group after more than twenty years, even though now they paint on Tuesdays, this year Renee and friends are looking forward to attending an artist retreat in North Carolina. “I’ve always taken classes,” she explains, which is not surprising. Just as Renee might have two paintings going at once, she packs as much of everything into every single moment that she can. She loves to read, and historical fiction is one of her choices because “I can enjoy the story and learn something at the same time.” Still a charter member of the BAA, Renee’s studio is filled with paintings and canvases in various stages of completion. Although she gives her full attention to any matter at hand, her mind is always alert to the next opportunity, be it through the expression of her art, or her experience, or reaching out her hand in friendship.