Truthfully, like the vast majority of people, I would have zipped through the no stop-light town and never given it a second thought.
As such, I have to thank my partner.
He has a fascination with old rail tracks and abandoned smokestacks in the “once was” towns of America. His fetish for visiting and documenting forgotten places and misplaced people, his lack of time awareness and his lollygagging nature once again provided a moment that was serendipitously groovy.
Thank goodness I know this about him. And it is because of those qualities that drive most women crazy – so he tells me – we found a lost jewel.
So when we came up the hill and saw in the distance the abandoned railroad tracks and ivy-covered depot, I chuckled inside. I knew it was coming: a last minute, spontaneous, hard-braking, sharp right-hand turn into a dusty midwestern town.
As we drove, his head on a swivel looking for something worth saving, I tried to take it in. I didn’t see what he saw but I knew he would find It.
Whatever It was.
We passed the post office, shuttered ivy-covered buildings, doublewides and trailers, an abandoned school and the obligatory antique store found in every dusty town in America.
A blonde sitting on the porch, a heater between her lips, watched us pass. Her corgi standing on the sidewalk…watching. His stub wagging. Two kids on bikes gawking at the strangers. An elderly couple waving at us as they sat under the awning of a half collapsed porch.
The smell of a fire burning on the edge of town.
However, it was the feral garden overrun with eight foot tall hollyhocks that caused him to look twice. And because of the hollyhocks, he was looking in the right direction when we drove past the open garage.
We paused for a moment and peered into the garage of vintage things. Without a word he made a u-turn and parked.
…and this is how we met the wonderfully talented Elaine Levine.
One of the last American hippies and unlike many of her boomer peers completely unapologetic about her life. She is one of the last graduates of the Detroit Society of Arts and Craft and was a student of the famous watercolor painter Charles Culver.
She is a jewel of a woman surrounded by bits and pieces of now and yesterday: both her now and yesterday and America’s now and yesterday.
Her garage filled with antique tools, collectible buttons, jars of beads, dusty and musty books, a very unique old foundry furnace from the late 1800’s and art.
Lots and lots of art.
One of my partner’s talents is his ability to see a person behind the mask and get them to talk. He is perceptive about people. What initially was an awkward, “Hey I’m not open today but since you are here go ahead and look,” became a warm discussion of the history of her “stuff”.
We talked about how the kids in the neighborhood threw rocks through her pane windows and sneak into her garage and steal her things. We talked about how they pound on her door and windows at night scaring her.
My partner listens. Looks at the garage door and without too many words proceeds to fix them so she can lock them.
My partner, does that to people: he sees them.
Eventually, the conversation turned to art. As an artist, it is the art that caught my attention. Her art had merit but strewn about as if it had no value. Leaning against an old chair. Stuck on a shelf with dusty mason jars. Piled in a corner. Propped up by old record albums.
Artists are all too often a sensitive and competitive bunch and as such I don’t usually lead with, “Hey! I’m a painter too!” We simply talked about her art and her background as an artist.
Actually, my partner asked, she talked. I kept looking at her collection of band buttons because I’m shy…and a band groupie.
I listened as my partner and Elaine talked a bit more. Then an odd thing happened. After about 20 minutes my partner introduced me as a painter too. It was then all the gears clicked and serendipity struck: Elaine invited us into her home.
At which point Elaine and I talked like two school girls at lunch and my partner listened…and took pictures.
It is always a pleasure meeting other artists, especially painters. I love to hear what their passions and inspirations are when they are creating.
As we walked into her Sears’ Simplex Sectional home (seriously – click on that link. I’ll wait) we were greeted with warm custom pine wood walls her lover Jerry made for her and a inviting cottage filled floor-to-ceiling with beautiful paintings, watercolors, mosaics and plants.
On top of all that she was playing Stevie Ray Vaughans’ Little Wing.
A home filled floor-to-ceiling with original, creative and incredibly beautiful art is a special place. People generally treat art like a piece of furniture. They look and wonder if it matches the couch. Lovers of art don’t see home decor. Lovers of art see the art.
Her paintings are whimsical, eclectic, floral, beautiful and surprising. She has a prolific body of work from her 69 years of experience.
What she doesn’t have is a computer, email, internet or cable. She is still using a rotary phone – go ahead kids take a look. Us older folks will wait.
She walked us around her art studied, talked about all the plants. Showed us pictures of her beloved Jerry and told us stories of how he traded a leg for a purple heart in Vietnam. She showed us his guitar and her easel she has had since her youth in Detroit. She walked us through the house and showed us her paintings and mosaics. Stopping to talk about her favorites and special projects. She pulled out old newspaper clippings, magazine profiles and awards she earned as an artist.
I love the black-and-white newspaper picture of her sitting on the floor, surrounded by an old furnace she painted for a new art center in Detroit. Looking at the patterns and clothes I can only imagine the psychedelic colors.
She walked us through her living room and showed us the vintage ice boxes, floor lamps, handmade German clocks and a beautiful mosaic table she made.
I said earlier that Elaine is a lost jewel but perhaps she is not lost; perhaps, like her town of Levering, time and the moment has simply passed them by.
She is a kindered spirit and I hope we remain friends and colleagues. In your travels if you see her signs for the “Groovy Yard Sale” stop and see her and buy her work.
There are a lot of artists in the world. She is one of the gifted ones.
Elaine Levine’s work is on display at Art Above the Coop, 216 S. Main, Cheboygan, Michigan.