It’s not often that an artist enters the field in middle age, develops an international career and is still going strong approaching 90. Pearl Levy is not typical and hasn’t been from the start of her love affair with sculpting.
She launched her career at the age of 51, after taking a fine arts degree as a mature student. Despite her lack of brawn, she chose to shape stone, the most physically challenging of all media.
The artist recently retired her power tools and overalls, to work with Styrofoam and cardboard templates for her newest sculptures, which are cast in lightweight aluminum. But that’s the only concession that the almost nonagenarian makes to her age, as she’s still producing vibrant, spiritually uplifting and meaningful works.
Levy is holding a solo exhibition from May 26 to June 16 at Galerie Michel-Ange (430 Bonsecours St.) in Old Montreal.
“None of these pieces are just one person. They are all two or three. My message is that we are all connected and that everybody needs a friend. No one should be alone,” says Levy, who has enjoyed a long and loving marriage with her husband Mortimer.
The theme is particularly timely, given the loneliness among seniors and even among younger people who are rooted in social media, rather than live interaction.
Levy expresses human connections in her works by portraying parental love for children, couples, companionship and even three charming sculptures featuring families of birds. Some 35 years ago, Levy wasn’t leery about being alone, as the sole anglophone and Jew in her French university class. She had decided to take the talent for sculpture that she’d developed at the Saidye Bronfman Centre School of Fine Arts with Stanley Lewis and enrol in the sculpture certificate program at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She completed the program in one year, instead of the standard two, and never looked back.
Levy’s work bridges all boundaries of language, nationality and age. Her new series is simpler than her usual marbles (of which there may be some in the exhibition), stones and bronzes.
Most of her new human forms are bust format, depicting only the abstracted head and shoulders of a couple, yet managing to create an aura of affection between them.
“The men are mostly geometric. The women are very organic,” she says of the contrasting hard edges and rounded shapes.
She continues to enjoy playing with dark textures, creating them using a “burn and chop” process that sounds violent, but is actually a very controlled method of roughening areas to represent hair and shadow.
“I sand-cast these sculptures, rather than using the lost-wax process like I do for my bronzes. You might be able to get two out of an edition this way, but most of them are unique,” she says. The foundry polishes smooth areas to a high silvery sheen that catches the light and gives the pieces a further spark of life.
Levy is also working on a much smaller scale than her previous work, as it’s easier for her to handle and more suitable for the smaller spaces in homes these days.
“The biggest one is maybe 30 inches high; the smallest is four inches. I haven’t done a life-size one in a long time,” she says. Sand-cast reliefs mounted on canvas complete the exhibition.
Again bucking convention, the sculptor is about to change media. “After this show, I thought I’d try painting. I can still lose myself completely in it,” she says. “I just like working with my hands.”