My partner would never have stopped. Actually, she would never have even noticed.
Truthfully, like the vast majority of people, she would have zipped through the no stop-light town in northern Michigan and never given it a second thought.
However, I notice these things.
I have a fascination with old rail tracks and abandoned smokestacks in the “once was” towns of America. I have a bit of a fetish for visiting and documenting forgotten places and misplaced people. Toss in a lack of time awareness and a personality built for lollygagging I often create moments that are serendipitously groovy.
Thank goodness I know this about myself. And it is because of these qualities I 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. She knew what was coming and braced herself for what she knew was coming: a last minute, spontaneous, hard-braking, sharp right-hand turn into a dusty Michigan town a few miles inland from Lake Michigan.
As we drove, my head on a swivel looking for something worth saving, I tried to take it in. My partner didn’t see what I saw but she knew I 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.
However, it was the feral garden, overrun with eight foot tall hollyhocks that caused me to look twice. And because of the hollyhocks, I 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 I 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.
Levine 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.
Lots and lots of art.
My traveling companion says one of my talents is my ability to see a person behind the mask and get them to talk. I am 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. I look at the garage door and without too many words I proceed to fix the door so she can lock it at night.
My partner says I see people and want to care for them.
Eventually, the conversation turned to art. As an artist, it is the art that caught my partner’s attention. Levine’s 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 my partner doesn’t usually lead with, “Hey! I’m a painter too!” As such, we simply talked about Levine’s art and her background as an artist.
Actually, I ask, and Levine talked. Feigning shyness, my partner kept looking at the vast collection of band buttons. She’s a band groupie after all.
She listened as Levine and I talked a bit more. Then an odd thing happened. After about 20 minutes my partner introduced herself as a painter too. It was then all the gears clicked and serendipity struck: Elaine invited us into her home.
At which point Levine and my partner talked like two school girls at lunch and I milled about listening…and apparently taking slightly out of focus pictures.
It is always a pleasure meeting artists, especially painters. I love to hear what their passions and inspirations are when they are creating.
As we walked into Levine’s 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 an 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. That is serendipity. It was then I fell in love with Levine.
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 someone’s soul.
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 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.
She showed us her Lover’s guitar and the easel she has had since her youth in Detroit.
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 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 in 1969. Looking at the patterns and clothes I can only imagine the psychedelic colors.
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 kindred spirit and I hope we remain in contact.
There are a lot of self-proclaimed artists in the world you can collect. Although worth collecting, Levine is more than an artist, she is a person worth knowing. In your travels if you see her signs for the “Groovy Yard Sale” stop and see her and buy her work.
Elaine Levine’s work is on display at Art Above the Coop, 216 S. Main, Cheboygan, Michigan.