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Friday, July 11, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Private Face Of Public Art -- His Objects Of Art And Labors Of Love For Phillip Levine

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The chipped clay head atop his garden wall - handsome, from younger years "when I had hair" - says a lot about Phillip Levine.

The head was cast as part of a life-sized self sculpture. One malicious evening, vandals dashed the figure to pieces. Levine disposed of the fractured body but placed the head - a small chip of hair missing atop - along the garden wall.

Levine has consistently dusted himself off and lifted up his chin after two artificial knee replacements, a stiff back achy from a lifetime of pouring, lifting and hauling bronze - and from a head-first fall off a Mount St. Helens replica project that sent him to the hospital via helicopter with a head injury.

Of his injuries, Levine shrugs: "I don't know any sculptors who are not beat up."

For a man who has made some of Seattle's most recognizable public art, Levine's name has lacked the familiarity his work has enjoyed. Students pose with "Dancer With Flat Hat" on the University of Washington campus, commuters rest their eyes on the "Triad" of figures balanced two atop one along Elliott Way and residents accessorize the bronze children "Walking on Logs," on the West Seattle freeway hillside.

These objects of art are labors of love for Levine. Despite the bruises, gashes and the bone weariness, the 66-year-old sculptor spent an adult lifetime getting up with the sun, submitting proposals, racing deadlines and tenderly finishing the very bronze that left him stiff and scarred. Toiling in relative obscurity, art measured meaning in his life.

"When I did art I enjoyed everything else," Levine said matter-of-factly. "When I didn't do art I didn't enjoy anything else."

During that lifetime, the 19 public commissions and 20 private ones Levine produced - mostly in the Puget Sound region but also throughout the state, in Portland and the San Francisco Bay area - contributed so significantly to the state's cultural life that Gov. Gary Locke honored Levine with the 1997 Governor's Arts Award.

For Levine, the award accomplished something more elusive than recognition - vindication. Levine's prolific work is as visible regionally as previous award recipients, such as Mark Tobey, Jacob Lawrence, George Tsutakawa - but critical acclaim has lagged.

"I think he has gotten that award through sheer dogged determination to just do his work," said Josh Levine, his eldest son. "He did it when it was frightening and painful to his family to be losing money. Phil feels somewhat unrecognized in the Seattle arts community. For someone who has been working so long in this community, I think he feels like he has been ignored in the contemporary arts dialogue in this region. In a way, the Governor's Arts Award said, `It's OK, it was worth it.'."

Levine's work is personal, viscerally artistic, intimately him. It's expressively figurative. The faces of the bronze children in the West Seattle sculpture show a diversity of features. The 14-foot Triad figures carry grace despite their tonnage.

But in some respects, Levine's vision has not kept pace with the current arts intellectual dialogue. His style is rooted in the 1950s and '60s, decades that shaped him.

Criticism that his work is outdated also could be seen in reverse, as timelessness: the human form as historic record. The latest thread in his work is melding mechanical traces in human forms. But the human element always tips the balance, both in the nature of the form and his emotional attachment to it. When Josh requested the bronze figure, "When Once We Worshipped," as a wedding present, Levine missed the sculpture so much he cast a larger version.

When Levine got word that the leg of "Dancer With Flat Hat" had been broken, he asked to haul her home and repair it. He continues to pine for a few of the pieces he has sold. "Triad" is one of those; creating a sculpture of that size was a grueling nine-month labor of love.

Levine shares his Burien home with his wife of 40 years, Rachael, and dozens of sculptures that liven up the joint. The sculptures have an animated stillness, from the miniature bronze couple embracing on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, dubbed "Rachael's Window Sculpture," to tall, lanky "Gaia" near the front door, which doubles as a planter.

As he does with all of his outside sculptures, Levine made cardboard cutouts of the "Walking on Logs" children to find the best location for them. He chose a spot that would allow the eye to rest on them as a car travels up the hill, but tucked the figures into the hillside far enough so they would not distract downhill traffic. He visits the children to remove items draped on them.

On the impulse to decorate public art, Levine weighs thoughts of vandalism and whimsy. The sculptures people enjoy most are the ones they adorn, such as Levine's "Walking on Logs" and Robert Beyer's "Waiting for the Interurban" in Fremont. But for Levine, his art also has a serious, proprietary sensibility.

"My initial statement is that I don't like anything done to them at all," Levine said. "It's still vandalism. Make your own statue and do it. But then, it's public art, so I don't have any say.

"It's when the ego gets involved," Levine continued, sighing philosophically. "The artist is a conduit for what goes on in society and what goes on in art. You are hopeful that what you put into it leaves some room for other people to put their views into it, their feelings. So how far can you object to it?"

Art is a part of family

Levine has the endearing ability to be at once crass and charming. His manner can bristle as he speaks his mind and moves on. He spent a lifetime as an early riser and does not like to waste time. At 5-foot-9, he has gnarly fingers and forearms like Popeye's, without the tattoos. His eyes sparkle with emotions his statements lack, as when he spoke about how he met Rachael at a lecture while visiting family in Denver: "That was good luck."

The family's main livelihood was art. After arriving in Seattle in 1959, they lived in the Rainier Vista housing project for five years while he completed a UW master's of fine arts degree in ceramic sculpture. Rachael, who is retired after 28 years as a Seattle Central Community College education instructor, provided continuity when commissions waned. Josh's earliest memories were playing with clay in his father's studio. All three sons pursued the artist's life despite their father's struggle. Josh, 39, works at a custom metal company and both he and his younger brother Aaron sculpt and design furniture. The youngest brother, Jacob, who designed small planes, died in a 1987 plane accident.

Levine emotes in his work. Joy, strength, sadness and contentment reach out from both personal work and commissions. Sometime after Jacob died, Josh recalls a series of sculptures his father did with skin drooping from gaunt figures - disturbingly cathartic. "Walking on Logs" is a tribute to a spoken voice composition with a similar title by Levine's friend, composer and musician Hubbard Miller, who died in 1982. Levine designed it to reflect the whimsically descriptive similes in the composition, such as, "Walking on logs is like playing a game in which you are the ball!"

Levine appears to be a man growing content with his life. He has taken up golf and occasionally allows the sun to rise before him. Still driven, still "scared to death" he may one day run out of ideas, still sculpting several projects at once, Levine has the contenance of a person who knows he has arrived.

Colleagues from Ray Jensen to John Sisko praise Levine for his generosity in sharing his studio and expertise. Work continues. This week he hurried to crate two outdoor and three indoor sculptures for a rush order to a tony South Hampton, NY, gallery doing a brisk business among the monied set.

Levine leaves today for Trondheim, Norway, hired to manage a nordic heritage project to present a replica of Shilshole's Leif Ericson statue for the 1,000 anniversary of the city where Ericson is thought to have set sail for North America.

He's also relieved to be old enough to receive Social Security and rails against proposals to raise the age limit to 67 as "unconscionable. Anybody who worked hard physically at 50 is tired, at 65 is burned out."

The artist's life is for the young - and in Levine's case, the stubborn - at heart.

"As you get older your level of circumspection changes," Levine said. "Your friends are getting older, some older friends have passed on. You see yourself in a different context. You begin to feel there is an edge of life; you no longer feel immortal. What do you want to spend your life doing? Part of doing art is to answer the question we all wonder: Why are we here?"

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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