Mimi Levine’s Desire to Keep Art Pure

Over the years I have seen Mimi Levine’s art throughout New Orleans and  have always wanted to meet her. Her paintings and murals adorn the walls of avid art collectors all over the city. She has also been featured on WYES, and in multiple print publications.  A few years ago I was somewhat alarmed when I heard a rumor that she was quitting the art world. She was unhappy with the general lack of respect she was receiving as a professional artist. It was the same lack of respect that disenchants a lot of artists who have spent years perfecting their craft. Thankfully I found out she still intends to make art, but art that she creates on her terms and for herself.

NCM: Where are you originally from?

Mimi: I’m originally from Brooklyn, NY.

NCM: What brought you to New Orleans?

Mimi: My parents moved us here when I was about 13. I did go back to New York for a while and I also lived in France from 1996 to 1998. I came back to New Orleans when I returned to the U.S. because it reminded me so much of France.

NCM: Did you go to art school?

Mimi: I took art and theatre at UNO and I went to the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art.

NCM: How old were you when you first started making art?

Mimi: I went to PS197 in New York in the 1970s, which was a public art school. I have been studying art since the first grade. My kindergarten teacher thought that I was autistic. But once I was tested they said, “She’s artistic! Not autistic!”

NCM: Is anyone else in your family an artist?

Mimi: My sister and my mother. My mother was a costumer for theatre in New York.

NCM: I have noticed some of your own costumes on Facebook. They are very impressive.

Mimi: I just make them for myself.

NCM: How do you make them?

Mimi: They are built and not sewn. Because I don’t know how to sew. My scholarship at the Academy was actually for sculpture. I turn myself into a living sculpture. I put wires in my dreadlocks to hold them in place, etc. I want to turn myself into a work of art for that day. I just make the costumes for myself for Mardi Gras. I keep that experience pure for myself.

NCM: What genres do you work in? How would you describe your art?

Mimi:  I make a lot of Pop Art, but I also have a very Academic background. I have an appreciation for Academic work. I guess you could say that it is a little of both of those things.

I am a huge fan of Andy Warhol. I also love Wayne Thiebaud, Edward Hopper, and Roy Lichtenstein. One of my fans even pointed out that my work reminded her of Wayne Thiebaud. Until then I had never heard of him. I don’t know why I had never heard of him. Maybe it is because he is still alive and he is out in California. I grew up going to Northern museums where he is underrepresented. He is pre-Pop Art. Kind of like the grandfather of Pop Art. He painted all of those luscious cake paintings in the 1950s.

Mimi: Are you familiar with my statement paintings after Katrina? I painted a series of McDonald’s signs that had been destroyed.

McDonald’s After Katrina

I was also featured on the cover of The Lagniappe for Art for Art’s Sake for a series of paintings called Fur Frippery. I had done a series of paintings to put over your pet’s food dishes. It started off as a joke for some people I was house sitting for and it ballooned into this thing until it was on the cover of The Lagniappe.

In the photos paintings of food were on the walls of a white gallery and there were cats and dogs looking up at the paintings. It was fun because people brought their animals. That happened around 2001, so it is hard to find information about it on Google.

NCM: What makes you choose painting over other mediums?

Mimi: I had been told by a painting instructor that I wouldn’t make any money as a sculptor. Later I found out that was not necessarily true because I made more money in New York because I was a painter and a sculptor.

But sculpting is a beast and I have found I produce more work as a painter. I remember, when I was in 3rd grade in New York, going on a field trip to see an artist painting back drops for a theatre. It just blew me away and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

I have worked in film as a set dresser. My first film gig was Oliver Stone’s JFK. I have done commercials and event coordination, ran the arts market in Palmer Park, started Mondo Murals and Design. I also received grants and had gallery exhibitions.

NCM: What do you feel makes your art unique? How do you differentiate your art?

Mimi: I have had a very unique background. I am Jewish and my mother was from Guyana. Guyana is a British Colony, but she was also Jewish. I thank God almost every day that I was born in 1970s Brooklyn. All of those things have influenced my art. I think my color palette was influenced by New York in the 1970s. The last of the ethnic New York.

NCM: What do you wish you had known about being an artist before you got started?

Mimi: I wish I had known that the computer age would come in and take away a lot of the original aspects of visual art. I’ve been called an old soul since childhood, part of me is firmly in the past. I’m antiquated in that way and I can’t wait until it all breaks down. I want musicians to have to strum a guitar and come up with original music. I want painters who actually know how to hold a paint brush.

NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism? Has anyone ever said anything that really hurt you deep down within your soul?

Mimi: No, I don’t get any negative feedback, but it is for the wrong reasons. I realized that working for the Art Market. People assumed that I was wealthy from my art because they see articles about me. That’s only because I am a good publicist. I have gotten interviews with all sorts of things. But that doesn’t mean that I am financially well off.

People don’t seem as interested anymore about having a deep conversation about art. No one asks me why I paint what I paint. I can’t remember the last time there was a heated conversation about people’s work and very ‘beatnik’ type discussions. I haven’t experienced that since college. Everything has become too bland. Everything is great! Everyone gets a sticker!

I have heard a lot of people say, “Well, I don’t know enough about art to have an opinion!” My father used to say that. But I also remember that he loved abstract art. He loved Jackson Pollock and all of the vibrant colors. He was a big influence on my life. He loved literature and all forms of art.

My dad died when I was 22. If I had the opportunity to sit down with him today I would say, “No! You are entitled to your opinion!”

People don’t spout their opinions anymore. I think a lot of people are afraid of being offended or offending other people.

NCM: How do you come up with a way to price your art?

Mimi: The gallery really sets it. In between shows, that also kind of sets the prices. It’s not fair to the customers who bought art through a gallery to turn around and see you selling work at bargain basement prices. That’s why I am stuck with those McDonald’s paintings, but I was also paid to create them. So that is a little different.

NCM: Are you still working with a gallery?

Mimi: I don’t do it anymore. It is much more exciting to do a “Pop Up” show these days. That is probably what I will do in the future because those have been successful for me. It just involves finding a space.

NCM: If you had to pick one favorite of all of your work, would you be able to do it?

Mimi: No. I have several things I have done over the years. I have several favorites. Sometimes I see things I painted twenty years ago and realize that I forgot all about them. And I get excited about them.

NCM: How long did you work as a professional artist?

Mimi: I started when I was 18. I volunteered at all the theatres and then when it was time to start making money, they hired me. They knew who I was because I was always there.

The gallery system sucks. In the 90s, when I left New York, I was already at that 80/20 point. Which is insane! And it has slowly started creeping up here. The real collectors know that it is better to come directly to the artist.

NCM: Did you have any artistic mentors or teachers that made a big impact on you?

Mimi: Sandy Skoglund came to UNO because she is friends with Doyle Gertjejenson. Sandy made Radioactive Cats. I will never forget that her lecture was at night and I missed the beginning because I was running 15 minutes late. I wanted to be her. She is a photographer, set dresser, sculptor, and painter. She does everything and I still love her. She is based out of New York. I think she is why I have tried so many different things.

NCM: Where should customers go to buy your paintings?

Mimi: Directly to me. Just direct them to Mimi Levine on Facebook.

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