Interview: Rachel Levit
Rachel Levit is an illustrator whose work quietly subverts life in the modern metropolis.
Carefully edited elements tell stories featuring unsmiling people engaged in everyday rituals, with an undercurrent or overtone of the surreal and unsettling. We talk to her about her creative practice, contemporary feminism and eating ice cream in NYC.
You’re Mexican by birth, how does your native culture influence the work you make?
It’s only natural to be influenced by where you come from, but it is not always a conscious decision. I am often inclined to reference Mexican culture because it is very rich. Even if I love working in black and white, it is possible that my colour sensibility comes from there for example.
How does life in New York compare to your hometown?
Mexico D.F. is a huge city, I love it, but I like how in New York you don’t need a car, and getting around is much faster and easier. The problem is that is so much more expensive. I love going back and forth, then I can appreciate the pros and cons of each city.
Almost anyone can take a picture, but a drawing can be more intimate and human. Through drawing and painting you say things that can’t be described with words.
Do you describe yourself as a feminist and what does modern feminism mean for you?
I do describe myself as a feminist. My mother is a feminist, and she raised me with those values. It’s amazing to see how feminism is rising nowadays (at least in some parts of the US). Five years ago, I was uncomfortable with the word but I feel like now the word has lost its a stigma- besides, now I know myself better. I feel like feminism is a type of lucidity, not particularly a lifestyle. It’s opening your eyes to social problems and to your own position in the world. It means questioning your surroundings as opposed to accepting everything as it is. Mexico has a very macho culture (I would even say misogynistic) and sadly I don’t see that things are changing as much as they seem to be changing here (at least in terms of dialogue).
You make ceramics, what do you love about this process? Does it enable you to express ideas that you could not express in painting or drawing?
Everything starts with drawing, even sculpture. What I love about it is that my idea becomes tangible; it’s like bringing your characters to life. They exist in the real world as opposed to only in the page. They interact with their surroundings and are changing all the time depending on how you place them.
What has been your favourite commission in your career so far?
A couple of weeks ago I was able to combine sculpture and illustration for the cover of the New York Times Sunday Review. It was very special because the article was incredibly insightful and powerful (The Moral Bucket List by David Brooks). It’s the first time I have done this and it was a challenge considering the tight deadline. I am grateful I get commissions that can be a little unconventional, that’s the type of thing that keeps me excited.
How do you spend your free time?
I read but I am not as good as a reader as I used to be. I try to do a lot of yoga because it’s the best therapy. And also I go around the city eating ice cream and pastries with my friends.
Do you ever suffer from a creative block and what do you do to overcome it?
I have realised that when I suffer from creative block it is because I have been doing other things than drawing or working with my hands for too long. The trick for me is to always be a little busy. Otherwise your hands and the creative part of your brain get rusty.
Your images have a kind of tribal or surreal, dream-like look about them. Can you explain the use of your recurring motifs like insects, snakes, dots and plants?
Sometimes the motifs are just design elements, sometimes they are a symbol for something. They are elements that I feel a lot of figurative artists use, but I try to relate them to my own personal visual language. I like surrealism because it can be read in a lot of different ways.
Do you have any artists and makers that have been particuarly influential to your practice? Who do you admire?
Margaret Kilgallen, Marcel Dzama, Francys Alys, Lilli Carré, Rutu Modan, Daniel Clowes, Balthus, Sophie Calle, Klara Kristalova, Brecht Evens and many others!
What would be your dream commission?
I am not sure! But I would love to try animation one day.
Do you keep a sketchbook? Do you do lots of research or work more intuitively?
I used to keep a sketchbook, now it’s more of notebook with preliminary ideas that are very rough. And then I build it up until I refine it. I don’t have a set way of creating images, I think it’s good to experiment.
Lastly, what place do you think illustration has in the world? What impact do you believe your drawings can make?
More than illustration I think graphic art in general has an important place. Almost anyone can take a picture but a drawing can be more intimate and human. I don’t think a lot about how my drawings affect people but I guess illustration is useful because it helps people connect to ideas. Through drawing and painting you say things that can’t be described with words. But to be honest I do it for myself mostly. If the feeling gets through, that’s great.