If every family has a black sheep, Elissa Levy can point to her distant relative Violet Gibson as hers. In 1926, Gibson's religious fervor compelled her to attempt the assassination of Benito Mussolini.
The New York-based Levy, recipient of a residency from Quirk and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, uses Gibson as a jumping off point for her art, layering historical sources such as media reports of Gibson's crime and documents used as evidence against her with related images, including her namesake flower, violets.
The year before Levy began her residency at the center, she'd been using the New York Times from the day President Richard Nixon resigned as source material. For her new exhibit, she began weaving Gibson's story with the seemingly disparate thread of the political fall and resignation of Nixon in 1974, seen through the lens of contemporaneous reports.
When invited to do the residency, Levy wanted to figure out how the new work could overlap with other art she'd been making, using images of nature culled from the media.
"Nature really was the beginning of the connection between the work created around Violet's attempted assassination and the work using images of Nixon's resignation," she explains. "I'd been thinking about Violet for years but didn't have a direction for what I wanted to make in relationship to her experience."
Looking at it more deeply after years of working with newspapers, she began to see overlap in the ways she thought about the use and misuse of power represented in the media.
"Talking about Violet and violets made sense to me and I wanted to explore these connections," she says. "Through making this work I could think about how history is revealed to us in the artifacts and details and how hindsight of these events only seems clear because of how the information's been presented to us."
Curator Lauren Ross was excited to introduce Richmond audiences to Levy.
"In an era defined by an absence of consensus on what's fake and what's true, issues around media today are incredibly complex," Ross says. "In a sense, Elissa sidesteps that morass by looking at media from the 20th century. But the references to today's climate sit just under the surface. Sometimes the distance of time helps us process what we're faced with."
For the residency and exhibition, Levy was able to expand her use of materials beyond what she'd been doing in her own studio. She was also inspired by her Richmond experiences. At a January visit to the Valentine museum, she was struck by historic artifacts made of all different kinds of materials, like stone, leather and aluminum. Digging into the classes taught at the Visual Arts Center, she grew inspired by a leather mask-making class that used wet molding.
At Jackson Ward laser-engraving studio Big Secret, Levy saw how they were etching onto leather in ways that were photorealistic. Bringing these things together as a start, while also spending time in the silk-screening studio, fulfilled a long-time goal of Levy's: to screen onto aluminum and transform the metal prints into sculptural objects.
Another project she'd had brewing for a while, albeit with no specific final project in mind, was to laser etch onto ostrich eggs.
"That's when I came up with the idea of recreating the lira that had 'Eviva Mussolini' written on it, a nod to the lira which Violet had in her possession."
From there, it was a short leap to laser etching leather with the newspaper images. The permanence of the leather versus the disposability of newsprint seemed a great contrast, while conceptually Levy was drawn to transcribing events onto a material with weight and longevity.
Levy had been working with newspapers and other media for the past decade, but it was the influence of the current administration that drew her to look at more historic newspapers.
"The media handling of the 2016 election was maddening and having previously worked on a series highlighting shamed figures in the media, seeing who was being shamed and why, was frustrating," she recalls of exploring how media shapes the perception, fate and legacy of anyone whose private life unfolds in the public eye.
"The emotional reaction to past events and figures is softened compared to how we feel about what's happening currently," she says. "So historic newspapers felt like a better tool to dig a little deeper into the issues that concern me." S
"Of Secrecy, the Violet" opens Sept. 7 and runs through Nov. 18 at the Visual Arts Center at 1812 W. Main St. visarts.org.