Alumnae Spotlight: Dani Leventhal

Dani Leventhal first came to WSW in 1997 as a studio intern and ended up sticking around to start WSW’s now-thriving ceramics program. Ten years later she returned as a resident to produce Skim Milk and Soft Wax, a book that includes a 44-minute video and explores the collision between the narratives of Dani’s Jewish identity and her personal experiences visiting Israel. Today, Dani’s practice includes drawings and videos that use similar methods of collage and montage to make meaning in the juxtaposition of imagery. Since her residency Dani’s work has been shown internationally, including at the 2010 MoMA PS1 “Greater New York” exhibition.

After an exciting 2013–which included showing three new videos, receiving the 2013 Kazuko Trust Scholarship Award Grant, and landing her first tenure-track teaching job–Dani catches us up on her recent work and reflects on her relationship with WSW.

Dani (left) with Caitlin Wheeler hard at work on Skim Milk and Soft Wax.

Dani (left) with Caitlin Wheeler hard at work on Skim Milk and Soft Wax in 2008.

You have a long history with WSW! Can you walk us through what you’ve done here?

­­­In 1997 I was an intern at WSW. I cleaned out the basement and turned it into a workspace for ceramics. (Of course with the help of Woody!) Then I became the director of the ceramics program and we offered community classes to adults and included ceramics in the Art-in-Education program. I did this until 2001 when I went to Chicago to study sculpture. I came back to WSW in 2003 and made paper for the From Seed to Sheet project. Then from 2004-07 I did odd jobs around the workshop and then in 2008 made Skim Milk and Soft Wax.

I consider the Hudson Valley my home. It has a dynamic art community and beautiful land. I wish I could live there now but I needed to get a job so here I am in Ohio.

When you were included in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York”, New York Magazine called you one of the five artists “we’ll still be talking about by the time the 2015 iteration [of the triennial exhibition] rolls around.” So: you’ve got one year to go, Dani….Have you lived up to the hype?

All I know is that I have a tenure-track job at an R1 research university and that’s a huge relief because I can afford to devote LOTS of time to my work! I got an assistant professorship at Ohio State University this past fall. I LOVE it! I’m teaching drawing in relationship to sound and video. I’ve always liked teaching but this is my first tenure-track gig.

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COONS. Photo, charcoal, watercolor, oil pastel and colored pencil, 18×30″.
This drawing is related to the new video project PLATONIC.

So, let’s talk about your current practice. Where is your work going right now?

My grandmother just passed away and I shot a bunch of footage at her funeral. Then there was a big flood in the river near where I live and I’ve also been shooting drag queens singing at a local bar. I’m not sure what I will do with this footage yet. I’m also working on drawings made on large sheets of cardboard. I’m planning to show them in the laps of women and men dressed in drag. It will be a kind of performance that is really slow. I’m not sure exactly what I’m up to, but I’m interested in experimenting with people as the support of the drawings. The drawings are about relationships; desire, loss and loneliness.

You’ve described your drawings and videos as being related through the collaging of different elements. For Skim Milk and Soft Wax specifically, how did you conceive a project that was both a book object and a video piece?

The book and video have a porous relationship. You can understand the video better by reading the book and vice versa. I was thinking about my Jewish identity in relation to the crisis in the Middle East and I guess that one media couldn’t complete my thoughts the way both of them could.

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Skim Milk and Soft Wax.

In your book, it’s hard to read a political or ideological stance in your handling of such high-stakes subject matter. Do you consider this work to be political?

I think the personal is political.

You have an MFA in sculpture from the University of Illinois, Chicago, but you suffered a hand injury that shifted your work away from sculpture and toward video. What prompted you to go back and earn a second MFA in film/video?

Jennifer Montgomery invited me to play a part in her all-woman remake [Deliver] of the cult classic film Deliverance. All the people on the shoot were Bardies. These women were on fire about film and they encouraged me to come to Bard for another MFA. The Bard program is low residency; you only go for 3 summers. I wanted engagement with the film, writing, and sculpture faculty so I went. I’m not sure if it changed my practice but it opened my mind to many new ideas.

A still from the video Skim Milk and Soft Wax.

A still from the video Skim Milk and Soft Wax.

What was it like to work on that project alongside female academics and filmmakers?

It was fantastic. Everyone was opinionated and amped up and worked hard and got dirty and wet by the river.

Do you think enough support systems exist for women artists, or is there still work to be done?

There is still work to be done. But on a positive note, my current drawing class is 95% women and the graduate program is dominated by women too.

How has your relationship with WSW impacted your work or career?

WSW had a huge impact on my life and work. {Founders] Ann, Tana, and Nita provided a livelihood and also supported my practice and development as an artist. It’s because of Tana that I was able to leave clay and start experimenting with hide and wood and metal and plaster. I love them and all that the studio is.

Making the book was a whole new way of working for me. And I didn’t do it alone: [studio intern] Caitlin Wheeler was by my side printing every page of the book and I was advised by the whole staff along the way. WSW is a very conducive place to work because it is communal and private at the same time. You can go out and walk in the woods when you need a break or work late into the night if you want to. And there is always someone neat around to consult with on your project. The process of making an edition taught me a lot.

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Karolina’s Memory. Photo, charcoal, watercolor, oil pastel and colored pencil, 18×30″.
This drawing is related to the new video project PLATONIC.

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Pink Cloud. Photo, charcoal, watercolor, oil pastel and colored pencil, 18×30″.
This drawing is related to the new video project PLATONIC.

What challenges do you face in your practice?

My biggest challenge is dealing with self doubt. I work and work then step back and look and get flooded with fear that what I made is worthless. This is a big battle inside. I guess I get through it by continuing to work no matter what. Like Tana does.

What is success for you?

I would love to have gallery representation someday. And my big dream is to have a show at the Drawing Center

What advice would you give to emerging women artists?

No matter what–make the work, because you never know what will happen. And if you don’t have the work, then it’s all talk. Be true to yourself, that’s what I can suggest.

 

To hear Dani talk more about how video and drawing converge in her practice, check out her interview with MoMA in conjunction with the 2010 “Greater New York” exhibition. See more of Dani’s work at www.danileventhal.org and at the Video Data Bank.

Comments

  1. wrote on February 28th, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Hope Windle

    Such a brave, honest interview. Thank you Dani. I appreciate you mentioning the fear and to keep working. I think it is confusing being an artist right now and I appreciate how Dani touches multiple mediums fearlessly. Presently, I have been writing and researching how I and others relate to death and to the process of dying having watched both parents die recently both in hospice.

    I appreciate Dani telling us to just DO IT because those demons are hard to wrestle with. I appreciate all the cheerleaders we can muster up out of our being and share with each other to create this swell of love that we can ride on like a giant surfboard of powerful work. I appreciate how women can generate that camaraderie in our making practice. Hats off. Mazel tov. and La Chiem ! Giant hugs all around, Hope

    • wrote on March 5th, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      Jenn Bratovich

      Hi Hope! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! In interviewing Dani and studying her work I also was impressed by the way she commits fully to each project. I think you and Dani both touch on something important about WSW: that its sense of community generates a place for women to make work that is all kinds of difficult: difficult technically to produce, or difficult in terms of challenging subject matter, or difficult for the artist herself to work through creating. We’re really proud to be that kind of space!

  2. wrote on March 5th, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Barbara hammer

    I love Dani’s work and admire her process. I’m sure she’ll have a gallery soon and in a few years a big show at the Drawing Center. Speaking from the heart, Barbara

    • wrote on March 6th, 2014 at 9:29 am

      Jenn Bratovich

      Thank you for reading, Barbara! We’re all sending vibes out into the universe to get Dani to the Drawing Center, too. Someday, we hope!

  3. wrote on March 6th, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Kris Sader

    HI Dani and WSW. This was wonderful! I am so glad of all your news Dani and appreciative of the things you said in the interview. This is Kris from a while ago at WSW. Subconscious Petal.

    • wrote on March 6th, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Jenn Bratovich

      Of course we remember you, Kris! Thanks for staying in touch and keeping up with our blog. We’re really glad you enjoyed Dani’s interview!

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