Pictured above: Tea Time is Back. Photo by Marco Del Comune.
Christina Elia talks to Argentinian glass artist Silvia Levenson about how she channels her experiences of trauma and exile into creativity.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY CHRISTINA ELIA
Listen to the narrated article:
Silvia Levenson specialises in the art of the slow burn. A master storyteller, she shoves secrets beneath the surface of every glass sculpture she creates, forcing us to look inward, beyond face value. Pink grenades top pristine wedding cakes, chic purses conceal deadly weapons, bloody nails hide inside tiny slippers. Imbuing her work with personal elements, the Milan-based activist and artist embraces a feminist perspective to examine violence from a sociopolitical lens. But her own struggle for survival was a sad and lengthy one, beginning decades ago in her native Argentina.
Born in Buenos Aires in the 1950s, Levenson grew up against the backdrop of a brutal dictatorship. From 1976 to 1983, over 30,000 people disappeared during a period known as the “Dirty War,” including members of her family. As a human rights activist, Levenson had participated in various political protests around Argentina. However, worsening conditions eventually caused her to flee to Italy with her husband and children in 1981, leaving behind the only home she’d ever known. “I thought I didn’t have time for art back then, but I was so wrong,” she told me. “I eventually realised we need art to survive.”
Her first encounter with glass happened a little later. In 1987, she visited New York and came across work by Bertil Vallien, a Swedish contemporary artist who pioneered a unique sand-casting technique. Levenson, then a graphic designer, had previously dabbled in painting and printmaking to find her rhythm. But something about the uncanny charm of Vallien’s sculptures spoke to her, how the mysterious forms evoked a visceral sensation. When she returned home to Italy, Levenson vowed to master the medium and make it her own. A few years later, after studying in France, she opened a studio near Milan to exhibit her artworks.
From ancient Roman mosaics to colorful hand-blown jewelry from Murano, Italian glass traditions have historically treasured its aesthetic or religious potential. Levenson favored glass as a narrative device instead. Shortly after she took a trip back to Argentina in 1993, she debuted her Travel Book Series to explore the complex emotions of living in exile. In 1997, she also showcased her installation Christmas With The Family, depicting an armchair propped in front of a television. Featuring a collection of clear knives dangling above, it symbolised the dark underbelly of domesticity. Our biggest threat may be hiding in plain sight – if only we would just glance up.
Pictured: I am a Lady (2000). Photo by Cristiano Vasalli Levenson; Love. Photo by Marco Del Comune; Strange Little Girl. Photo by Marco del Commune; I forgive you (2014). Photo by Emilio Tremolada.
Similar themes of adolescence, gender discrimination, and expatriation drive Levenson’s contemporary body of work. From 2014 to 2016, she traveled across eight cities and three continents on her touring exhibition Identidad Desaparecida (identity cards of the missing). Culminating at the Murano Glass Museum in Venice, the show commemorated all the Argentinians who lost their lives during the Dirty War, many of whom were women and children. Black and white photographs captured lost moments, small shoes poked out beneath empty chairs, and baby bibs, socks, and onesies lined the walls, mourning what could have been. Levenson articulates a universal language through her skillfully-crafted glass, and she’s especially attracted to the material’s ambiguity. It’s commonplace yet seemingly dangerous, delicate and revolutionary.
“I’m interested in the tiny space between what we see and what we feel,” the artist explained. There’s often more than meets the eye, even behind her evocative titles, like an unsettling undertone of discontent. Consider her collection of glass cups from 2018, which appropriately read: “Forget what you know. Wash your eyes and tell me what you see.” We notice this double-edged concept personified again in Tea Time Is Back I (2019), portraying a vibrant pink tea set with jagged spikes. In How Long Is Forever? (2019), a simple espresso machine underscores the fragility of marriage, with an accompanying cup answering: “Sometimes only a second”. Subverting societal expectations with dark humour, Levenson transforms ordinary household objects into emotional minefields.
The Most Dangerous Place, a collaboration with her daughter Natalia Saurin, a photographer and videographer, is the latest addition to her repertoire. In reference to a recent UN report about the pervasiveness of intimate partner violence, the series of inscribed plates illustrates empty promises, bitter resentment, and verbal abuse. “Without me, you’re nothing. I hit you, but I love you. I’ll never do it again.” On 25 November 2020, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Levenson and Saurin gathered alongside other female activists outside the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Survivors should never be silenced, their protest proved, as they proudly presented the plates. Even amidst a noisy global pandemic, the women succeeded in amplifying their voices.
Education is another big part of Levenson’s career as an activist and artist. From her studio in Italy, she hosts both in-person and virtual workshops on mold-making, kiln-casting, and other technical topics. She’s also taught a range of workshops worldwide to show students how to translate their ideas into glass, including in the US, UK, and Germany. In June 2022, she’ll participate in the Women in Glass Conference at MAVA (Municipal Museum of Glass Art) in Alcorcón, Spain. Sometime in the next year, Levenson also plans to travel to Escuela de Vidrio in Honduras to teach a class with only recycled materials. She offered her services for free in the spirit of solidarity.
Giving back to her community is one of many ways Levenson wields the radical power of glass. It’s guided her journey as an artist, and continues to provide new possibilities to share her story, turning tragedy into spectacular beauty. She persists in advocating for other survivors through her truth too, whether of political, domestic, or alternate types of violence. Pressing ahead with her teaching, activism, and studio practice, Levenson aspires to pay it forward, one provocative piece at a time. “I don’t know if art can change our society,” she said. “But it can change how we perceive the world.”
Silvia’s tips for making it as a glass artist
- A safety net is never a bad idea. Teaching workshops or picking up another gig lets you do what you love, and make money from it too.
- Put yourself out there. Don’t let the fear of rejection stop you from researching and applying for grants, residencies, and other opportunities to showcase your work.
- Broaden your creative scope by exploring other media. In the end, you’ll learn to appreciate what makes glass unique, but also where you can supplement with other media.
- Embrace your local community, whether it be curators, other artists, etc. You can learn from one another and see where you fit into the larger creative landscape.
- Don’t waste your time with visual perfection. Focus on what you want to communicate to the world.