Growing up in New York City, Ellen Levy spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History where she often went sketching, especially on the fifth floor with the dinosaurs.
Levy became both an artist and a licensed microbiology technologist. And while she doesn’t make art about dinosaurs today, Levy is deeply involved in the community of artists interested in the relations of science and art.
A past president of the College Art Association, Levy currently serves as co-chair of the association’s affiliate, Leonardo Education and Art Forum, and as a member of UCLA Art | Sci Center & Lab’s advisory board.
Her exhibition “Norms of Behavior” opens Thursday at 6 p.m. in the California NanoSystems Institute Auditorium. Levy will present a lecture immediately after the 4 p.m. talk by Danish lecture curator Morten SÃ¸ndergaard.
Up to the time she was in college, Levy said she had always thought that she would combine her interests in science and art as a medical illustrator. She got to try it out as an undergraduate and found it wasn’t as she expected.
“What I came to realize was that it didn’t have the real creativity of either science or of art,” Levy said.
During her studies at Mount Holyoke College, when fellow students had trouble understanding the stages of growth, Levy asked her professor if she could make slides illustrating the different stages.
“It was something that very much touched that need to satisfy in both dimensions,” Levy said.
To support her art practice, Levy worked in laboratories.
Because of her involvement in the field of science, Levy has had many opportunities to interact with scientists over the years.
One of her most memorable projects was a commission by NASA, when she was invited to attend the night launch of the space shuttle Atlantis in November 1985.
“The entire sky just lit up. You could feel the pulsation of the energy,” Levy said. “It was a fairly unforgettable experience.”
In her exhibition, Levy will show new work comprised of still images ““ digital prints that are also painted ““ as well as a movie made in collaboration with neuroscientist Michael Goldberg of Columbia University. The prints and movie both explore attention and perception.
Artist Patricia Olynyk, who serves as co-chair of the Leonardo Education and Art Forum with Levy, first met Levy 10 years ago at a party in New York, where they connected through their shared interest.
Olynyk described Levy’s prints as having a luscious and appealing geometric color pattern.
They’re kind of composite images to create these long, scroll-like narratives where you … travel through bits of text and visuals that relate to a given topic,” Olynyk said.
According to Levy, “Norms of Behavior” uses two historical artworks as its basis: Caravaggio’s 1594 “Cardsharps” and Jan Steen’s 1665 “Village School,” both of which draw on the subject of attention.
In her lecture, Levy will talk about the difference between judgments of normal and abnormal, because on the flip side of attention is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
The idea is for viewers to experience in an art gallery context their own propensity for loss of attention or the inability to see something.
“I could ask questions whether this is something that all of us can achieve, can experience,” Levy said. “So at what point do we judge this as abnormal?”
According to Art | Sci Center & Lab’s art director, Victoria Vesna, Levy’s most recent focus considers how neuroscience influences society, and how rules coming out of scientific research become implemented into social environments.
“A lot of artists can talk about science in a very metaphorical way, and they don’t really know it,” Vesna said. “(Levy) actually … is working in a very informed way.”
For Olynyk, the appeal of Levy’s work is that it’s not didactic.
“She opens up her multiplicity of conversation that still remains somewhat speculative,” Olynyk said. “She’s not drawing conclusions about things. She’s not telling viewers to draw conclusions about things.”