Faythe Levine can seemingly do it all. And in the 11 years she’s lived in Milwaukee, she has. Four years ago, the artist, writer, curator, photographer, and founder of Art vs. Craft entered the world of documentary filmmaking with her directorial debut, HANDMADE NATION. For her second film, SIGN PAINTERS, Levine shares directoral duties with Chicago-based Milwaukee native Sam Macon. The book version of SIGN PAINTERS (see a sample here) was released late last year from Princeton Architectural Press, and the New York Times called it “a lovely paean to a vanishing art… a funky and necessary work of preservation.” I sat down to talk with Faythe on the eve of the SIGN PAINTERS premiere.
Jonathan Jackson: I read that you attended a high school with an art department and three art teachers, each with their own classroom. Where was this?
Faythe Levine: Kirkland, which is in Washington near Seattle. We had a photography, visual arts and ceramics teacher, it was incredible.
JJ: How important do you think youth art education is?
FL: It’s devastating to see cuts to arts programs. Without stimulation, artistic talent is not being allowed to develop at a young age.
JJ: What medium were you first interested in as a child?
FL: Photography. My dad was an active hobbyist photographer. I had a Kodak 110 Instamatic as a kid, I loved it!
JJ: Your own art, and your work as a curator, writer and business woman, all seem to be held together by being a part of DIY culture. What does DIY culture mean to you?
FL: For me, DIY is a process and personal drive, not an aesthetic choice. It’s about a tactile connection to the object and opening up your creative potential.
JJ: How did you originally get inspired or involved in DIY culture?
FL: I grew up in Seattle in the underground music scene, and I was going to an all ages youth center called Old Redmond Firehouse, which had a lot of live music. I was exposed to a Zine for the first time here, when I was 14. A Zine embraces the DIY ethic of no rules, being self-published with photocopy distribution. It empowered me to think creatively on a different level.
JJ: When did you become interested in filmmaking?
FL: I was never a filmmaker before I moved to Milwaukee eleven years ago. I knew a bunch of people here from the graduate film production program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I was introduced to it through them, and I thought of it as a medium that I could communicate a lot of information with.
JJ: Speaking of Milwaukee, as someone who is not a native and travels constantly, why do you call Milwaukee your home?
FL: I moved here from Minneapolis to visit a pen pal. It’s cheap to live here. It’s great for traveling in the U.S. because it is centrally located. Three hours by air to either coast is brilliant. Also, being a mid-size city allows you to make a more significant impact as a filmmaker, artist, and organizer.
JJ: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the city, what would it be?
FL: Have the leadership provide more monetary support for the arts, particularly emerging and mid-level artists that I feel don’t get enough support. Maybe subsidize small businesses that enrich the creative community. Oh– hire local talent to do your work! I don’t want to complain, but all of my income comes from outside of Milwaukee. That said, I have received incredible support from the Mary Nohl Fellowship. It has been vital to my staying in Milwaukee. I received their Emerging and Established Funds, as well as their Suitcase Fund twice.
JJ: What is your goal in making documentaries?
FL: My goal is to make people more aware of their surroundings. Handmade Nation is a bit more heavy-handed in this approach, while Sign Painters is more subtle, more educational in terms of defining a history.
JJ: Your first film was about handmade art, craft and design. Your second film is about hand-painted signs and their makers. What is your view of technology and its impact on art?
FL: So much information and content is available today at your fingertips, discovery happens in an instant. I’m not sure if this is a positive or a negative. I do think one negative is that our ability to focus has been reduced, causing much shorter attention spans and laziness. We’ve lost that great moment of discovery when you find something out, because it is so easy to do today. Lately, I feel that if I do a search engine search on a topic and find limited results, I must be on to something. This is what happened at the beginning of our Sign Painters project.
JJ: Sign Painters is premiering at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Not going the film festival premiere route seems like an atypical premiere event for a feature-length documentary. Could you describe your strategy here?
FL: The Smithsonian relationship is an ongoing one and it worked out great for scheduling. We did not want to wait for a film festival to accept the film, and miss an opportunity to work with the Smithsonian. Our goal with the film is to find an audience and recoup our costs.
JJ: Did you recoup your costs on Handmade Nation?
FL: Yes. It was paid for on my credit cards initially, but then I got a personal loan and was able to pay that all back, primarily from DVD sales and speaking fees.
JJ: Both of your features have been accompanied by a significant book release. How do they relate to each other? Which comes first in the process?
FL: The book for Sign Painters came out first because it was paid for, but they both started as documentaries. The content of the film and the book comes from the same interviews, but through both editing processes they change. The books only came about from book offers that originated with the early release clip of Handmade Nation that went viral. The books are beautiful and great to have for a certain audience, but the deals I got just cover the cost of publishing. It kind of creates an illusion of financial success– yes I’ve had two book deals, but little money has come of it.
JJ: You worked with a co-director on Sign Painters after directing your first film Handmade Nation solo. Why the change?
FL: I was hesitant to start a new film, especially alone. It was simply exhausting to make Handmade Nation, so I approached Sam Macon early on to be a co-director. We already had a great working relationship and his interest in design was similar to mine. We brought on our producers Timm Gable and Jonah Muller whom Sam and I had been working with for years through both independent projects and commercial work.
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