To Sol Levenson, a blank wall is a canvas
Sol Levenson peers at the terrified face of a Confederate soldier. The soldier is arching back; he has just been shot and is yanking his horse's reins to keep from toppling off. Levenson, DHMC's self-taught muralist-in-residence, dabs at the soldier's cheeks with pale pink paint. He's hard at work, in the Norris Cotton Cancer Center radiation-oncology waiting room, on one of three murals depicting a Civil War cavalry battle.
Life: Painting murals, says Levenson, is like being a casting director. He has to think out each character's life story and facial expression before he knows how he wants them to look on the canvas. "I will not do the same figure twice, no matter what," he says. "See this guy, the Southerner [the soldier who has just been shot]—I realized I had never done a head in that position before. So it took five or six times before I got it where I wanted it, where it convinced me."
Levenson does extensive research in libraries and museums about the historical background for every scene he paints. For his current series, a friend of his who belongs to a Civil War reenactment group gave him photos of Confederate and Union uniforms so he could commit the details to memory, right down to the soldiers' shoelaces, their coat buttons, and the shape of their hat brims.
At age 95, Levenson is still a prolific painter. Since 1990, he has completed more than 15 historical murals—most of them at DHMC. They depict Shakers felling trees and lathing the wood into pieces of furniture, Herbert Hoover giving a whistlestop tour, a horse-drawn fire wagon rushing to the rescue, and railroad workers repairing a locomotive.
He especially likes pulling subjects from his childhood in then-rural Danvers, Mass., where, he says, the way of life was similar to that of the Shakers. "Everything was horsedrawn," he recalls. "Sometimes I saw more horses than people. My generation was the last that had any close contact with rural America. I think there's just one more generation after me that had to chop wood to start a fire in the kitchen stove."
Mark: Even though he's pushing the century mark, he still remembers his very first drawing—a pencil sketch that he did from memory of Charlie Chaplin on a storefront theater poster. He was four and a half. "I did it," he says, "so I could take him home."
His career has been both long and wide-ranging. He wrote a book on the history of drawing. He taught landscape painting to female inmates at a Vermont state prison.
He served three times as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching mural painting (in Spanish) at Mexico's University of Veracruz. And one of his murals hangs in the university's School of Artificial Intelligence. Remarkably, given its location, it is a criticism of the Internet. The school's top professors approved his concept, even though it was "sharply critical of branches of education," Levenson explains. "They allowed me free self-expression."
Blank: He was volunteering at the Cancer Center close to 20 years ago, doing layout and advertising, when he noticed the facility's blank walls and offered to paint murals for them. He is still painting at DHMC, now in the new radiation-oncology wing. What keeps him going? The patients, he says, who sit and talk
with him—about their families, the characters he is painting,
politics. "My philosophy of life can change," he says, "because of what [patients] say to me here at DHMC."
It was in radiation oncology that Levenson met Janice Munro, a former breast cancer patient and nurse administrator at DHMC. She now serves as his assistant, helping him with his paint supplies and painting in backgrounds. "She understands my stuff better than anyone," says Levenson.
"We consider Sol a part of our team," says Dr. Eugen Hug, section chief of radiation oncology. "[He] helps us add a more humanistic component to an intensive therapy that is very technically driven. Patients love him," Hug adds. "He makes their daily trips much easier."
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