When Andy Levine adopted the name John Nebraska about 25 years ago, he was not having an identity crisis. Quite the opposite. The editorial illustrator who had built an enviable clientele and successful career in Manhattan simply felt the need to adopt a new name for the artist whose style differed from Levine’s commercial repertoire.
“An artist’s quest is always to be a little different,” he says. “If you’re doing one thing over and over you feel you have conquered, you should do something else. When I started doing something new, I wanted to promote the two different things. John Nebraska was about as far from Andy Levine as you can get.”
Levine, a Detroit native, says he studied art at as many schools that were available to him and received his BFA from California College of the Arts. When he moved to New York, he adopted photorealism to pursue technical illustration, but when that did not prove lucrative, he took a cue from his wife — a cartoonist — and turned to editorial illustration. “I took these technical skills and started to create my own world, using my imagination. That’s what editorial illustration is about — finding a visual metaphor for a dry subject matter.”
Clients included The New York Times, Business Week, Forbes, Newsweek, Washington Post, and Scholastic. He even designed a stamp for the U.S. Postal Service to raise awareness about organ transplants.
As illustration moved from analog to digital, Levine launched Nebraska. Ten years ago, he sold his house in New York and moved to Asheville. “It was beautiful here, it was artsy and affordable,” he explains. He adds that his wife, who passed away six years ago, was battling a long illness; he has since remarried.
John Nebraska did not strike oil. “The first pieces I was doing were very slick and detailed, but they did not do well here,” he recalls. “As an artist, you have to have thick skin.”
Artists also, he states emphatically, must have a voice. “That may be the hardest part of being a creative. I also teach, and I can teach someone all the technical skills and techniques, but I can’t teach someone to be creative or teach them how to find a voice. If you’re lucky, your voice will find you to speak through your work.”
Currently, the artist is expressing himself through mobiles and sculpture. “In this crazy, chaotic, topsy-turvy world, I decided I wanted to make art that is quieter, that you can find peace in observing. There is something hypnotic about seeing art that moves. The mobiles throw beautiful shadows which are sometimes more beguiling than the mobile itself.”
Levine can spend day and night pondering those shadows — he has about 15 hanging in the main room of his home, which also has multiple studios, depending on the medium he’s working in, and is designed to serve as a gallery.
“I am back to Andy Levine,” he says. “John Nebraska still lives inside me, but at this point in my life, I am claiming who I am.”
Andy Levine, East Asheville. The artist will host a home exhibit, Open Studios, the first two weekends of this month (June 4-5 and June 11-12) from noon to 7pm. Call 828-545-9661 for the address or to make an appointment outside of those dates. Also see Levine’s work on his new website, levineworld.com.