Illustrating Freedom

“Now I make art for people’s walls, not for their magazines,” says John Nebraska, who left a highly successful illustration career (as Andy Levine) to do his own thing. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

A visitor to Andy Levine’s Asheville home could be forgiven for thinking he’d wandered into an art gallery by mistake. Covering the walls are examples of Levine’s four prolific decades in the fine arts, and as a nationally recognized illustrator for clients such as The New York Times, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, and Cosmopolitan. “I had great success doing my work in New York City,” Levine says of his more than 30 years in the graphic-arts business. “Now I make and sell art for people’s walls rather than their magazines.”

Much of his work appears under the name of his artistic alter ego John Nebraska, a pseudonym he adopted during his New York years to differentiate his bread-and-butter graphic-arts work from his more experimental efforts. “It meant I could double my workload, some for John and some for Andy,” he explains. John Nebraska’s world carries an alt-cowboy aura: the website portal offers twanging guitars and swinging canteen doors, while Levine, in his other incarnation, offers classes at his home studio (styled the Astoria Art Center, it was born in New York and moved here with him five years ago). He counts stints at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts and Fashion Institute of Technology among the many classrooms he’s led.

Perfect Day

“Eclectic” is hardly an adequate descriptor for Levine’s prodigious output, ranging from technical illustration to caricatures and surrealism. In his paintings are echoes of Dalí’s dreamscapes, Warhol’s industrial art, and Keith Haring’s kinetic figures, all rendered in masterfully brilliant acrylics. He takes his inspiration from ancient tapestries, Renaissance masters, Pop artists — “I’m pretty easy,” he says, “as long as it’s good.” Levine was an early adopter of computer technology, its artistic possibilities still in their infancy when he began working in his native Detroit in the 1970s. “As an illustrator you have to be computer savvy,” he notes. “But a computer won’t make somebody a better artist. There’s no button on the computer that makes the hand work better. It’s just a tool.”

King Puma

Academically trained from an early age — he graduated from Detroit’s prestigious Cranbrook school, and, after moving to Los Angeles, from the California College of the Arts — Levine arrived in New York when the city was peaking as a magazine-publishing hub. He quickly established himself at the forefront of the graphic-arts universe. “In illustration, you have a story to tell, and I had to come up with a narrative to that story, some kind of visual metaphor,” he says. For clients like Forbes and Business Week, a John Nebraska illustration could indicate market volatility with cowboys shown riding bucking, plunging firecrackers on a graph-paper background, or bringing a charging bull to heel with a whip. More politically oriented publications might like a beanie-wearing, ice-cream-cone-licking, bicycle-riding elephant to provide a visual pun for a piece about Young Republicans.

Levine’s career got a huge boost in 1998 when he was chosen to design a stamp for the U.S. Postal Service to raise awareness for organ transplants. His “Share Your Life” design was unveiled on Capitol Hill. “That was a big deal,” Levine says of the ceremony, where he hobnobbed with key policy makers of the day.
But after 35 years in the business, pressures both financial and competitive began to add up. Computers had become as ubiquitous on the desk as coffee mugs, and magazines were being assembled rather than created. The need for constant self-promotion to stay ahead of the game had become intense.

Snake Train

“There’s no doubt that computers diluted the field of illustration,” Levine says. “I still do some commercial work, but now I’m generally working from my heart and making art for people. It’s a different dynamic.”

The decision to leave the hustle of New York and concentrate on more personal work segued with the move to Asheville and its more quietly creative atmosphere. “In New York, everybody’s hurrying down he sidewalk with a cellphone clamped to their head,” he says. “It’s crazy. Here, it’s more intuitive work. I have more freedom. I want to make beautiful art, art that people can live with for years and years. I need to make things that are life-affirming.”

John Nebraska/Andy Levine will be the subject of an all-day exhibit at Art on 4th (125 4th Avenue West, Hendersonville) on Saturday, September 16, 12-7pm, with music and refreshments from 5-7pm. (He regularly shows his work at Art on 4th, as well as at Woolworth Walk in Asheville.) For more information, see jnebraskastudio.com, astoriaartcenter.com, or johnnebraska.com.

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