“This is a fractured mother,” Susan Levy says.
She points, then her art speaks for itself.
In a gallery outside Washington, D.C., far from her Modesto, California, home, Levy has framed her pain on the walls. Her 24-year-old daughter, Chandra, died violently nearly 15 years ago. A second trial of the suspected killer is set for October.
The mother lives on. She’s expressed herself before, but never in quite this way. For the first time, 11 works of art Levy conceived in the year following her daughter’s 2001 disappearance are on display. It’s mourning, rage and therapy, played out in public.
“I use poetry, music, my art when I can, and a lot of exercise, in dealing with my grief,” Levy said.
Levy’s mix of watercolors, collages and one playful photograph are part of an exhibit titled “Finding My Own Voice” at Artists & Makers Studios in Rockville, Maryland, through April 28. Timed to coincide with National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which starts next Sunday, the show features art produced by crime victims, survivors and family members.
Am I healed? No. I can’t say I’m healed. We’re fractured.
It hurts to see.
Some of the other artists’ pieces have titles such as “Gold Flecked Blood,” “Love Lies Bleeding” and “Portrait of Artist and Victim.” Levy’s work ranges from a watercolor titled “Broken Scale of Justice” to a collage called “A Mother’s Tears II.” For Levy, tears are a recurring motif. They drip from an American flag, from the Statue of Liberty, from a woman’s eyes.
But there’s more to it than that.
“It’s not just a sad show, it’s a beautiful show,” said Judith HeartSong, executive director of Artists & Makers, adding that “you’ve got to find a way to make peace with your history.”
There’s even some laughter, conviviality. A Friday night open house that HeartSong estimated drew several hundred visitors was followed by a Saturday reception, at which Levy explained her art, played a haunting flute and banged a Native American drum while about two dozen people gamely chanted along.
“I stood in front of the courthouse in Modesto once, banging my drum, and some friends who are lawyers came up to me and said, ‘Get out of the street. They’re going to think you’re crazy,’ ” Levy said, “but I didn’t care. I just had to cathartically get out my grief.”
Not everyone knew all the details of her story Saturday, and she related them briefly: Her daughter Chandra was preparing to return to Modesto from a Washington, D.C., internship when she disappeared May 1, 2001. About a year later, her skeletal remains were found in Washington’s Rock Creek Park.
Some things Levy left out, such as how rumors and then revelations that Chandra was having an affair with then-Congressman Gary Condit drove the story into national headlines.
As part of her East Coast trip, Levy met last week with the federal prosecutors who are preparing to retry Ingmar Guandique in October in connection with the murder. Convicted in 2010, Guandique secured a retrial because of post-trial revelations about the chief witness against him.
While her story was distinctive, Levy was speaking to a mostly female audience that felt her deepest truths.
HeartSong, who changed her name as an adult, said she had been abused as a child by a relative. Another woman who recounted her story at painful length, Mary Bazargan, lost her daughter Azin Naimi to murder in 2010. The show included oil paintings by Naimi, who studied at California State University, Northridge. One is titled “Mother with Two Children.”
“Always she’s with me,” Bazargan said. “I see her beside me.”
Naimi was described as a “world-class restorer of centuries-old Russian art.” Levy’s work comes from a different place, driven by intuition and with roots in a challenging childhood.
“The one thing I found is that art, even coloring rocks, made me feel better,” Levy said.