Melissa Levin: 1958-2015

Artist, teacher and activist found beauty in lost things


The first time I met Melissa Levin, she dragged me to a now defunct junk store on Church. Baby blue eyes flashing, she scoured the joint for games, tchotchkes, puzzles – stuff – for way too long as far as I was concerned, at least then. 

I learned, though, to give Melissa time – it would always be worth it.

She found beauty in the most unlikely things, usually presenting them as gifts – in our household we have vintage steak knives, blue bird sculptures and a ton of tablecloths thanks to Melissa’s keen eye.

When she wasn’t turning her finds into presents, she transformed them into artworks. She designed a room at the Gladstone Hotel, lining the walls in puzzle pieces to spectacular effect. Her creations, like her mural at the Kitchener Public Library (pictured here), were invariably playful, revelling in wild colours. She was also a filmmaker, teacher and mentor, deeply loved by her students.

Melissa lived in San Francisco before coming to Canada in the late 90s to live with her partner, artist and professor Nina Levitt. In San Francisco, she was a committed activist, working with ACT UP and alongside AIDS patients, and she continued to pursue her activism here in Toronto. 

Typical of her vision was her graduate thesis, the Lesbian Helpers project. When she did something kind for someone – helping an elder across the street, say – she’d hand the person a business card that read, “You have been assisted by a lesbian helper.” Her mission was to do good works and make lesbianism visible, but the project also had that element of surprise so characteristic of Melissa.

She loved surprises, whether in the form of gifts or her wacky outfits, patterns that didn’t match but somehow managed to look perfect: dazzling hats, polka dots. She could pull things out of her basement rammed with goodies – housewares, hardware, clothing – and do wonders with them. You’ve heard of a minimalist sensibility. Melisssa was the ultimate maximalist.

One of her biggest passions was for fabric. She’d spend hours searching through stores for cloth that would eventually appear in an original dress design or as a framed artwork. 

She died last week of a rare blood disease.

Fittingly, she’s been honoured by the Textile Museum of Canada, which has launched the Melissa Levin Emerging Artist Program in her memory. You can donate to the program at textilemuseum.ca. Or, to honour her commitment to accessible health care, you can give to Partners in Health at pihcanada.org.

She was a unique creature, a fierce lover of life and beauty and a loving friend. R.I.P. 

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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