PhD '01, Art Education
Drunell Levinson originally intended to pursue a career in the performing arts. She scuttled those plans when she realized she was sitting around waiting for auditions. "I felt I had to do something to take charge of my life," she explains, "and in looking for the answer I decided to go back to school." At NYU her focus was mourning arts and art at the margins, a combination that led to her current project, the "September 11 Quilts" memorial exhibition, a series of 3' by 6' quilts commemorating the events and victims of that day.
When did you become interested in quilt-making?
Just after I left the performing arts and found myself living for a time in Princeton. I was feeling lonely and out of place. That's then I got a mailer that advertised a quilt-making course at a local high school. I enrolled and found out I really loved it. Within a year I began exhibiting my quilts in venues nationwide.
At what point did your interest in quilts dovetail with your interest in mourning arts?
While I was working on my master’s thesis a few things happened in quick succession. I was taking a course called Religion in American Folk Art. In it "mourning art" was discussed. At the same time a dear friend of mine died, and then soon after I went to Washington, DC to document the last showing of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in its entirety. I could not believe the emotional impact that seeing the quilt had on me. After that a section of my thesis became about the AIDS Quilt and how it was changing perceptions about quilts and mourning traditions. It all came together.
You received your PhD in September, 2001, just before the 11th. What were your plans prior to that day, and how did they change because of it?
The first week of September 2001 I was sending out resumes and searching the Internet for work. After the 11th it very quickly occurred to me that I had to organize a quilt exhibition, based on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, that would commemorate the events and victims of that day. I put together a website and e-mailed everyone I knew. I contacted quilters and museums and the quilting guilds in the US. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council agreed to be my fiscal sponsor, and the American Craft Council and the Manhattan Community Arts fund have both helped fund the project.
The September 11 Quilts have been shown all over the country, and the first international exhibit will soon take place in Japan. Where have some of the more memorable showings been?
Perhaps the most memorable was September 10th, 2002, when the quilts were exhibited on the lower Battery Park promenade. Volunteers traveled from as far as Vermont to facilitate the exhibition. Bagpipers who were going through the boroughs came by the quilt. Skaters stopped. People who had lost loved ones at the Trade Center came. It was incredibly moving.
You received both your MA and PhD from the Department of Art and Arts Professions. How did you time at NYU prepare you for the Quilt project?
NYU gave me the knowledge and academic credentials to make the September 11 Quilts memorial exhibition a reality. In fact, the project is an extension of everything I learned at NYU. My experience there is one of the most positive experiences in my life. A lot of that has to do with, Dr. Judith Weisman, who was my adviser and dissertation chairperson. She has been an amazing mentor. She encouraged me to do the best that I could, but mostly to do what was closest to my heart.