The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Social Worker as Artist-Storyteller Carol Gellner Levin, AM ’66, describes her thought process behind her mixed-media sculpture, Those on the Fence. “I was haunted by the Matthew Shepard case”

In her sculpture, 5 figures are tied to a fence-like structure, each figure wrapped tightly in a cocoon of fabric and twine. Their faces are modeled sparingly and 2 of the figures huddle together as if comforting each other. Levin, a social worker-turned artist, whose studio is located in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA, is interested in the precarious nature of life and relationships.

This article is online-only content from the Spring 2011 issue of SSA Magazine.

Other sculptures illustrate her ideas about the unpredictable aspects of life. Levin frequently juxtaposes a human being with a ferocious looking animal. In Dancing with Bear, a woman and bear blissfully dance with one another—nose to nose—with the woman in a tight bear hug. The moment looks happy, but could rapidly change.

Levin works in ceramics, bronze, various casting materials, and mixed media. “I often tell a narrative that has been informed by my experiences with former clients,” says Levin. Through her artwork, she deals with such issues as bullying, balancing motherhood with a career, and feelings of personal entrapment. As an artist, she responds to the full range of human experiences, from the everyday to unthinkable tragedy.

Another sculpture, Jessica’s Dayportrays a woman dealing with a multitude of everyday issues. “Jessica” looks as if she is a classical figure who could be carrying a water jug on her head. Instead, she is toting a basket that includes all the responsibilities she deals with each day. The basket includes babies, pets, a computer case, cooking utensils, a briefcase, et cetera.

Levin enjoys experiencing the interactions between her work and her audience. For Levin, “art is a conversation between a viewer and myself.” Exceptional art communicates an idea, emotion, or experience in a unique way and the viewer may respond by feeling a personal connection with a piece. That is my goal.”

During an exhibit in Norfolk, Va., a little girl walked up to her sculpture, My Guardian—a ferocious looking dog/wolf. Levin thought that the girl might find the sculpture frightening, but the girl proved otherwise. “The piece was originally called “Black Beast,” said Levin, “but the little girl called it ‘My Guardian.’ She said she would like to name it her guardian because she’d like a creature like that to protect her as she walked to school. So I renamed the piece.”

Levin says that through her work with families and children as a social worker, she’s aware that some children can be reached primarily—and sometimes only—through art. “This is why art in schools is so critical for youngsters,” says Levin. “Not only can a teacher or counselor better communicate with children while they are engaged in art projects, but some children can be propelled into academic subjects through art making.”

Carol Levin’s sculpture has been exhibited at the Corcoran Museum of Art, the Museum of the Americas, and the Jane Haslem Gallery in Washington, DC; The National Sculpture Society and the National Arts Club, both in New York City; and in Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. Her art is included in national and international private collections, including collections at Baylor University and Ithaca College. One of her sculptures, “Marilyn and Sarah Anne” stands in front of Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Rockville, Maryland.


Student Days

As a student at SSA, Levin remembers the legendary Charlotte Towle, as well as her favorite field supervisor, Gerda Schell. Ms. Schell was Levin’s supervisor at Scholarship and Guidance Association and they remain in touch. Charlotte Towle was also a supervisor at Scholarship and Guidance. Levin remembers Ms Towle’s very sensible, no-nonsense approach to dealing with clients. According to Levin, she cut through a good deal of psychoanalytic jargon that was popular at that time.


Post Graduate School

After SSA, Levin worked at Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society in adoption and foster care. She then moved to Argentina with her husband, Peter, where she worked as a counselor and teacher at the American Community School in Buenos Aires and volunteered at an Argentine Psychiatric facility.

Upon her return to the States, Levin worked in Washington, DC at a day care center with Latino children, for an Office of Economic Opportunity program dealing with the legal problems of seniors, and for a family service agency.

Levin is “very attached to SSA” and in 2002 returned to talk with students and faculty, and to lecture and show images of her work. Some of her sculpture was exhibited in the SSA lobby. Her advice to current students is: “A Masters degree in social work is marvelously versatile. It opens up a wide range of employment opportunities, both within traditional social work settings and in alternative venues. In addition, I’ve found my social work training very useful in a personal way,” says Levin.


Full Circle

Recently, she brought her artistic talents and social work skills to a program at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC and is conducting small interactive tours and discussions with early to intermediate stage Alzheimer’s patients. “Conversations” at the Kreeger Museum: A Program for Individuals Living with Alzheimer’s Disease and Their Caregivers is modeled after a program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Meet Me at MOMA). The Kreeger is the first museum in the Washington DC area to offer such a program. The program is free of charge to patients, family members and caregivers.

For many patients, art brings a palpable sense of joy and peace. “Conversations” hopes to stimulate memories associated with a visitor’s past as well as new thoughts and group conversation. “We try to stimulate all our participant’s senses,” says Levin, “from the visual, (through a magnificent art collection), to the auditory (with masterful piano playing by a volunteer pianist) and sense of touch as well. We distribute sculpture tools, brushes and other objects that have a distinctive feel.”

Levin helped develop this program as a volunteer. She became involved at the request of Kreeger Museum Director, Judy Greenberg, who was visiting Levin’s sculpture studio when she noticed that the sculptor also had social work credentials. Along with Kreeger Museum personnel, Levin had meetings with researchers from the National Institutes of Health, and professors and statisticians from Howard University. She has led many tours herself, together with “Conversations” Program Director, Derya Samadi, and has recruited program participants. Levin has watched “Conversations” grow and gain status within the arts community and the community of people servicing Alzheimer’s patients. -- Julie Jung


To learn more about Carol Gellner Levin’s work and see her sculptures, visit