Isa L Levy, 72, is a London-based artist and psychotherapist who has just published her memoir, Conversations with a Blank Canvas: From Nowhere to Somewhere Decades of Change and Transformation. You can buy it here.
What prompted this memoir?
Two clairvoyants told me I had to write my life story: one 40 years ago and one more recently a few years ago and so I decided to write it.
What is your aim in writing it?
Sharing my life story so that others can see how it’s possible to overcome your demons and with courage keep listening to your authentic voice to fulfill a sense of belonging to your ‘true self’; so often hidden by a ‘false self’ adapting to an outer superficial world. This is very much a sign of our times within our social media screens of ‘selfie’ curated false images and how that can emphasise feelings of low self-worth leading to depression, anxiety, addiction, and in the worst case of scenarios self-harm, suicide, and high crime rates
You mention ‘invites the reader to enquire more consciously about their own personal journey’?
In writing about my own journey of self-discovery I reveal how the ‘blank canvas’ was the beginning of my true connection to myself. I only discovered painting when I was 40 and some 450 paintings emerged – I say from nowhere but in fact from an unknown place of mystery and that was tremendously meaningful for me and life-changing. What I learned about myself through painting was very much what I facilitate in my clients which is the safe space within which to explore their own ‘blank canvasses’ within and if they can face their fears and pain they will find the richness that is there hiding in their ‘true self’.
Tell us something about your own Jewish background growing up in Cardiff and how it has influenced you?
I believe my Jewish background is within every gene of my body; however, I did not identify as a religious Jew and have found my spiritual connections as a Quaker and Buddhist. I also realised that I did not conform to family and cultural expectations, which created a deal of painful confusion for me. If I didn’t conform – who was I? The Cardiff Jewish community was tight-knit and my parents were very committed to the local community. However, the pain was my motivation to find out more about myself.
Your family knew Dylan Thomas?
Yes. My father was born in Swansea, as was Dylan Thomas and Dylan lived in Chelsea with my uncle, art critic, and author, Mervyn Levy. My father, at that time, in those Chelsea days, was a poet and had exchanged poetry with Dylan and joined them when he ran away from home. I had the privilege of sitting on Dylan Thomas’s knee as a 2-year-old, although I can’t say I remember the experience.
You describe yourself as ‘the black sheep of the family’, how did that manifest itself?
I now realise that I am a non-conformist but it’s taken me 72 years and the writing of my memoir to accept that label. It’s hard to fit into a traditional family as a non-conformist as individuality threatens the status quo.
What have been the most challenging areas of your own personal journey psychologically?
Well, I believed I was a failure in everything because I didn’t fit in; Failed in education, the pressure to marry, not wanting to marry, weight issues, and poor body image that created a lack of confidence which led to low self-esteem.
Tell us a bit about ‘questioning your sexuality’ as a teenager and the confusion of that?
Basically, I did not feel comfortable discussing my sexuality as a teenager in the 1950s and coming from a traditional family where we didn’t discuss anything that didn’t fit in socially. I discussed with a few friends but mainly kept things secret.
You performed a one-woman show at Wormwood Scrubs which changed the direction of your life?
Yes. I made a conscious decision to move from performance into the caring profession as I was more interested in the lives of the prisoners than my own performance.
You mention depression and loneliness?
I think depression and loneliness are part of the human condition and I think these problems can be masked by a manic defense against facing our most vulnerable side by compulsive addictions that are socially acceptable – like work, money, drink, narcissistic power distortions. We just have to look at our present demise with politicians and leadership. I think depression and loneliness is what we all face within our own ‘blank canvasses’ and we have been forced to look deeper into ourselves during this pandemic as everything familiar has been taken away from us and left us with time for a re-think.
And then, finding a more meaningful life?
Buddhism as a philosophy for life gave me permission to engage with my suffering as I realized there was nothing wrong with me other than that I was just human. My painting was the beginning of this journey of letting go and just allowing everything to flow out of me – it was liberating. And then 15 years later I had nothing more to say and closed the door on my studio without knowing what next. In the fullness of time I found myself embarking on a Masters degree in Arts and Psychotherapy in my mid- 50s without an A Level to my name and graduated at the ripe old age of 61 with a whole new career as an Arts Psychotherapist.
How has painting, poetry and other writing supported your evolution?
I could not have survived without creative expression as an actor, singer, songwriter, poet, playwright, artist, author and back to actor now for I had no other way to express myself.
You’re now involved in a musical production of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’?
That was 2 years ago but I am involved with that director, Clair Chapwell and we’re performing a weekly soap opera at Jacksons Lane community centre, North London for a Pensioners Lunch Club; on zoom at the moment. I was invited by my local MP to sing a song I wrote about Climate Change, some 50 years, ago in parliament, when I had no idea at the time about the crisis that we have got ourselves into.
Tell us about your painting The Female Resurrection?
The Female Resurrection was painted after the death of my mother and four other important females in my life. I inherited a 7 foot blank canvas and decided to paint a female crucifixion scene putting the female figure on the cross as I wrestled with the question; how can you celebrate life whilst going through so much suffering? As there was no room for the central figure’s head as if by magic, I could see that there had been a resurrection, completely spontaneous, and therein lay the answer to my question.
How has lockdown been for you?
A very creative time linking me to like-minded international souls on zoom, publishing and promoting the book, seeing my therapy clients, albeit on zoom, seeing friends in a café when tiers permitted, facing myself and my core human loneliness and finding more transcendence, kindness, and compassion towards myself and others with more of a connection to my heart.
Where are you now on this journey and how has writing the book been?
I go with the flow now and enjoy what I have to deal with each day with the resolve to make it the best that I can, opening to new possibilities and expansion in every which way possible.