You’d expect one of the world’s most extensive collections of American folk art carvings to be housed in a museum — the Wadsworth Atheneum perhaps, or the Smithsonian.
But you’d never guess that this amazing array of pieces — 800 wood carvings, of everyone from Pocahontas and Knute Rockne to Charles Lindbergh and Hillary Clinton — is right here in Westport.
In a private home. Whose owners have twice converted garage space into warm, artifact-filled rooms, now overflowing with American historical figures, events and icons.
Anne and Bob Levine married in 1987. She’s a 1964 Staples graduate; he’s a Brooklyn native who’s lived here since 1969.
A month after their wedding, they went to a Westport Arts Center exhibit on folk art. They knew nothing about the subject. But Bob — who in addition to being a neurologist, author, former owner of Anacapri restaurant and marathon runner, was a woodcarver in his youth — and his wife were intrigued.
They bought a couple of inexpensive pieces. Then they added a few more items. Soon they were going to antique shows and auctions, and scouring eBay, building — without even realizing it – a world-class collection.
Today it spills through every room of their unpretentious home. From the outside, you’d never know it’s there. Once you step inside, it’s everywhere.
The first thing you see is a collection of Uncle Sams, in every imaginable pose. A World War I piece shows Kaiser Wilhelm bowing at Sam’s feet.
One room contains perhaps America’s largest collection of whirligigs, along with frontier pieces. But the crown jewel is a fantastically detailed diorama of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, bought at a Christie’s auction. Each member is individually carved. An electric chandelier shines overhead.
Most of the folk artists are self-taught. Few are well known. Most are dead. Woodcarving is a dying art, Levine says.
He and Anne show me John and Abigail Adams, Henry Clay, Sitting Bull. There are lots of Lincolns: Abe as a young man, as president, wearing classical garb. Nearby are Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George Armstrong Custer.
“These are beautiful works of art,” Bob says. “But most of them were done just as a hobby, to give as gifts, or keep as decorations in the home.”
Each has a story. He shows off a carving of a Japanese soldier, surrendering in World War II. It was done by a disabled American soldier, as therapy. The piece rests atop a wooden box — where the soldier kept his medal.
In another room, Levine points to a carving of Ronald Reagan. It was created by a woman — a rarity in a male-dominated field — from Tennessee. In 2008, the Levines called her to commission a carving of President-elect Obama. They learned the artist — a full-time hairdresser — was semi-illiterate. She needed help sending it by mail.
The Levines commissioned another piece: a carving of the flag-raising in New York, after 9/11. That artist was losing his vision to macular degeneration. It was the last work he ever did.
The couple do not know every artist in their collection. Many are anonymous. But they know the story behind each piece — where they found this Thomas Edison, why there are so many carvings of show girls, how come William McKinley was so popular back in the day.
There is hardly any room left in the Levines’ home for new works. Which is why Bob (who in retirement runs the neurology clinic at Norwalk Hospital, serves with Americares, and is writing 2 more books) and Anne (who after retiring from her job managing an architectural office volunteers for the Westport Historical Society, Westport Schools Permanent Arts Collection and Norwalk Hospital) are now giving away some of their precious collection.
It will go to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, for a show next year.
That’s the oldest public art museum in America. However, Bob says, it has almost no folk art.
No wonder. The best collection in the country is 60 miles away, right here in Bob and Anne Levine’s Westport home.