For Artist and Ocean Enthusiast Mark Levy, Oil and Water Are the Perfect Pairing

Paint what you know.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Tanya Monaghan
  • Photographed by
    Ken Pagliaro

South Bay surfer and artist Mark Levy moved to the beach when he was 10. His dad, Sol, picked up surfing, and it became a bonding exercise for him and his three sons. “Surfing brought me even closer to my dad,” shares Mark. “He’s 91 now and lives a few streets over. He is a huge part of my life.”

This shared love of surfing also afforded them amazing bonding experiences. They went on incredible surf trips together, and Sol even came along to support his boys on crazy paddles on the English Channel, the Irish Sea and around Manhattan Island.

Sol unfortunately had to stop surfing in his late 70s due to a hip replacement, but the two still spend lots of time together. “When he had his surgery, he lost a lot of muscle. It was really hard for him, but he’s still really active and sharp. He’s sort of a fixture around town. You have probably seen him walking The Strand with his clipboard and crossword puzzle. That’s my dad.”

Mark has called the South Bay home for more than 50 years. Growing up here was special. The Levy boys would often run up the hill from the beach to get home just in time for dinner—their hair still wet as they sat at the table. At their house, dinner was a sacred thing. They could be doing whatever they wanted, but at 6 p.m. sharp they had better be seated.

“Our house was one where people felt really comfortable,” remembers Mark. “There were always extra seats at the dinner table for whoever.”

Sol had a lot of interesting artistic friends, and he often invited them around for a meal. This was the Levy family’s time of togetherness, when music would be playing and Sol would often share his words of the day or discussion topics. Everyone would participate, and everyone’s opinion mattered—even the kids’.

Perhaps some seeds were planted by those discussions with their friends around that table, but Mark was always artistic and always felt the strong urge to create. “I like the idea of starting out with a blank canvas and making something from nothing,” he says. “In high school at Mira Costa, I took a really good class taught by John Jenkar. He was the best teacher I ever had. All of the students who took his class became inspired. John pulled me aside at the end of my junior year and told me I should consider going to art school. At the time, the $5,000 tuition seemed too steep. As much as I loved art, I wondered if it was actually something I could make a living from. Deep down I didn’t believe I was good enough.”

Mark ended up taking the “practical” path and studied business at the University of California, Berkeley. He didn’t really enjoy it, but he is grateful for the beach lifestyle it afforded him. He bought his home in Manhattan Beach at the age of 26 and has never taken a day here for granted. He runs long distances on the sand and gets in the water daily—whether it’s surfing or swimming the half-mile to the pier … or both. Mark also loves sunsets and rarely misses one. His lifestyle has a huge influence on his art.

Mark started painting 10 years ago when his life quieted down. Before then his house was buzzing with activity and filled with kids, animals and distractions. Mark needs to get into a zone to paint; he needs time, peace and quiet to focus. He started out experimenting with pastels and then moved to oil painting.

He carved himself a makeshift studio in a loft space in his house. “I just go to town up there,” he says. “I turn on some music and start painting. It’s all about experimenting, but occasionally I do stuff I am happy with. I love playing with different ideas and perspectives like looking at the beach from the water.”

Mark approaches his art with complete abandon. “There’s no formula. I don’t even slap down a palette. I work with a lot of paint and will even squeeze the paint right from the tube and start applying it onto the canvas. It is usually pretty unplanned and quite fanciful because I am always experimenting. It’s hard to know when to stop.” He recalls the wise words of his former teacher: “Stop before you are finished” and “Simplicity is the keynote to good design.”

Mark likes working with oil because the colors are so intense and rich. The downside of working with oil is the patience required to let it dry, however. Some pieces take weeks as a result, but he enjoys layering and scratching the paint and applying gesso on the bottom layer to get even more texture and movement.

All of Mark’s inspiration comes from the water. “They say, ‘Write what you know,’” he says. “For me, that’s the water because it’s always been such an important part of my life. The ocean has moods. It changes every day, and I love it. Once you leave the land, it is sheer wilderness out there. You’re kind of on your own, out of your element and in the food chain, and not at the top. The ocean can be really scary, and I think that humbles us. So when you get back and you deal with daily stuff, it can often seem easier somehow.”

Mark started a Facebook page for his art as a way to not only share the accompanying stories more easily but also to try to glean what resonates most with people. So far it’s been very supportive. “People enjoy insight into what a painting is about,” he says. “People crave that connection—the more personal the better. It really surprised me how much people care.”

It took Mark 10 years of doing art to even feel halfway comfortable calling himself an artist. “The role of an artist is to create; it’s not to judge your own work. Don’t think about it—just create.”

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