What Traveling Overseas Taught Me About Art and Beauty

Elisa Stancil Levine's picture
An excerpt from This or Something Better, a Memoir of Resilience 
What Traveling Overseas Taught Me About Art and Beauty
I am a decorative artist and colorist; I devise and apply custom historic or contemporary designs for beams, ceilings, walls, or floors for major projects throughout the US and abroad. Repetitive and generative, this work is a voodoo mash-up combining science, physical stamina, blind faith, and prayer. Creating transformation through color and texture is my craft; I am a maker. 
Heightened observation, learned as a defense in my early years, helped shape my intuitive skills. I can read a space, a client, the light, the proportion of a room, seemingly through osmosis. My lifelong relationship with nature informs my palette. 
In 1991, my boyfriend invited me to Europe, my first chance to travel abroad. I arranged a commission to faux marbleize an entry in a fancy apartment in Neuilly for the French consul general; this dovetailed with the beginning of Chuck’s three-week business trip. I packed my art brushes and a French/English dictionary, planning to buy materials as needed. Why worry?
In Paris, we had the beautiful apartment to ourselves, and on the first day Chuck bought me an armload of flowers; we ate chocolates and pastries and were deeply delighted with each other. I half expected him to propose. Later that evening he did make a ring, twisting the silver and blue foil from a Baci candy wrapper, and slipped this onto the ring finger of my left hand. When I looked at him in question, he said, “Well, someday I probably might want to get married.” After an hour or so, I put the fragile little ring in an inside pocket of my luggage with some rose petals. From then on, I saved a few petals from any roses Chuck gave me.
When he left for his conference in Lucerne, I was surprised to find working in Paris difficult. My easy-breezy plan? Buy the necessary paints using the French/English dictionary. The reality? Arm waving, sketches, and dictionary references did not translate into, “I need slow-drying mediums, what in America are called glazes.” Every version of paint or clear medium I purchased dried super fast, the very worst thing for marbleizing. I sent up a prayer; I needed help. Later that day, I came upon a Frenchwoman hand-lettering a sign outside a shop and explained what I needed, again with few words and lots of gestures, but the product she recommended dried even faster. Unable to artfully blend as needed, I kept the colors subtle, but the marbled effect looked weak, not mysterious nor dramatic. I grew anxious.
When my clients returned, they swept into the entry with great anticipation and then . . . silence. Mon Dieu! My first disappointed clients. French disappointed clients. I explained on the fly that I awaited their review so we could add details “to taste.” I stayed two more days, making adjustments. On my last night in Paris, pleased with the results, they took me to the famed Les Deux Magots café to celebrate. I ate raw oysters, smiled, and even drank some champagne, though oysters and champagne never appealed to me much.
Later, alone on the train to Florence, I wished I had my worn copy of Gone with the Wind. Reading it might dull my regret, as it did during boarding school when things failed to go according to plan.
There were no repercussions in the design world, but in my heart I knew my naïve confidence when heading to France, brushes in hand, had not been sufficient. My lack of research prior to the trip, coupled with distraction from my sexy boyfriend, took a toll on my results. “I did not know what I did not know,” as they say in business. I was unprepared. Like way back in boarding school, when confronted with difficulty, I lost my mojo.
Alone in Florence for four days, I was soothed by the Italian palette where frescoes, faux marble, and patterned ceilings galore backfilled the remorse lingering from Paris. When I joined Chuck in Lucerne, we went to the renowned Chapel Bridge to choose a music box, a promise he had made the summer we met. Each night in our room in a grand hotel above Lake Lucerne, while Tchaikovsky’s ”Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” played in the background, Chuck gave me a surprise: earrings made of Swiss lace in the shape of butterflies, a bottle of perfume said to be made of one thousand flowers.
“I can’t believe how much I missed you,” he said. “I don't know what’s happening. I feel about you like I feel about my daughter; I mean, protective. I’ve never felt like this before.”
“I think this means you love me,” I responded.
Traveling around Europe was everything I expected: romantic and educational. As an artist, my provincial small town perspective needed to be stretched, challenged, and expanded. The awe-inspiring gilding and color sophistication of Versailles; the loose, evocative faux marble in Florence; and the precise trompe l’oeil of Lucerne were examples of true mastery, gained over centuries. In contrast, much of the American work I had seen—or done myself—now seemed weak imitation.  My confidence shaken, I knew humility would be an important addition to my toolbox. I bought used books at a Paris shop and at the Florence flea market with glossy interior images of historic castles and estates. Inspired and intimidated in equal measure, I returned to America. 
For the next three decades, travel to Peru, Istanbul, Greece, New Zealand, Morocco, Croatia, and other unique locales expanded my toolkit and increased my deep respect for how culture and local materials inform design, comfort, and a sense of belonging. 
What Traveling Overseas Taught Me About Art and Beauty
Elisa Stancil Levine's is the author of the new memoir This or Something Better. She is also an interior decorative artist, and her color and pattern design have been featured in every American design magazine, on the cover of Architectural Digest numerous times, and featured in Elle Décor, House Beautiful, Veranda, Town and Country, Vogue, California Home, Luxe and in newsprint and social media.
Elisa and her husband live on a ranch on Sonoma Mountain and spend hours hiking, horseback riding, and running in the forest. Meditating, travel, kayaking, mentoring, and lecturing about color and pattern are current endeavors. This or Something Better is Levine's second book. A third book is in the works. Levine's essays have recently appeared in Entropy Magazine; Stirring: A Literary Review; Penmen Review; and Writer's Workshop Review.
This or something better book cover by Elisa Stancil Levine
For more information visit www.elisastancillevine.com