Andrea Levy on OpinionArt and her talk at #SNDDC

Andrea Levy (Photo by Lisa DeJong)
Andrea Levy (Photo by Lisa DeJong)

I first saw Andrea Levy in person at the SND Houston workshop in 2005, after years of admiring her illustration work in Best of News Design annuals. Attending her session that year was, for me, Must See Levy. As she began showing a few of her raw photographs in that dimly lit hotel conference room, describing her connection to them, I quickly came to one conclusion: Andrea just sees the world differently than the rest of us.

Levy is still finding new ways to bring her one-of-a-kind vision to life through photography, illustration, video and writing. In fact, she and her colleagues at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer have invented something that we haven’t exactly seen before. They call it OpinionArt, a name that doesn’t sound nearly as groundbreaking as the work it describes.
Please don’t take my word on that. I will instead refer you to the judges who recently awarded Levy three gold medals, a Judges Special Recognition and a prestigious Best in Show (only the third time the award has been given in the last 12 years) at the 36th annual Best of News Design competition in Syracuse, NY. “It’s raw, it’s different, it’s surprising, it’s real, it’s daring. This is more than a page, it’s an idea, a concept that rises above our normal vision for a printed page,” said one judge. “When we talk about what an opinion page should be, they should strike a cord. And there’s no way you don’t have an emotional reaction to the issue through this work,” said another.

I sent Levy a lengthy list of questions for what I thought would be a Q&A, but as anyone who has ever worked with Andrea knows, she has a tendency not to give you what you expect. She gives you something better. So instead, I have written this as an introduction to Levy’s first-person take on her OpinionArt and what it means to her.

I couldn’t be more anxious to see her speak again at this year’s SND workshop in Washington, D.C. Nearly a decade after that first time in Houston, I bet I’m not the only one who will consider her session to be “Must See Levy.”

Andrea’s essay

Throughout my career, I had always done the occasional OPED piece, for which I chose a topic and created both the words and art.They were usually a bit (or a lot) controversial, and quite conceptual: the effects of television violence on children, climate change, the presidential race, etc.

Over the years, at times even my assigned work has ended up a little contentious too: Hot Mama of Invention (about pornography and technology), September 11th anniversary, and the like. I have come to think of my conceptual illustrations as my bad children. I raise them as best I can, napkins on their laps and all, but then they run off to start all sorts of trouble. This however, is precisely the power of art. It’s alive. It’s multidimensional.
A Face in the Crowd
From the day he hired me, David Kordalski, has been the most incredible mentor and cheerleader. He just gets it. I never have to explain anything. He is the person in the newsroom who isn’t afraid of my ideas. And then he goes to bat. So, along with Emmet Smith, Kordalski kept encouraging me to be brave, and do the opinion work on a more regular basis. And as I remember, the ever-droll Emmet simply said, “As long as the content’s great each week, you’ll be just fine.”… Haha!

Needless to say, I was pretty reluctant for a long time. I had just enough real experience to know what treacherous turf it is. It still scares the #@!% out of me. For there are some very serious ramifications with publishing one’s opinion. Even with the paper’s support, there is no hiding. It’s me and the readers.

Eventually, by August of 2013, I began to produce them at a more frequent pace. Then, beginning in January of 2014, I relented, and embraced the idea of myself as a visual columnist, in earnest. Many were weekly. I was also doing occasional project assignments: Sochi, Best workplaces, Gay Games, A-1 art, etc. Concurrently, I was immersing myself in After Effects. I produced some little videos. One of which accompanied my column, “A Common Garden.” They’re just raw experiments right now, but I am consumed with the art form, and intend to incorporate it into my column.

Once I began, I couldn’t stop thinking. Ever. There are endless topics. I read constantly. I think each of us pretty much knows our own opinions. I did too, until I started to write them down. Then to share them with over 300,000 readers, is a real roller coaster ride. And then, how? What image? I was continuously absorbed. I think I did my laundry twice in six months. I got crazier than ever. But Kordalski was always in my corner. His attention to detail in the design of my pages, and his honoring of my vision and intentions was completely reassuring.
Solve for x
Once published, there were great controversies. I quickly learned that readers are not the least bit shy about telling you (and your editors) that you are stupid, wrong and going to hell, (stuff I already knew of course). One bit of name-calling that really sticks out was, “kooky grandma.” Now that hurt. It’s totally mean tweets.

But the flip side has been utterly amazing. The engagement, the dialogue, the support and enthusiasm from readers has been satisfying beyond words. I have gained incredible insights about developing creative structures and vehicles. About the ideals that drive me. About people.

I am thrilled to have been offered the invitation to speak about it all at SNDDC.

I have always worked to keep both winning and losing in perspective. You have to. It’s not why we do what we do. But as I watched the Best in Show discussion (after I already knew the results, of course, haha), I still couldn’t believe it was true. I still can’t.

I have endless gratitude for the courage that SND can offer us. Individually and collectively.

My heartfelt respect to everyone.

About Paul Wallen

is senior designer at ESPN the magazine.

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