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Long Island Museum

Guest curator adds personal touch to exhibit at Long Island Museum

‘Portrait of Beth,’ 1999. Photo by Bruce Weber

By Rita J. Egan

When Beth Levine, designer of innovative footwear from the 50s to the 70s, passed away in 2006 at the age of 91, she left behind her unique footprints on the fashion world. To honor the former Patchogue resident’s accomplishments, the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook recently opened the exhibition Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes.

Helene Verin, an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and guest curator of the exhibition and author of “Beth Levine Shoes,” was a young shoe designer when she arrived in New York City in the 1970s. After meeting Levine, she quickly found a mentor and friend in her. The curator said she looked up to the innovative designer who she described as funny and unique. 

“She was larger than life,” Verin said.

The ‘Cinderella’ shoe, 1961, clear vinyl with lucite heel, silver kidshin details and lining by Beth Levine from the collection of Helene Verin. Image from the LIM
The ‘Cinderella’ shoe, 1961, clear vinyl with lucite heel, silver kidshin details and lining by Beth Levine from the collection of Helene Verin. Image from the LIM

The curator said she holds one of the largest archives of Levine’s work. The shoe designer closed her factory, which she owned with her husband Henry Levine, in 1976, but kept a storage unit that contained her work as well as material. According to Verin, the two designers would often stop by the unit, and Levine would give her mentee random items such as buckles and plastic flowers. Verin said she sometimes wasn’t sure how Levine utilized the pieces in her designs, but in later years, as she researched the designer’s work, she would see pictures of shoes that once were adorned with the flower or other accessory pieces she was given.

Levine, who was born in 1914 and raised on a farm in Patchogue, arrived in New York City as a young woman with aspirations of becoming a social worker, according to Verin. However, when the Long Island native began working as a shoe model to earn money, she found a career that was a better fit for her. The future footwear designer wore a size 4 shoe, which at the time was considered the perfect sample size. Verin said Levine realized she had a knack for picking out comfortable shoes and compared her feet to a potter’s wheel.

“It’s such an amazing story. Most shoe designers are men, and they come from generations of cobblers,” Verin said.

Levine quickly realized she knew more about shoes than the men that were designing them at the time. When she went on to become a designer, she tried on every style to ensure a comfortable feel.

She quickly became a favorite among first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon who needed stylish yet comfortable shoes. “Everything she did was based on comfort,” Verin said.

In addition, Levine’s clients included Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minelli, and Cher. Levine also collaborated with designers including Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass and designed all the footwear for Braniff airline’s flight attendants.

When creating her Cyrano shoe, which featured a pointed toe, Levine didn’t just narrow the toe. The designer added the pointed end to extend past where the toes would fall so they weren’t jammed into the tip. “She always used to say things like, ‘There’s no such thing as breaking in a pair of shoes. They’ll break you first,’” said the curator.

Verin said Levin also enjoyed many firsts during her career. Saks Fifth Avenue opened their first stand-alone boutique, Beth’s Bootery, which carried the designer’s footwear, and Levine was the one to figure out how to create a clear Cinderella shoe similar to other brands but with no visible screws. She also was the first to draw a picture of the footwear on the outside of the box to make it easier for shoe sellers to find a particular style for their customer.

The Patchwork Boot, 1967, cotton, silk, velvet and Lurex boot quilted by Adirondack artisans from the collection of Ron and Nancy Bush. Image from the LIM
The Patchwork Boot, 1967, cotton, silk, velvet and Lurex boot quilted by Adirondack artisans from the collection of Ron and Nancy Bush. Image from the LIM

The designer has been credited with introducing boots to haute couture as opposed to them just being worn for utility use, according to Verin. One of her most famous boots were worn by Nancy Sinatra while publicizing her 1966 hit song “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

Among her unique designs were a pair of shoes with AstroTurf as the insole called “Splendor in the Grass,” and a shoe with no upper that was secured to the foot with adhesive, according to Verin.

When it comes to the shoes included in the exhibition, Verin said, “When you look at them, even though they’re 60 years old, they’re so current. Today you would wear them.”

Besides pieces from her own collection, the curator has been able to borrow items from other collectors for the exhibition. One of the lenders is Levine’s nephew Ronnie Bush who inherited the family farm and has dedicated a corner of his barn to the designer and her work. Also, on display will be a photo of Levine by another one of her family members, professional photographer Bruce Weber.

In addition to Levine’s iconic footwear, visitors will find photos, paintings, illustrations, film footage and other artifacts on display. The curator said even those who aren’t footwear aficionados will appreciate Levine’s work.

“I think you can see these shoes as works of art,” Verin said. “You can really see a brilliant mind and talent at work.”

Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes will run at the Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook, through Jan. 3, 2016. Sponsors include Astoria Bank, Bank of America, Nancy Burner & Associates and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Regular admission is $10 per person, $7 for seniors and $5 for students ages 6 to 17. Children under 6 and museum members are free. During the exhibition run, special events will be held including an opportunity for seniors 62 and older to visit the show for free on Sept. 8 from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, visit www.longislandmuseum.org or call 631-751-0066.

A patrol wagon, c. 1905, used by the 145th Precinct in Brooklyn. Photo from LIM

The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook recently welcomed a terrific new addition to its carriage collection: a police wagon used by the 145th Police Precinct to patrol the waterfront areas of Gowanus, Brooklyn, in the early 1900s.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, urban police departments used a variety of different types of vehicles: Black Marias and Paddy Wagons were used to transport prisoners, and had an enclosed space in the back, with padded interior walls. The New York City Police Department purchased its first such wagon in 1886 for $500.

This patrol wagon, c. 1905, was a little more versatile and facilitated the rapid movement of police officers to scenes of disorder or disaster. The wagon has two benches for patrolmen to sit in back and rides lower and faster for pursuit and quick response. Such wagons were used right into the early automobile era.

The wagon is a gift from the Museum of the City of New York, on view on MCNY’s first floor for many years, but has been off display for more than a decade. A transfer of ownership was made to the Long Island Museum due to storage space limitations. It will now be featured in the Long Island Museum’s Streets of New York gallery in the carriage museum, a great complement to the museum’s firefighting vehicles and other urban public-use vehicles in that space.

Located at 1200 Route 25A in Stony Brook, the Long Island Museum is a Smithsonian affiliate, dedicated to American history and art with a Long Island connection. Along with the 40,000-square-foot carriage museum, the museum also features an art museum, Blacksmith Shop, Nassakeag Schoolhouse, c. 1877, Ploch-Williamson Barn, c. 1794,  a decoy gallery in the Visitors Center and an herb garden.

The museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Regular admission is $10 per person, $7 for seniors and $5 for students ages 6 to 17. Children under 6 and museum members are free. For more information call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

Dedication ceremony to be held this Sunday

Molly Sedensky affixes the crocheted pieces on one of the trees on the grounds of the Long Island Museum. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Boxes and boxes of brightly colored crocheted rounds were stashed in a room in the administration building of the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook in early July waiting for volunteers under the direction of artist Carol Hummel to be attached to two large trees and three smaller ones on museum grounds.

This was the final step in the yarn bombing project, Hooked@LIM, which began last January at the museum when community volunteers, more than 200 in all, began making the pieces. Yarn bombing, also called urban knitting, guerilla knitting and graffiti knitting, began as a way of bringing the community together by decorating public works including trees, statues and even railings with colorfully knit or crocheted pieces.

The art form has spread to other countries with Hummel traveling to Europe on a number of occasions to work on a community project.

Hummel, who has a master’s degree in sculpture from Kent State University, began yarn bombing in 2004 with a public art competition in Cleveland. She noted that she had the idea of decorating these trees at the Long Island Museum for several years. Two are large and visible from the road, Route 25A, so can even be seen by community members driving by.

So for the past approximately six months the volunteers have been crocheting. On July 6, Hummel and her volunteers began affixing the crocheted pieces to the trees. The color palate and pattern were carefully worked out in advance, with the lowest pieces on the trees in deep blue and purple and the colors lightening and brightening as they work their way up the tree in the high branches.

The nylon yarn does not harm the trees, she noted, as air easily passes through the crocheting as does rain. She’s even seen insects crawling around the crocheting and an occasional bird removing a loose string for its nest.

Hummel was assisted by daughters Molly Sedensky and Emily Ellyn. Sedensky could be seen on a lift, high up in a tree, wrapping it with the rounds. Volunteers came each day of the installation to assist.

“I brought in everybody,” Hummel noted referring not only to her daughters but her grandchildren as well. “It’s a big job.” Ellyn, a chef who has been on the Food Network, drove up from her home base in Florida to assist.

The exhibit will be in place for two to three years depending on weather conditions. Already, “people have been coming by and looking . . . we’re spreading a little happiness — it makes everybody smile,” said Hummel, taking a brief break from the installation. In addition to the five trees at the Long Island Museum, one tree at Avalon Park and Preserve was also yarn bombed.

The official opening of Hooked@LIM and a dedication ceremony will be held on Sunday, July 19, at 2 p.m. with the artist and all the volunteers who worked to make the exhibit possible. The Stony Brook Chamber Ensemble will present an outdoor concert, featuring a brass quintet. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own seating, chairs or blankets, for the concert. In the event of rain, indoor space will be available.

The Long Island Museum is located at 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. For further information, please call the museum at 631-751-0066.

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