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Remembering Alexandra Zevin: Addicted to Beauty, Devoted to Justice

Zevin — an artist, thinker and teacher who festooned left-wing demonstrations with her sequined banners and towering puppets — died on Jan. 25, 2022. She was sixty-three years old.

Alex Holmstrom-Smith, Annie Levin & Liz Vogt Mar 7

In some ways, Alexandra Zevin was born to be who she became: a rabble-rouser, a leftist, a fighter for social and economic justice. As a child in the early 1960s, she lived communally with her extended family in a secular Quaker community in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her mother, Annie Barry, managed a non-profit store that benefited the Congress of Racial Equality and anti-nuclear weapons coalitions; her father, Bob Wollk, was a trade union organizer and strategist. Although her father’s adventurous life made it hard for him to be a constant presence in her life, his visits with Alexandra — full of talks about philosophy and activism — had an impact on her. Annie’s second husband, Robert Zevin, and adopted father to Alexandra, is an anti-war activist, an academic and a leader in the field of socially-responsible investing.

But in other ways, Alexandra forged a path entirely her own. She became the unquestioned visual artist of the family. Even as a child, she had a remarkable artistic focus that would see her spending hours on end in her tiny makeshift “studio,” head bent over collages, painstakingly cutting magazines with safety scissors, drawing and painting. Alexandra didn’t sit around in the suburbs and wait for life to begin. At 17, she dropped out of high school and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. There, she lived in a loft heated by a wood-burning stove, where the walls shook as the L train sped past her windows. Alexandra took this in stride: She got a space heater and built a tent. With an eye for detail and the painterly, and a passion for Cezanne’s discipline of looking, she set upon an intense course of study. 

Alexandra was noted even then for her discipline as an artist, for the passion and hard work she put into creating images. According to her lifelong friend, Matthew Gaddis, she was “addicted to finding beauty in overlooked places.”

Alexandra’s artwork moved and changed with her. After leaving Chicago for New York, where she enrolled in the Columbia University studio art MFA program, she continued to work in oils but also turned to other media. Gouache paintings, murals, dioramas, animation, and video art all show the same breathtaking intensity and passion. In the early 2000s, she created “Egg Dream,” a series of dioramas made from sugar, paper and dollhouse lights. Hollow eggs made in a mold from sugar paste were lit from within. Inside them were collages of images cut out from children’s bibles and Mexican comic books which told the story of Genesis punctuated by lurid Neolithic scenes. Alexandra made dozens of these objects. They were displayed in galleries, shown during a one-night performance in an abandoned building and hung in trees in a New York City community garden.

In her forties, Alexandra fell in love with Egyptian belly dancing as a way to relate to and understand her body, and to nurture deeper friendships with other women. As with so many of her passions, she committed herself wholly to this art form — she went to Egypt multiple times over a period of six years for belly dancing events, where she learned Arabic and eventually taught animation classes at the Collège de la Sainte Famille (Jesuit school of Cairo). In 2009 and for years afterward, she facilitated an art project for Egyptian and American high schoolers called But a Shadow of Myself. It combined many things dear to her heart: Egypt, cross-cultural friendships, guiding and nurturing art students, and exploring identity and selfhood.

Alexandra was practical, principled and had no time for bullshit. Her only indulgence was expensive art supplies — that, and a dirty martini.

Alexandra, ever practical, earned a graduate degree in teaching: She loved New York and knew that she needed a steady career to be able to afford the life she wanted. She started teaching art in a women’s high school on Rikers Island, rising at four o’clock in the morning and working late into the night. After Rikers, she worked for decades at alternative high schools within the New York City Department of Education. Alexandra was attuned to her students’ needs, able to meet them where they were and then push them a little further. Alexandra also became a steward in the teachers union, where she showed up at the meetings, asked questions and pissed people off. 

When it was time to retire, Matthew asked her, “So what are you going to do now?” Alexandra gave one of her small, secret smiles and answered, “Raise hell!” And she did. She threw herself fully into protest and activism.

Right away, Alexandra joined the People’s Puppets of Occupy Wall Street. An art collective founded during the 2011 occupation of Zuccotti Park, the group was struggling to keep their momentum as the years passed. In the words of fellow puppeteer Joe Therrien, Alexandra “came with this burst of energy and excitement, at a time our crew really needed it.” With her excellent design and fabrication skills and her staggering work ethic, she often ended up executing enormous projects by herself. Yet she was always a team player, equally happy to be a worker bee taking direction from others. It was the work, not her ego, that was important.

In 2016, she went to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and put her body on the line with folks half her age. Later, in New York, she was about to enter a section of a pipeline when she fell off an 8-foot fence and broke her ankle. The injury was so bad that she required months of rehabilitation in a nursing home before she could walk again. Other deliberate conflicts with the law included being arrested at a sit-in at the Capitol Building in Albany, New York; protesting a lack of action against climate change and road-tripping to Washington D.C. with an 8 x 20-foot moveable mural to block the doors of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in an anti-fracking protest. As her cousin Jane remembered with a laugh, “After getting arrested, whenever she was doing the perp walk, there was always this look of total triumph on Alex’s face.”

In 2018, Alexandra joined Sing in Solidarity, a leftist chorus, and was on the group’s first organizing committee, gamely taking on unglamorous administrative work. But it was her visual arts contributions that took the group in the direction of DIY socialist gesamtkunstwerk — in which many artforms combine to create a single total work of art. For years, she had toyed with the idea of creating a modern cantestoria, a medieval version of a flipbook, in which portable banners are used to illustrate scenes described in music. In December 2021, she made it a reality, painting a series of banners that would accompany the chorus’ rendition of “The Internationale.” As her roommate reported, “everything in our apartment was covered with paint except the cat” — she pulled it off in time for the choir’s annual caroling event. But only a few weeks later, Alexandra was gone.

She should still be here, working on her next art project, attending her next protest, wearing her trademark bandana, her silver-streaked braids hanging over her shoulders. She had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2009, but with careful treatment, she was living well and even normally. She should have died of leukemia, said her doctor — another 20 years from now. Or from something else entirely. It shouldn’t have been from COVID, which trampled roughshod over her vaccinations, boosters, N95s and careful lifestyle. 

All those who loved her know that Alexandra deserved more time. She was pure-hearted. She was patient. She was practical, principled and had no time for bullshit. Her only indulgence was expensive art supplies — that, and a dirty martini, enjoyed with friends after her latest protest. She had inner stores of fiery anger — but only for injustice, and infinite stores of compassion — for every person struggling. We are all walking in her footsteps now. 

The authors are members of the Sing in Solidarity choir.

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