Pretty Girly
Norfolk artist goes global with his twist on the pinup
by Teresa Annas
The Virginian-Pilot 07/09/10

NORFOLK, VA - Jason Levesque, aka Stuntkid, struggled to categorize his art. Last week he said Modern Pinup Art. Hours later he changed it to Lowbrow Art.

When the widely recognized Ghent artist/illustrator is working - and he's working a lot - he's not thinking too much about what niche he fits in.

He makes slick cover illustrations for alternative publications such as LA Weekly. He just finished one for a summer drinking guide for SF Weekly in San Francisco - pretty girl, drinking a martini.

He gets full-color spreads on his work in underground art magazines, including a Russian one. In such instances, he and his pretty-girl pictures are the story.

He also exhibits his fine-art work in alternative galleries all over the world. He's built a fan base in Los Angeles from his numerous shows there. Last year he showed in Paris, and he has more exhibitions coming up in Toronto and Barcelona.

He does all that while working full time as lead animator for Grow Interactive, a Norfolk company that provides digital services for Nike, Starbucks and other top businesses. He's also helping to raise two children -Isabelle, 11, and Ian, a 13-year-old animated filmmaker with his own website.

On Saturday, a show of Levesque's work opens at ArtGallery in Ghent. His work will appear alongside that of his friend, Erik Jones, in a show called "Pretty Girls."

The 34-year-old Levesque (pronounced leh-veck) has a downtown, urban sophistication that belies his roots. He has curly red hair tucked behind his ears, squared brown glasses and a breezy, untroubled charm.

When he was little, his family lived on a houseboat in Florida, where his father wrestled alligators for a living. By age 10, they moved to Great Bridge in Chesapeake.

He didn't go to college. Instead, he got married and took a job where he could learn Web design and taught himself art on the side.

He tended to draw idealized women. His mother, Beverley Mayfield, who teaches art at Windsor Oaks Elementary in Virginia Beach, recalled last week that she caught her teen son drawing the centerfolds in Playboy magazines.

"I remember telling him, 'This will corrupt your idea of what a real woman looks like.' And he said, 'I'm only looking at the pictures so I can draw.'"

Later, as Levesque's style evolved, he found a way to counteract the allure of the female figures.

"I create something that is typically beautiful and I try to pull away from it a little bit by adding a gross element. I like playing on that edge of something that is beautiful and repulsive."

Along the way, about a decade ago, Levesque embraced his skateboarder nickname Stuntkid and used it for his Web page - (He averages 1,500 hits a day and sells several limited edition giclee prints off his website most weeks at $50 a pop.)

His career took off in 2001, when he wrote and illustrated a Web Design magazine tutorial on Photoshop, which he still uses to create his illustrations.

Levesque typically looks at or traces photos he has shot of models then scans in those drawings. Once the drawings are in Photoshop, he redraws the images and colors them, adding and changing the environment as well as the figures' hair, clothing and expressions. Rather than pen on paper, he's using a stylus on a Wacom tablet.

For a short while, until 2009, Levesque was staging elaborate photo shoots in his home using well-known underground models, designers and makeup artists. The models usually flew in at their expense from Los Angeles; their bizarre outfits might be shipped from London.

"Every model came with her own fan base," he said. "Working with them, I would adopt new fans and increase my fan base." The model would gain some of his fans, too, and photos to add to her portfolio.

"I enjoy the buzz of having a house full of talented people, and to see the level of talent I could draw into a Norfolk apartment building."

It was a crazy endeavor, a little like alligator wrestling. As did his father, he likes "a very rich life experience. I look for it in safe ways, and in moderation."

He stopped that sort of photography last year, sensing the photos were overshadowing his artwork.

Inside the Ghent apartment he shares with his second wife, artist Elizabeth Virginia Levesque, he sat down at his iMac to look at and discuss his work destined for ArtGallery.
He opened an image file from his "Anatomical" series. Each figure is depicted with sheer skin, so the skeleton is visible, half-dressed and in seductive poses.
"The idea of translucent skin is repulsive, like jellyfish have," he said.
He opened a file labeled "Dismal," which looked like an odd still from Disney's "Fantasia." A wide-eyed girl has just risen from primordial swamp ooze, antlers on her head.
In an image called "It's Chilly Under There," an attractive girl struggles underwater beneath ice.
While these images aren't so sexy, some of his pictures are closer to classic pinup - with a sardonic twist.
"Even though it's sexualized, it's not pornographic," said his wife. She was entertaining an artist friend, Chelsey Barnes, in the next room. "The point of it is not to arouse somebody.

"There's like a sliding scale, and he is at the tame end. And subversive, and with a sense of humor."

"It's satire," chimed in Barnes. "When you view it, it doesn't make you automatically think of sex. It's more fun."

Levesque said he is fascinated by "the mental processes that keep someone's eyes lingering on an attractive body longer than is comfortable. It's like luring somebody in with this enticing image, and then trying to manipulate the terms.

"As an artist, you want to be pushing the boundaries. What I do, from my perspective, is create product. And the saleability of human sexuality is part of that product."