VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Bobby Levin is proud of his father, Bernie Levin, who served in World War II.
Bernie Levin was a lieutenant commander in the South Pacific, including serving under Admiral Arleigh Burke in the Solomon Islands. Levin wiped away tears from his cheeks recently as he recalled his father’s service, including his part in destroying a Japanese cruiser, submarine and 30 enemy aircraft.
Bobby Levin, a Norfolk native and art lover, has organized a tribute to local military members and their families at the Haynes storefront on Virginia Beach Boulevard in time for Veterans Day.
A vinyl canvas with 170 photos of service members and their families towers 22 feet high and 290 feet across the building. There’s also a panel on one end of the building with larger portraits.
The piece is part of the “Inside Out Project: Faces of Courage,” a public art program that includes 2,000 installations in more than 138 countries, including France and England.
An event will be held on Veterans Day at 12:45 p.m. in the store parking lot. People in the photos have been invited, and Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer and Rep. Elaine Luria have been invited to speak, Levin said. The canvas will be on display for at least six months.
Levin is co-founder of Strategic Art Solutions, a consulting agency. He’s friends with the owners of the furniture store on the bustling boulevard, who offered their storefront as an easel for his project.
Levin parked at Haynes for five weekends and talked to people who came to shop, asking if they had military connections. He set up a backdrop and took their photos when they did — some smiled, some stared stoically, some made silly faces, stretching their mouths wide with their fingers.
“I got up in their grill and said, ‘Show me something,’” he recalled. “‘Get angry. Do something.’”
The project was created by French artist JR, who won a $1 million TED Prize in 2011, a grant awarded annually to help leaders reach their goals and inspire others. JR envisioned a participatory art project that took personal messages and gave them a public audience — turning images into free posters that can be displayed in diverse communities.
Levin loves street art, and came across JR’s initiative and reached out to him in fall 2019 to bring it to Hampton Roads.
Levin was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2017 and given 30 days to live. He now tries to do whatever makes him happy.
“Cities, oftentimes, are defined by their arts and their culture,” he said, standing outside of Haynes last Wednesday. “I am truly of the belief that arts and culture can be as powerful as armies.”
Levin worked with Laura Baxter, executive director of the Armed Services YMCA in Virginia Beach and one of the Veterans Day speakers. The branch is a gem because of its resources, Levin said, including a food bank it has for military families.
Theresa Elam goes to the Y and her daughter attended a preschool program there. Elam’s husband has been in the Navy for 11 years, they moved to Hampton Roads about four years ago.
They were at an event when they met Levin. He explained the project and asked if they’d like to have their photos taken.
Elam, who’s from Oregon, said moving every three to four years with the military makes it hard to find a sense of community. Some family members from the West Coast have joined them but there are still cousins, grandparents and others thousands of miles away.
She thinks the Inside Out project shows how resilient military families can be.
“I love that he is showcasing all the different faces of military families,” she said. “This is a huge military community, but I think because of that, a lot of people don’t know what goes into being part of the military community and the daily sacrifices not only the dependents make, but their active-duty spouses.”
Levin gets it. He was raised in military housing and remembers people turning up their noses at military families.
Like JR, he believes art can change perspectives. There’s something “evocative,” he said, about seeing people’s faces on the panel. One of his favorites is a child making a face, drawing attention to his prominent, two front teeth.
He plans to recreate the project in Richmond, though he doesn’t have a location yet.
“Through art, we can change our perspectives on how we see one another,” he said. “I can’t give you a pocketful of money to go do something wonderful. What I can do is stuff like this — give back to try to make this a better community — whether it’s public art, making us think, making us care or making us aware.”