CARRBORO — Nerys Levy was born in Wales and has traveled the world – from painting shifting ice at the north and south poles to teaching children in the slums of New Delhi.
But for the past 16 years, she has made her mark bringing Orange County’s different worlds together.
Levy, whose first name rhymes with “Paris,” co-founded Carrboro’s annual Community Dinner, an event featuring multicultural food and entertainment that will take place Sunday at the McDougle School.
Of the 650 guests expected to attend the feast, about half paid and half came with tickets sponsored anonymously by others. The guest list includes refugees from Myanmar, speakers of Chinese and Spanish, and residents of homes for people with disabilities and mental illnesses, among others.
“The bottom line is inclusion,” says Levy, who moved to Carrboro 23 years ago. “We all sit down for a moment in time enjoying and celebrating each other.”
Levy, 67, conducts year-round meetings to plan the event, which she started with Mildred Council, the chef better known as “Mama Dip.”
But Levy, an artist whose recent work aims to draw attention to climate change, takes her activism beyond this one feast.
As the longest-serving board member of the Friends of the Carrboro Library, she advocated for the opening of the current library at the McDougle School, and has been a key voice in the ongoing plans to build a separate library for the town.
Those who know her say her activism is centered on creating connections with parts of the community that rarely occupy the same spaces – whether they are sharing a meal or a book.
“The common theme in her work is bringing people together,” says Florence Peacock, who has volunteered with the community dinner for more than a decade. “She’s had an impact all over the county because she’s able to unite people from different cultures and backgrounds.”
Traveling to teach
Levy was born in North Wales, where her mother was a Welsh language teacher and her father a school principal.
Levy traces her impulse toward activism to her father, who was active in local politics – and to Welsh culture, with its emphasis on helping others.
“It was normal to have other people in one’s life and to share one’s life and one’s skills with others,” she says.
Levy says her schooling involved a thorough introduction to the arts, and painting made the largest impression.
She recalls as a young girl being sent outside to paint the stunning landscapes surrounding her hometown – an activity that is now the basis of her work as an artist.
Explorers were revered as heroes during Levy’s youth, inspiring her love of travel. She says she would often gaze out at the ships going by on the estuary leading to the River Dee.
“I always had a vision of the outside world I could fantasize about,” she says. “I grew up during that time of exploration when there was a feeling that the world was there to be documented and visited.”
She studied education and social work at the University of London, and got her first taste of working abroad in India. After graduation, she went into the British volunteer service, similar to the Peace Corps, where she taught in Kingston, Jamaica and New Delhi, India.
After college, she worked in London with a group aimed at improving race relations, and she soon returned to the university to study history. She eventually earned a Ph.D., focusing her research on Welsh missionaries in India.
During her graduate studies, she met and married her husband, an anthropologist who took her with him on extended stays in Nepal and other countries for his work.
The couple later moved to California, where he taught at the University of California at San Diego. The couple moved to Carrboro when her husband, who recently passed away, got a job with the National Humanities Council, based at Research Triangle Park.
When she came to North Carolina, she felt obliged to choose between continuing her historical research or painting, and chose the latter. Her work encompasses a range from small drawings to 12-foot landscapes – much of it completed on site and perfected in her home studio.
Ice has long been one of her subjects, starting when she painted retreating glaciers in the Alps in the 1990s. That and other experiences informed her paintings in the Arctic and Antarctica, which she visited in the mid-2000s.
“I understood ice,” she says. “You have to be able to understand how it moves to paint it.”
The result of those trips was a body of work meant to draw attention to the impact of global warming. She currently has pieces on exhibit at the National Humanities Council, the FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill, and a California gallery.
Activism at home
Levy got involved with environmental causes in California, inspired by the sudden destruction of native forests near her home to make way for development.
That experience prompted her and her husband to move into the home on 10 acres of protected land near Morgan Creek where Levy still lives.
But she said that in her new home she would focus on painting instead of activism. She did that for about a year, but soon a friend asked her to join the Friends of the Library.
Two decades later, Levy attends nearly every public meeting in the ongoing plans between Orange County and the Town of Carrboro to find a site for the library – a long and tedious struggle that has been fraught with controversy.
Levy’s sense of urgency about the project, which she says is crucial for low-income families and seniors, has never waned.
“A library is a necessary resource to help people get access to ideas and support,” she says. “It’s taken 25 years to get here, but I’m optimistic.”
The dinner was started by a cultural arts group Levy was involved with to celebrate Black History Month one February. Council was brought on as chef, and when the dinner was a hit, Council suggested expanding it.
They moved the event to April, and it has grown ever since. It is currently sponsored by Orange County’s human relations department, but runs on donations and the work of volunteers.
This year, Karen refugees from Myanmar and Thailand who are learning to farm nearby are providing the salad. Entertainment will include bluegrass and gospel music and Mexican dancers.
“It’s like an operatic production,” Levy says. “When everyone gets together, the result is beautiful.”
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