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Textures of her life

Former mayor Susan Bass Levin is back home in Cherry Hill, surrounded by the eclectic art and sunny color she loves.

The bright wall of Susan Bass Levin's (top right) kitchen features a jazz-themed painting by Robin Morris (left) and a colorful abstract (bottom right). (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
The bright wall of Susan Bass Levin's (top right) kitchen features a jazz-themed painting by Robin Morris (left) and a colorful abstract (bottom right). (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

Some people look at fabric and envision curtains, a blouse, a pillow.

Susan Bass Levin sees fabric and instantly her thoughts move to wall art. In every corner of Levin's Cherry Hill apartment there are intriguing things hung on the walls among paintings and prints are framed works that are actually - fabric.

"It's really all about texture - I've always loved it, and I always manage to find a place for fabric in my home and in my life," says Levin, who has recently experienced major changes in her life.

The former Cherry Hill mayor returned to South Jersey from New York in January as president and chief executive officer of the Cooper Foundation.

From July 2007 through this year, Levin had served as deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, overseeing 7,000 employees. She lived in Manhattan, where the views were not grass and flowers, but rather a vast cityscape from her 49th-floor apartment on East 29th Street.

Before that, the high-energy Levin, trained as a lawyer, had been commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs during the administrations of three New Jersey governors - James McGreevey, Richard J. Codey, and Jon Corzine.

Public life meant little time for home and hearth, yet Levin cares deeply about her personal environment - and it shows. Through her moves, she has clung to possessions that date back decades, and even managed to squeeze some into her typically tiny New York apartment.

"I needed and wanted to have familiar things with me," she says.

High on that list, wherever she lives, is her fabric art. Along with other forms of art, it now enlivens the walls of her two-bedroom/two-bath rental apartment at the Highlands, a garden complex off Route 70 near Springdale Road. Here, Levin has created a sunny world, with explosions of color and texture against soft buttercup yellow walls in an open living/dining area.

Levin showcases a variety of fabrics in ornate or simple frames, depending on the style and origin of the piece. A fabric wall hanging from India rests in a gilt frame, while simpler pieces from Spain and silk screens from China are held in less ornate ones.

It's always instinct, not any particular design or subject, that draws Levin. "I love color almost as much as I love texture, so that's always a factor."

Another common denominator in her wall art is flowers - they bloom on fabrics, in prints, in paintings, and in accessories that speak of Levin's eclectic taste and travels. Her collection includes contemporary abstract jazz-age etchings mingled with tapestries and family photos. Levin, long divorced, is the mother of two adult daughters and the delighted grandmother of a girl and boy.

Among her most special treasures is a massive paper weave on a dominant wall in the open living area. Created by Philadelphia artist Stephen Tucker, the piece is made of intricately arranged multicolored blue, turquoise, rose, and white paper coils seemingly floating within a Plexiglas frame.

Tucker spent months creating it for Levin, and despite its size, the piece has survived moves from her Cherry Hill home to her Manhattan apartment and back to her current residence.

Then there is her sentimental attachment to all things Cherry Hill, from a depiction of the township's famous covered bridge to an archival print of "Delaware Township Hall." (Delaware Township is Cherry Hill's former name.)

Another wall decoration is of the town's water tower near Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike. Nearby is a replica of the Lincoln Tunnel sign that marks where New Jersey meets New York, a nod to her position at the port authority.

A collage of prints and cards from many New York landmarks, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Guggenheim, completes the Big Apple salute.

One small piece has particular meaning to Levin. A card reads, simply, "May You Live All the Days of Your Life"; she seized it like pirate's booty when she spotted it in a card shop, and framed it.

In July 2003, during a routine health screening, Levin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and underwent two surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy. During that terrifying time, Levin heard a rabbi utter the same words she saw on that card.

Cancer-free now, Levin is an activist for ovarian cancer awareness, and involves herself in as many events and programs as time allows.

Her home reflects Levin's wide-ranging taste in furniture as well as art. There are hand-painted tables, both utilitarian and decorative, and Asian-inspired unmatched night tables. "I prefer mixing, not matching!" she says. Levin also collects china and pottery of various styles and eras.

Also striking are futuristic counter stools in jewel tones that worked well in her tight Manhattan space, and equally well in her more spacious current kitchen. Books reside in a glass-windowed wooden case, another piece that has traveled with its owner.

But now, "SBL," as she is often affectionately known, is back in town, and glad to be. Cherry Hill is home.

"I feel that I'm where I want to be at this point in my life," Levin says.

"I love South Jersey, and I'm really inspired by all that's happening at Cooper," she says. "So yes, it's good to be back home again."