Investigator of social issues through public art, graphic design and design education.
Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is a graphic designer, artist and educator whose work reflects her belief in the importance of feminist principles, user participation in graphic design, and diverse local community issues. Since 1990 she has been the director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design, one of the oldest and most important design programs in the country.
De Bretteville attended Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. She was director of the “Art Squad,” a group of students assembled for their talent in art by visual arts teacher Leon Friend. Friend submitted much of the students work to competitions and during this period de Bretteville, won the Alex Steinweiss prize among many others.
De Bretteville studied art history at Barnard College, and chose graphic design at Yale University School of Art, thinking that it would satisfy her thirst to connect with people in regular situations, and her love of what is thoughtfully made.
In 1971 she founded the first design program for women at the California Institute of the Arts, and two years later co-founded both “The Woman's Building,” a public center for female culture, and its Women's Graphic Center in Los Angeles. In 1981 she initiated the communication design program at the Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design.
De Bretteville's beliefs about community have crystallized in the creation of public art works embedded within city neighborhoods on both coasts. Through her deep research into the neighborhoods where her works are sited, her recording of residents' voices, and her respect for the everyday life and memories of a community, de Bretteville is able to produce projects that are significant to all of their local populations.
One of her best-known pieces of public art is “Biddy Mason: Time & Place,” an 82-foot long mural on the wall of an interior street in downtown Los Angeles that tells the story of an African-American midwife who lived at the site. To create the images and text of the narrative for this piece, completed in 1990, de Bretteville used concrete, limestone, etched granite and slate inserts and painted steel letters.
In “Path of Stars,” completed in 1994 in a New Haven neighborhood, de Bretteville documented the lives of local citizens—past and present—with 21 granite stars set in the sidewalk.
“On both coasts of the United States, de Bretteville has used typography and environmental design to enhance communities. Her aesthetically rich, metaphoric projects are meaningful to a diverse range of local populations.”
—Ellen Lupton, National Design Triennial catalogue