Cathy Free, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Louise Levergneux's dog, Topaz, rarely gets a chance to hang her head out the front window of the car to sniff the air, because somebody else always beats her to it.
Wherever she goes, the South Jordan artist feels compelled to roll down the window, poke her head out and stare down at the asphalt, while her husband drives.
Even on vacations overseas, while others are looking up at ancient cathedral spires and castle turrets, Louise is always looking down, hoping to find another unique example of what few others notice: manhole covers.
It all started in 1999, when she and her husband, Michael Sutton, were sitting outside a coffee shop in Scotland and noticed a manhole cover covered with beautiful hearts.
"I started taking pictures," says Louise, "and pretty soon, I had enough to fill a volume. I remember wondering, 'How could we have ignored manhole covers for so long?'"
Since then, she's photographed manhole covers in every city she's visited from Omaha to Ottawa, documenting each trip in a special artists' book — a painstaking skill where the book itself becomes a work of art.
Louise makes copies of her manhole covers on an archival printer, has them cut into round shapes the size of drink coasters and organizes them volume by volume in zip-drive jewel cases that will fit in your front pocket.
"I didn't want the book to be heavier than … well, a manhole cover," she says.
She calls the project "City Shields," since manhole covers are heavy, made of metal and are usually covered with designs, much like the shields medieval soldiers carried into battle. Currently, more than 40 museums across the country have copies of her collection in their archives.
"It's become an obsession," admits Louise, 54, who recently met me for a Free Lunch chat at Starbucks (she was quick to note there were no unique manhole covers outside) to talk about the unusual artwork that has consumed her life.
Although she has put together almost 30 artists' books covering everything from pet cemeteries to eyeglasses, "City Shields" will never be finished, she says, because there are new manhole covers to discover around every corner.
"I have 46 volumes of almost 1,200 manhole covers so far," says Louise, "and if a person decided to look through each volume, they could literally follow my footsteps through my life. At least, my life since 1999."
Born and raised in the province of Quebec, Louise always knew she wanted to be an artist, but she certainly never thought she'd end up devoting her talent to sewer lids.
Flip through her manhole photographs, though, and you quickly see the appeal. Every city's covers are different, from the cloud and sunburst designs of St. George to the discs in Omaha covered with intricate river and farm scenes.
Some of the most interesting manhole covers can be found in Ohio, says Louise, where every county has a different artistic motif that tells a story about the area. But she also appreciates the metal covers that are scattered around Salt Lake City parks.
"They have small maps on top, showing the park's pathways," she says, "so somebody can know exactly where to walk." She pauses, smiling. "Of course, that assumes that the person is going to go find a manhole cover and take a close look."
For those who prefer to drive over them without a second thought, Louise says she is happy to document their beauty for future generations.
"I don't care much about where the manhole covers came from, what's underneath them or who made them," she says, "but as works of art, they're remarkable. When I think of all the cities I visited in the past and never noticed them, now I want to take my camera and go back."
So if you notice a petite woman with pearl-gray hair stopping traffic in the middle of the street to shoot pictures of the pavement, you might want to wave in appreciation instead of honking.
"To me, it's a way to get familiar with a city in an entirely different way," notes Louise. "One manhole cover at a time."
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