Nancy Azara

A Conversation With A Pioneer Feminist Artist

Interviewed by Ronnie Eldridge

RE:  Hello I’m Ronnie Eldridge welcome to Eldridge & Company.  What better way to follow this year’s discordant political rhetoric than to have a conversation with a pioneer feminist artist.  Nancy Azara is a sculptor and printmaker who creates a visual world of beauty that words just can’t – and she’s my guest today.  Hello it’s nice to have you.

NA:  Thank you for having me.

RE:  You believe that there’s art in everyone.

NA:   Oh absolutely and everyone has a creative ability. Some people are more musically engaged, some people more visually engaged but everybody has that ability and you just have to tap it.

RE:  How did you tap it?

The Fascination With The Creative Process 

RE:   Well I always wanted to use my hands.  And as we know now more than we used to know – the hands are really an extension of the mind in terms of creativity.  So using my hands was something that fascinated me. How the hands became an instrument of creativity.  An instrument of making it happen.  And then much later I discovered the hand paintings on the cave.

RE:   When you were young you used to what – you used to make things?

NA:  I used to make doll clothes. I used to embroider. I used to look at things that are fascinating and different.  I remember a trip to the Brooklyn Museum as a young child and we were in the Egyptian section.  And to help make the children be fascinated, she was talking about the mummies. I was so thrilled by being there and so taken aback by the way people expressed themselves.  And the way the teacher’s sounds – in her speech – were bothering me because I just wanted to look and to be immersed in this experience.  So that was one of the beginnings.

And then when I went to as a student to the Museum of Natural History and they did a little tableau on Ecuador or some South American country and they gave us costumes to wear.  I got one to wear and I remember being thrilled with the transformation.  I think maybe the creative process is something that fascinates us because of transformation.  It takes us to a place and especially here in this world as we live everything is much more concrete.  We have to find a place for everything.

When you work creatively when either you work with your hands or you begin to visualize with your mind you go into your inside you know in your dreams and you see how things come together and they don’t have their little place anymore.  That becomes fascinating and it gives us a kind of door or a door that opens into an inner self, which then brings us to explore parts of ourselves, that we never even knew were there.  Sometimes people become frightened of that and because we’re so unused to that as people.

RE:  You’ve written this great book.  It’s really a primer for how to get in touch into your inner self.

NA:  Actually it is. If you think about art and it’s been around for a bit and it’s still selling so I’m pleased with that.

RE:  Now, you’ve graduated – I assume you went through stages but you’re a sculptor essentially and you do these wonderful collages and prints.  How did you get to these large pieces of wood?

The Journey 

NA:  It was a journey that took me to study fashion design and then from fashion design, which was interesting but it didn’t call me. I looked into theater design and I became a costume designer for the theater. I was in my early 20s and began to work with different costume designers.  Talk about magic. When you work as a costume designer you make these clothes for people, they go onstage and the transformation is so strong. You can see how one color makes a person one way and another color brings up this other quality in a person. You begin to become aware of the importance of color and form in the world and within yourself.

I was very young and fascinated by that and then it became clear that I just wanted to make the work for myself. I wanted to put those costumes on pieces, on experiences on wood logs perhaps.  It was an evolution – it didn’t happen overnight but gradually I became more and more engaged with for instance the tree because I’m a wood carver. I became more and more engaged with the tree and the trees relationship to us as humans and to myself.  And the fact that trees that have felled still have a history of what they were like when they were growing.

I thought a lot about that.  And then the tree and I – I say this – I know people think it’s a little odd but it’s true – the tree and I have a conversation.  It’s a kind of dream experience. I look at the tree and I touch it and feel it and becomes a log then and then I carve it.  And it does become transformed like those costumes in the theater.

RE:  And then you dress it with these beautiful paints – silver leaf, gold leaf, colors. And that’s the dressing.  That’s basically the costume.

NA:  That’s right and it’s magical. The costume of course inter relates to the spirit in it, which is the tree and how the tree is then transformed. It comes together in a way that’s very exciting to me.

RE:  And then all these pieces of work that you have – you don’t have a favorite? 

NA:  You get favorites but you know you get fickle. I just I just love this piece and I think it’s wonderful and you know I the creative process has this quality to it that often when you finish a piece it’s the best thing you’ve ever done – it’s the greatest – and two weeks later you look at it.  I’m sure anybody who’s written or worked on projects, you know very simple projects can relate to this in some way. I mean you look at it and you think it’s great and then two weeks later or even the next morning sometimes – you look at it and say what did I do?!

RE:  But you’re inspired sometimes by events other than the trees personality.

NA:  Of course.

RE:  The mother – the birth of your child.

The Inspiration Of The Women’s Movement 

NA:  The women’s movement. The experience of transforming myself or seeing that I could do that and knowing other women also had those issues. Because at my age I remember this whole time in the 60s and 50s which was so confined for women and now in the 60s it became much more open so that’s all in the artworks.

RE:  Is there something called women’s art?

NA:  Well we don’t know and we didn’t know when I founded with a group of other women – The New York Feminist Art Institute.

RE:   And that was a long time ago.

NA:  1979.

RE:  That was at the peak of consciousness-raising groups?

NA:   That’s right.

RE:  And so you were a member of a group?

NA:  I was a member of a consciousness-raising group from 1969 and then that group sort of fell apart in 1970.

RE:   What drew you to that in first in the first place?

NA:   Desire.

RE:   Were you by then sculpting?

NA:   I was yes and much of the work that we were doing – the other women and myself women artists – we were doing in isolation and we had no real way to connect and to see that the isolation was of was false. That there was really –

RE:  Good reason for it?

NA:  Right. And any woman of course at that time who was working in this way also felt the same but visual artist wanted to express it and so we began to find women – the art historians began to find women have been working for centuries who would work in isolation.

RE:  Because they weren’t being displayed in museums, galleries didn’t represent them, they weren’t part of the market – it was a man’s world.

NA:  Right and then they did statistics and they found maybe I mean it’s still twenty percent of the women of the galleries and the museum’s it’s still between twenty – twenty three percent of women whose work has shown. There are many reasons for that besides just the out and out discrimination is that women are making work that’s a little different than what the art world shows and some women get through with that and some women don’t. And so people have to become more used to the way women work and learn to see. It’s very hard as humans I think to learn to see something different.

RE:  So women work differently you think than men?

NA:  I think so.

RE:  And they’re inspired differently?

NA:  They may be because they have a different experience. Your work is a reflection of your own life. Men also now have gotten more open to experiencing what women are trying to do but some of them have taken it over as theirs, which is not an uncommon situation. Some of them have just been really supportive and help their fellow artists but there’s plenty of work to be done. We don’t really know what women’s art will look like for I think for a long time if there is a woman’s art – there may not be. It may crossover but that is a worthy cause to explore.

RE:  But there is a woman’s perspective.

NA:  There is clearly.

RE:  I mean in all my years of government I know that women approach public policy from a different viewpoint.

NA:  Agreed.

RE:  So it has to be reflective in any of the work we produce.

NA:  But the depth of that and how that manifests itself is still an unknown – not completely because women did make lots of changes. I mean they made changes they brought in quilt making as real art. Fine art quilts because that’s how people talked and they still do to a certain extent. So they brought that in to the mainstream. They brought working with fabric in general into the mainstream so they brought a lot of kind of women’s things like aprons. There is an artist [whose] name is Pearl who worked with aprons and she made this beautiful work…doilies.

RE:  She was something.

NA:  She was.

RE:  She was a founder of the Institute wasn’t she?

NA:  Of The New York Feminist Art Institute.

RE:  What did you do at the Institute?

NA:  Our basic purpose was to explore women’s vision because we had students who came and many of them were already working artists, some of them had master’s degrees but they often couldn’t really work with their own vision because they didn’t have the support. When they went to school they were told that their own vision was weak.

RE:  You had that at The Art Students League.

NA:  I did and then it was easy to say you know you’ll make a good wife to an artist I mean they always said you know they loved saying those things. So that’s what happened so many women flocked to us because we were away to then explore what they had lost in art school and what they had been trying to find. We weren’t sure – you know it’s all an X Factor. We don’t know if you can find it because even when you do feel comfortable with the art you making – art is a very mysterious thing because we’re dealing with the unconscious and something that we never see.

RE:  By the time you started the Institute had you sold pieces? Were you in collections and museums and commissions so you had already done that?

NA:  Somewhat. I was a young artist. I was not as young as some of them because I had been a costume designer in the theater and I was beginning to do that. But the obstacles we would meet. I remember trying to apprentice to a major sculptor and he had a little ad, so I called and I said I’m interested in being an apprentice. And he said nothing personal I just don’t hire girls. So that’s the kind of thing you got and also as I mentioned before you’d make a great wife to an artist. So these are the kinds of things that women were confronted with.

RE:  So it was a reinforcement of a woman’s art and the perspective that brought that art and the company it’s the whole thing that consciousness raising accomplished.

NA:  Right and so we did consciousness-raising – a group of artists.

RE:  It also was the beginning wasn’t it of what you described here?

NA:  Yes and in 1969 we started to do consciousness-raising, we started to look at each other’s work. There were many writers who out or we then began to develop their own periodicals. Women Artists News was an early periodical. Cynthia Navaretta still comes to openings and things. Cindy Nemser had a magazine.  So we were beginning to be seen as serious artists – something to deal with.

RE:  Was Marcia Tucker – she was a curator. Did she curate an all woman show? The movement was starting.

NA: The movement was starting and Marcia was very supportive and Marcia was at the Whitney. There were Whitney Annuals at the time and Marcia worked very hard to get women to show to be chosen to show in those annuals.

RE:  And the fact that she was a curator was also unusual – women – there were not that many of them.

Younger Artists 

NA:  There were not that many yet but they were starting to change a little and Marcia was really a visionary. Also Elke Solomon.  Those two women were in my women’s group so we had lots of art discussions as well in and out of our meetings. Elke Solomon was the director of prints and drawings at the Whitney. Last year I did a discussion where I had older women artists come and talk about what it was like and I’ve had a lot of discussions between all the women artists and younger women artists.

RE:  I was going to ask you about that.

NA:  It’s a group called Represent and we meet tri-monthly. It’s very easy in terms of meetings but we discuss the differences between what happens with older women artists and what happens with younger women artists now and in the past. And Marsha and Elke and all of us we discussed all of those things at the time recently. Unfortunately Marcia is deceased. I had her come to the meeting to discuss what it was like to be a woman activist working in the establishment while women were outside demonstrating. And she talked about the struggle and how she had to manage both things.

RE:  So do younger women artists have an easier time?

NA:  Yes they do.

RE: Through your work and through talking to the wood and doing all these wonderful things you are very spiritual.

NA:  Yes I do a lot of spiritual things.

RE:  Are younger women artists the same way?

NA:  There’s a whole group of them and there’s a whole group that are looking towards understanding that better. The reason why I started this group – The Represent group which is at SoHo 20 and it’s free – open to everybody and men do come – it’s because a younger woman artist said to me – why do these older women artists hate us so much, it’s not our fault that they get grants, that they get gallery’s, that they get reviewed – it’s not my fault.  And of course it’s not, but they didn’t understand why we couldn’t at the time.  And now it’s not so easy for older women artists in general to get the grants and the galleries.

RE:  The grants weren’t around then where they?

NA:  I think they might have been. I got a Gottlieb ground I believe in the early 80s so they were just beginning to develop. I think Gottlieb Foundation may have just started and you had to be older for that.

RE:  You’re an organizer – where did that come from?

NA:  Do I know? Do I know how we end up having those gifts?

RE:  I know it’s so incredible isn’t it?

NA:  You just go in there and you work in a job. I did all these menial jobs and you say something’s not quite right with this so you say to your superior. You know that doesn’t feel quite right do you think I can work with it a little and they say most of the time sure.  And then you try it and then you say – I’m an organizer and then you just work with it. It’s just something that comes. I think it belongs to everybody though.

RE:  I think we’ve already got it.

NA:  Right and it’s just a matter to of how you…

RE:  But isn’t the basic thing also confidence?

NA:  Yes but you do build confidence.

RE:  This is a wonderful book and it starts with the fact that everybody has art in them and also it combines your belief in meditation or trying to reach inside of you to find what it is that you want to express. But in it you also tell wonderful stories. Your grandfather’s garden. Your grandfather was a gardener. How you love the colors and then the patent leather shoes. I love that.

NA:  Very touching.

RE:  So all of these were all your things that you developed all by yourself?

NA:  Yes, writing and visual art aren’t really that different. I mean you’re still dealing with that mystery so when I was invited to write this book I started to bring those most memories up and some of them are much more appropriate as words anyway so I put them in the book.

RE:  I loved the story about the streetlamp because that was really the beginning right?  Tell us.

NA:  It’s about me painting the street. Across the street from where my parents lived in the summer we had a little Bungalow in Long Beach, Long Island. There was a street lamp and it was so magical how it radiated light so I tried to paint it and it wasn’t very successful but what was successful was how the light radiated and the way the form affected me. It was an old-fashioned kind of streetlight so it wasn’t the ones that come up from behind it was a low one.  It had sort of a triangle with it and it just radiated out so I think that was also part of my early experience of creativity but also making doll clothes too.

RE:  What piece of work reflects the inner light?

NA:  I think it’s in all of my work.  I think that some of it more than others and some of it presents itself as a link. If you look at one piece sometimes I say well I’ve got with this other piece next to it because it really needs it.

RE:  Show us – tell me about the pieces.

The Work 

NA:  We can talk about this. This is a show of having in July of next year in 2017 at the Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a memorial that’s a New Hampshire and it’ll be toward the end of July. It’s going to be mostly White Show and I made one piece, which I call Ghost Ship and one piece I call Sweet Pea. Ghost Ship is perfectly lovely in itself but for the show there was a piece that I just thought was so wonderful and it was a small tree. And it died – it bloomed and it died and so we couldn’t figure out what happened to it.  We took it out of the ground and it had no roots. Some little animal went in there and ate the roots.

I took it to my studio and it just seemed perfect to put it next to Ghost Ship. So Sweet Pea while it probably won’t be in the same room as Ghost Ship, will be in the same show because there’s an interrelationship and there’s a kind of light there. Both of these pieces are about getting older, about the experience of self as we move on in life and the kind of wisdom we get and the kind of mystery that confronts us.

I think that one can sort of go along through life and just walk along through one’s life without having to deal with some of these things. I mean they do come up from time to time like the death of a parent or something like that but then when you get to be older you’re seeing – well – you know I said to somebody well I think I might we might be interested in getting a 30-year mortgage for our little house in the country. And then I thought 30 years I don’t know but my daughter will deal with that I suppose.

RE:  In Heart Wall, what inspired that?

NA:  The Heart Chakra – there’s a Buddhist prayer which talks about going into the unknown and it’s about the heart which is the center of love and compassion. In my book I talk about all the different things people have – relate to – in the heart like heartwarming.

RE:  There is a whole list. Yes, it’s fascinating.

NA:  Thank you and so the heart is really attached to all of these compassionate things within ourselves. So this is a sculpture that I made about that. It’s 20 feet long.

RE:  Where is it now?

NA:  It’s in storage.  But for a while it was that on Madison Avenue, Forty-fourth Street, in the lobby. People said they loved it in particular because it’s a carving and its wood and it has this nature quality that the lobby of the building on Madison and Forty-fourth Street didn’t have. So the people who worked in the building loved coming in every day and connecting.

RE:  And the Johnson & Johnson mural, I love that.  I’ll think it’s so beautiful. Now that’s there.

NA:  That is there, that’s a permanent installation. It was a commission and it’s near as the emergency room and near the operating room. So you’d see people wheel out of the operating room and wake up and look at this gold leaf piece all along – it comes to 25 feet total and it makes an L. At one end is a 5-foot piece, which are hands. They wanted something to celebrate the doctor’s hands.

I went and traced the doctor’s hands and a friend of mine who’s a physician, who’s a woman, came with me because I wanted some women to be connected because we know that they’re all male doctors. This was about ten years ago. And the surgeons and the other doctors – they said don’t tell them where their hands will be because they’ll have an argument and sure enough they were putting their hands up to the wall for the dedication – this is my hand – no it’s not – this is your hand – so we had a good time with that too.

RE:  We’ve come to the end of our time and we haven’t even mentioned the different collages and the leaves and more trees so I guess you’re going to have to come back.

NA:  That would be great. It was fun talking to you.