The lives of objects and the narratives we construct for them inform our knowledge of past cultures and reveal the degree to which our perspectives are informed by our present historical situation. Processes of decay and erosion conspire with economies of collecting and the filter of memory to imbue the fragmentary remains of past epochs with new layers of meaning and significance not intended by the original creators. Artist Nancy Wisti Grayson unpacks the lives of objects and their persistence in memory by creating forlorn, intimately scaled paintings designed to mimic ancient fresco fragments and other archeological relics from the history of western art and architecture. Some works are anonymous, communicating a sense of mystery about their creators and origin; whereas others reference important monuments in the history of Italian art that hold special significance for the artist, such as Nero's Golden House and the Christian basilica of San Clemente, built in layers atop a subterranean pagan Mithraeum, hewn from the living tufa, which is still open to public view today and which Grayson visited during her travels. Thus, the artist takes an oblique view of notions of authenticity, authorship, and value once central to post-modern art, curating collections of artifacts that sidestep analytic modes of deconstruction in favor of rehabilitating pathos, nostalgia, and subjectivity as valid forms of expression. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist the importance of travel in her creative development and the obstacles she has faced during her career.
What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?
I was younger than five and my mom had a big, red illustrated bible under a table in our living room. One of the prints was a detail of the Giotto fresco, Kiss of Judas (1304-6) from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Judas’ kissing, profiled face filled most of the page. On the page, he was an abstracted, simple, overly large shape. Next to him, just a sliver of the face of Jesus showed. In the background, between Jesus and the face of Judas were faces of soldiers, overlapping one another in a tumbled sort of way. It’s a painting that I kept going back to. I remember being compelled to look at it and want to make sense of it. The painting, with it’s worn surface, surprising and sort of confusing composition, shapes and colors, was the thing that attracted me the most. I was drawn to it but kind of repelled by it at the same time. This feeling had something to do with the composition itself and the painting’s sense of history. I wasn’t so drawn to it being a historical or religious image, but more important was the aged and worn history within the painted surface itself.
I think that this remembered image has always been important in my work and also in my subsequent experiencing of art works. It provided a base for work that provokes visceral experiences and where there's a sense of connection, but mysteriousness of placement. In my practice, the off kilter feeling of trying to discern between reality and illusion, and how one’s assumptions can change perceptions plays a role.
Tell us about a museum exhibition or travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.
Time spent in Italy has played a large role in my work. Memories of the frescoes that are found in the Domus Aurea, Palatine Hill, Pompeii and early Renaissance paintings are images that resonate with me. In the earlier frescos, the paint application, the colors, the missing pieces, the possibilities of what they once had been, the beauty in what they are now, how time has affected the surface, all bring a sense of mysteriousness and elusiveness to the images. They also hold a sense of belonging. The fact that they have survived so many centuries and transcend time by their beauty and immediacy is compelling and somehow comforting to me.
In early Renaissance paintings, along with the narratives and the playful visual surprises sometimes found in them, I’m drawn to the sense of surfaces and abstraction of pictorial space. These are usually found in fresco or embossed works, but the Cimabue Crucifix in Santa Croce in Florence is a puzzle of a painting. It had been damaged in the Arno flood of 1966 and the recovered, fragmented pieces are put back in their place and this conveys a sense of loss and completeness at the same time. The way that histories and images are formed in memories holds so much beauty.
What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?
My work has always, on some level, told narratives about history and landscape. Currently I’m dealing with memory, landscape, and the historical inference of the two using fabricated images of found or natural objects. The way that history covers and reveals, and things are discarded, repurposed, built upon and discovered are important concepts to me. I love the narrative of history and the weaving of memories that are retained.
My first trip to Italy was when I studied there as an undergraduate. When I returned, I started making small, fragile, handheld fragment pieces that had to do with the history in walls. During graduate school, the paintings developed into large pieces made up of fragments that were put together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Words and images were buried then peeled away and uncovered. The pieces were done on the floor, using hydrocal as a base that I would break apart at the natural stress points and use a map diagram to hang them on the wall. The largest one was 6 x 10 feet.
After graduate school, I worked with images of remembered views through train windows. I used hydrocal as a base and built up the painted surface with wax and oil pastels. Subsequently, there have been shifts between postcard size paintings of landscapes and mementos, urban wall images, snapshot or still images of frozen moments of landscape time, personal history paintings dealing with narratives of time and memory.
And now, in the way that things build off of and relate to one another, and circle back to the beginning, I’m making relatively small paintings of found fragments or natural objects.
Using recycled styrofoam as a support is an important part of this work. I initially used styrofoam because of it’s protective, preservative and portability qualities. There’s also a funny contradiction in creating natural looking objects using a material that takes five hundred years to decompose. The landscapes of the present, future and past somehow merge by it’s use.
Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and the development of ideas?
Usually I read, research and begin drawings at home. At the studio, I work on several pieces at a time, mostly because my work is relatively small and I need to wait for drying before layering.
Currently, I’m working on a few bodies of work that all overlap and interplay with one another.
The sculptural paintings are done on a base of recycled styrofoam and grout. Paint and other materials are layered to create abstracted but realistic looking pieces of urban landscapes (wall, fresco or architectural fragments) or natural objects (rocks, geodes or oyster shells).
There are also works on paper that are paintings or drawings of fragmented images or rocks. I’m intrigued with how, when just a few fragments are found, an image can be created that supposes what the original looked like. That finished image might be real or might be a fabricated idea of a perceived reality. The rock drawings are recordings of collected objects that signify a particular time and place.
For the paintings, I work from memory or fiction. The rocks are drawn as a sort of field study, done looking at actual objects. They’re two dimensional representations of actual rocks that exist, while the sculptural paintings are three dimensional representations of imagined versions of rocks or artifacts based, sometimes loosely, on memory.
My studio is in a brick, 19th century former warehouse with high timber ceilings and wooden floors. There is a historical aspect to the space as several galleries had their roots there. Now, the divided open space is shared by six other artists. My space is small and cloister-like with three walls. Until recently, there had been four of us who worked in the space for the last five or more years. Prior to working there, I had been isolated in a home studio space. I’ve been really fortunate to have colleagues who challenge, engage, support and know me well.
Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?
The residency that I went to was more than I could have asked for. In 2008, I went to the Palazzo Rinaldi, in Noepoli, in the Basilicata region of Italy, near the Pollino National Forest. There are caves nearby that the brigands had once stayed in, there are rock formations that are worn and irregularly shaped, goats wearing bells were surrounded by olive trees and mountains, dogs lie in the middle of the road because there’s such little traffic. Every day a car with a loudspeaker on the roof would drive through town, reciting the menu of fresh produce that was available that day in the piazza. There was a town festival when I was there. A parade started in the morning with cannon fire, a religious statue was carried through town. In the evening there was an outdoor dance, with the town baker playing the accordion. We went to a small neighboring town where there was no one around because someone had died and everyone was at the funeral. We went to a town with a predominately Albanian population where the older women wore the native costumes and were the last generation there to do so. There was an Orthodox mass going on that we found because the sound of the chanting carried through the streets.
It was an intense working time for me. I started making postcard size drawings and paintings, working on mementos of the landscape and found images. It was incredibly important to have this time when my only focus was on my work.
I was there at the end of the season and there was only one other artist, who was from Wales. We met to share meals and to explore the area, but the majority of time was spent working. It was a place where time somewhat stood still and the simplicity and clearness of living and working was what mattered.
I can’t recommend this residency because it has since closed, but any time that someone can get out of their normal, habit-filled lives and focus solely on their work has to be positive.
Part of our mission as a publication is to raise awareness about obstacles facing artist mothers. Tell us about your experiences as a working artist and mother.
I think that the major obstacles are time and flexibility. Up until having kids, time was really my own. After having kids, it had to be shared. Both my sons are now in their twenties, both working in creative fields. I think a lot of issues related to being a mom and an artist are intertwined. Things have to constantly be sorted and figured out. There’s often a sense of questioning and self doubt and hope that what one is doing makes sense, at least for me, in both being a parent and an artist.
For years I had studio space at my house which was great because I could, in theory, work whenever I wanted. But there was also a question of adapting to other peoples times and agendas and knowing that pretty often, not everyone was going to be on the same page. Overall, the forced adaptability made my studio time more efficient. It also allowed me to be more self-disciplined, less self indulgent and more practical in my approach to my work. Limited time often meant a better use of my time, or at least made me be aware that I could be adaptable to time.
Something that I wish I had done better with in my practice was show more during the time when my kids were younger. There are legitimate and limiting reasons for sometimes choosing the creating over whole heartedly doing both, but the reframed expectations about showing as much as I had done previously felt odd. I can rationalize now and say that a lot of the work I did was more experimental and allowing myself time to experiment with materials, that the time was valid and it led me to what I’m doing now, but it was sometimes frustrating because of self imposed limitations or outside demands. But that’s just something that happens in life too. There’s a balancing or juggling act in being a mom and being an artist and sometimes it works out great and sometimes it just is.