Conversation with the Artist: Nancy Josephson
Conversation with the Artist: Nancy Josephson
We delve into a conversation with our dear friend Nancy, who has been one of our biggest cheerleaders and supporters of the Museum since the beginning. Nancy is a visual artist based in Delaware who is the brainchild behind the Beaded Square Project, a collaborative art project that will be exhibited in the Museum once complete. Despite having just a few questions for her, Nancy had a lot to say about who she is and why making art is important.
MoB: Who are you, what do you do, why do you do it?
N: My name is Nancy Josephson and I live on the East Coast. I am an artist in various forms and have been a lot of different things in my life. I’m 65 and I started making art when I was really young and always had my hands in stuff experimenting. I love finding new things and figuring out how to put them together, what they do, what their boundaries are.
Early on, I got into being a musician--I was a bass player and a singer, and I toured. I ventured out when I was 16 and was a road musician for a very long time until my kids came along. I started singing commercials when I lived in Chicago so I could be home with my kids and doing a little bit of music. While doing that, I started getting into textile design. I was really interested in quilting and playing around in that world, and that led me into mixed media-- that fine line between the world of craft, artisan, and artistry. I started doing more mixed media while doing a little bit of touring with Arlo Guthrie. I brought my son who was a year old, and they had all of their kids with them [the Guthries had four kids] and the other band members had a couple of kids, so there were a lot of people on the tour bus. They had a nanny and school teacher, so they would teach and supervise when we’d have to go on stage. I would hand my son off to her and run off and perform and then run back. It was so fun, so silly, but so stupid! It was like, what am I doing? And I, at the same time, I was getting much more interested in the world of visual art. It just started creeping in more and more.
At that point, I just decided I didn’t want to be on the road anymore. I started to be very intentional about making artwork and playing with materials. In the course of time, I went back and forth between being a musician on the road and being a visual artist. I always thought that it came from generally the same place, that creative spark. I thought there would be this balance where I could easily pivot between visual art and music. I found that I couldn’t, it was one or the other. One always took precedence over the other. That is partially because I am such a focused individual, that when I focus on something, it's kind of laser-like and insane. I gave it over to doing visual work. I started using beads primarily and found that it was the thing that I loved visually and materially. They allowed me to explore a lot of different things -- they taught me, and I taught them.
In doing that, I became very involved with spiritual work, which brought me to Haiti, because why not! The artwork that I was seeing down there drew me into that universe. The artwork and spiritual work that existed in the same universe resonated with me. I ended up writing a book about Haitian Vodou flags which are the sequined banners used in ceremony. I’ve been going down to Haiti since the late 90s, and developed relationships both in the art community and the spiritual community, which are frequently exactly the same. My first spiritual father, when I was becoming an initiate into the religion, was a well-respected Vodou flag maker.
MoB: It sounds like you’ve been fully enveloped in the art world since the beginning.
N: It feels that way, one way or another. My nature was such that I wanted to find out about how things function, and then how I could apply them to what was in my brain.
MoB: What kind of stories does your art tell? What collection to you feels most meaningful?
N: It’s interesting because I think that most of my art has two paths running, but they exist together. One is a more decorative work, which I love doing, that’s where I have traditionally made a living. I make deer head sconces, salt and pepper shaker birds, pieces of that nature. I’ve found that some people who I teach want to be known as a capital “A” artist--but it’s pretty cool to be a mind-boggling artisan who knows their materials, who uses their materials, who has the intent on making something that’s beautiful. That’s a different road for me than this other road that is about intent and imbuing work in a way that is a conversation with the work about the spiritual physicality of something that is not physical like my collection of Spirit Heads. That to me is the strongest work.
Since Covid, actually, I started doing something that I absolutely did not know I was interested in and not sure how to get into it. What it ended up being is using paint. Painting is never something that I felt I had a grasp on or was comfortable with material-wise, but I wanted to use paint on sculptures, not just use beads. I am known for my beadwork, so it was a situation where I needed to embrace the idea of a language that I felt very comfortable in and how to manipulate that with something that was completely out of my comfort level. The work that I ended up doing was more interior and personal. When I look back on this body of work, it’s about this experience of going through isolation and an examination of what I’m seeing other people go through, feeling what I’m going through and reacting to that. I was cranking out work like nobody’s business and loving it, then I hit this wall and just put it away for a month. I just started again a couple of days ago, actually. I discovered this new material that oxidizes metal paint that looks like old rusted verdigris. Total game changer! A lot of this is stumbling around trying to get myself excited about new stuff. It’s not my favorite body of work, but it’s something that’s giving me a lot of push.
MoB: What are your current inspirations for your work and how has this year changed you as an artist? That was answered to some extent, but it seems like your work is a reflection of what you see and is collectively happening as an experience.
N: But it’s a very personal experience as well -- I did a piece with candles and wax, it’s as if the sculpture is literally on fire trying to balance the fire. The next piece I did was make all these plates out of Apoxie Sculpt and they’re sitting on [the sculptures] shoulders and on her head, it’s called The Plate Spinner. There’s another one that’s about carrying water, Whose Water I am Willing to Carry, so I’m thinking about these bigger themes. I was doing two pieces that were going to be conjoined called When You’re a Hammer Everything Looks Like a Nail, and When You’re a Nail Everything Looks Like a Hammer. They totally changed into something different. It’s important for me to recognize that it is not like when a lot of artists will say “I have all this inspiration and I’m just the conduit”, and it’s like, no, that’s a bunch of bullshit. I am in this conversation, we’re having a conversation, I’m going into it with intent. I’m really clear that there is stuff going on to be talking about.
MoB: Can you tell me a little more about your Spirit Heads?
N: Those are mostly based out of my spiritual world, different spirits (called loa) with different associations. There are cool spirits, hot spirits, water spirits--each spirit in the Vodou Pantheon has things that they love as offerings, like different food, drink, etc. My Spirit Heads collection are explorations of loa, or Vodou spirits. For example, Lady Damballah. It is based off of the loa Damballah, portrayed as a giant white serpent. When he comes into ceremony, he likes eggs, so part of the visual that goes along with him are snakes, whenever you see snakes in Vodou anything, it’s in reference to Damballah. Each of the spirit heads that I do are related to the spirit that I am focusing on. I have different substructures of different spirits--at various times when I’m working in my studio, it will be so loud in there with the voices of the spirits. There are also a lot of colors associated with certain spirits, and I’ll go into those references. And a lot of those spirits are there -- I have altars in my studio, and those spirits are there with me every day. Part of it is ancestral, like I’ll talk to my parents, my grandparents, and their grandparents --they’re all part of this system. Some days I need this spirit to be more on my shoulder than another.
Interview recorded on 12/16/2020 by Molly Garson and Kristina Skillin. Special thanks to Nancy Josephson for her time and fun conversation. You can check out more of Nancy's work on her website, www.nancyjosephsonart.com or on Instagram, @nancyjoyjosephson.
Images courtesy of the artist.
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- Heather Kahn