Marilyn Nelson Description
Artist on the move:
This sounds very trite, but I was always an artist. I grew up in a military family that moved often. When continually relocating, changing schools, learning new neighborhoods, making new friends, etc., a child spends more time struggling to adapt to the present than in thinking of a possible future. The future was always uncertain. However, wherever we lived I was kept busy with numerous physical and art activities.
By 2nd grade my parents had me taking color design classes with a neighborhood artist. As a child I spent hours weaving potholders, making paint-by-number masterpieces and assembling mosaics from craft kits. In 5th grade, my friends and I developed a board game called Shopping Spree, and my task was to chart out the stores on a large sheet of graph paper, creating grid mazes to connect them. At 14, living in Naples, Italy, I not only took art class at school, but also studied oil painting (still life and landscape) after school with an English woman. Living there, we had the opportunity to visit museums and galleries locally and across Europe.
By the time I was in 7th or 8th grade I pronounced that I wanted to be an art teacher. (I did become a university professor of art and design later on).
Growing up in a service family, we lived in many states and other countries. We moved often and traveled extensively. I left home at the age of 17 experiencing culture shock as I slowly adjusted to civilian life.
Military art brat:
During my three years of high school in Naples, Italy (my dad was a Naval officer) my family traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and Egypt where we visited major museums and archeological sites. Informing my high school art-making the most may have been the Great Pyramids, Victor Vasarely’s paintings in Paris, and Andy Warhol’s exhibition at the Berlin Nationalgallerie. I found the repetitive, hard-edged, colorful and vibrating work new, exciting, thoughtful and inspiring.
I’m looking over:
Since early childhood, I have found and collected four-leaf clovers, a process of identifying the anomaly within the patterned field of clover-leaf shapes. Some of these clovers have appeared in my work. I once painted each flag of every independent nation in the world on a four-leaf clover—176 clover flags all together. I have numerous books/journals of my four-leaf clover collection, often mapping and documenting where they were found.
Compulsive counting has been evident since childhood and is key to my paintings. I enjoyed activities requiring rhythmic counting in tandem with body movements: I played hopscotch within the grid; the Hawaiian jumping dance-like game Tininkling; I bounced excessively on the pogo stick; I twirled a baton, making patterns in the air as a high school majorette; I played the piano (though not well); I sang in the chorus; and into my 30s I still performed as a tap dancer. And as a young competitive swimmer, every stroke, breath, and lap was counted. It is no surprise that my paintings involved ordering shapes and colors through counting.
Parts into wholes:
An innate sense of organization was essential to hand-making most of my clothes as I grew up. In sewing, a pattern is the template from which the parts of a garment are cut out of the fabric. The act of sewing is assembling component parts that must fit together to complete the apparel. Vital to the seamstress is the ability to conceptualize the finished product in advance, maintain precise craftsmanship, focus, and patience.
Living near Navy shipyards I watched vessels arrive waving their brightly colored, geometrically patterned maritime signal flags. These memories along with my father’s WWII signal flag flash card set inspired a suite of 26 editions of hand-pulled screen prints titled “U.S. Naval Signal Flag Narratives,” the only narrative, autobiographical works I’ve produced.
Formalism + function:
I’m a formalist. What I return to and appreciate most is work with formal concerns and qualities. Not only do I look at painting and sculpture, I enjoy 20th century design and photography. It excites me to discover the structural relationships and design of work. Narrative content is generally secondary to me. Of interest are finding similarity of shapes, forms, elemental spatial intervals, noticing visual continuation throughout, figure-ground relationships, color interactions, geometry, etc. I’m drawn to works that stimulate me intellectually and emotionally.
A few admired artists/designers who fall into the above categories: Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Stuart Davis, Henri Matisse, Max Bill, Herbert Matter, Paul Rand, Frederic Remington, Minor White, Alfred Jensen, Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Mark Rothko, Kyle Cooper. They all share a strong sense of craft and precision. The craft inspires me. I’m energized and inspired by their use of color or their keen sense of compositional design.
Sitting with murals:
I also enjoy many artists from long ago time periods. For example, recently in Siena I sat for hours with Lorenzetti’s murals “Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” absorbing the political story of the judgment, and the effects on the city and the countryside of both good and bad governments.
I want viewers to have an intellectual and emotional response, an admiration of the patience and craftsmanship to make it, a sense of structure, of formal considerations and a sense of joy.
I keep everything that I don’t sell or give away. When looking back at my work from long ago I’m awed that it came from me. I learn from my failures. Without failing an artist cannot succeed.
I’m painting/I’m painting again:
I love the rhythm, repetition and lyrics of Talking Heads. I relate to music with structure, and honestly dislike improvisational jazz because to me it is jarringly disjointed.
I can’t begin to compare my paintings to the works of these artists, but I enjoy the intelligence of Leonard Cohen’s poetry and Ivan Doig’s novels. I relate to the sound and patterning of musicians such as Max Richter and Julianna Barwick.
Systemic painting is:
Systemic patterning may be described as anti-impressionistic, non-minimalistic, non-conceptual works; mechanic and precise techniques; ordered pieces shaped by the mind prior to execution; and those that integrate individual elements systematically, permitting each element to maintain its own identity while serving to comprise the whole. In the ARTSPACE Summer 1982 issue, Gordon McConnell wrote about Criss-Cross, “the work is not predominantly emotive, nor is it symbolic or tendentious. Each work is the product of more or less rational systems of conception and facture, lawfully realized according to codes established by the artist . . . the significance of this work lies in its providing the viewer with the direct experience of ruled organization–by means of reasoned systems characterized by clarity, unity, and the potential for integrated expansion.”
Pattern painting vs. paintings with patterns:
What is the difference between a pattern painter and a painter that uses pattern?
To answer this question I would say it is a unit figure repeated across a field. The unit figure may be a representational, an abstracted image or non-objective shape, or a geometric form.
To me a pattern painting has no central focal point. That indicates the possibility of a continuance of the pattern outside of the painted canvas, perhaps extending into infinity. The act of pattern painting can be quite meditative—painting the same form over and over again. Even though for me each hexagon is very small, my body and the brush find a synchronized rhythm, as with swimming, dancing, sewing, etc, the physical activities I pursued growing up.
The abstract made visible:
I loved the expressive qualities of the P&D movement, but it wasn’t for me to do as an artist.
Systemic Pattern projects were in direct contrast to the simultaneously occurring Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s-80s. Artists like Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Valerie Jaudon, and Kim MacConnel typically patterned semantically, repeating representational or abstracted shapes. They drew inspiration from cultural and historical patterns worldwide. Anti-formalists, sometimes whimsical, they often emphasized painterly or expressive qualities. Conversely, the ideals of Systemic Pattern painting contemporized aspects of the “Concrete Art Manifesto” of 1930 attributed to the Dutch painter Theo van Doesbourg, later popularized by Max Bill.
Theo van Doesbourg stated that there was nothing more concrete than a line, a color, a plain. Max Bill expanded this to say that concrete art is to create in a tangible form, something that previously did not exist, to depict abstract thoughts in a visible form.
All a non:
Nonrepresentational painting expresses emotion or concept without depicting a person, place or thing. I gravitate to these works because of what I’ve already stated about my love for discovering the design of a work of art without narrative content.
Not one to play favorites:
I’m more interested in the interaction of colors when applied side-by-side than in having favorite color schemes.
Recurring patterns, shapes, patterns, shapes:
Regular polygons, especially the hexagon, grids, tree leaves, and the four-leaf clover.
To me the hexagon is a beautiful form, angular, yet slightly rounded. Six-sided, it is one of three regular polygons to tessellate perfectly. I am 66” tall, six is my lucky number, and when growing up, there were six members in my immediate family.
I’ve also done quite a bit of work exploring the visual relationships between geometric structures and those of nature, sometimes painting patterns on the surface of four-leaf clovers or leaves.
Maybe because abstraction distorts, alters reality, allowing the viewer to question what is real and to create his/her own narrative about the work.
Color against color:
In hard-edge paintings, I enjoy the clarity of color against color. Colors don’t get all muddied up. Hard-edge painting reminds me of the sharp-edged shadows from the afternoon sun in the western landscape.
Non-objective work provides a space for the viewer to just “be,” perhaps to allow the eye to wander throughout the piece locating subtle contrasts created by the artist. The viewer can become lost for hours in thoughts that may or may not relate to the painting. I frequently visit my family in Houston and on many occasions have visited the Rothko Chapel, a beautiful space to sit and contemplate or meditate.
The grid is fundamental to humanity. We have imposed grids upon the landscape, grids charting the oceans and stars. Our lives are organized around the grid of our calendars, our houses, our cities, our technology, etc. Look around, grids are everywhere.
The grid in art has provided a structural framework within which to present the artist’s concepts for hundreds of years. The grid was also used to develop the illusion of perspective in landscape art.
“How long did that take to do?”
“How did you come up with that idea?”
“This is stunning, mesmerizing.”
“Well crafted. How did you do that?”
“You must have the patience of a saint.”
In search of:
I just work. I create for myself. It’s all exploratory. However, my graphic design work in the past was specifically for clients and to serve a purpose. I see a difference.
Where she is now:
I currently live in Fayetteville, Arkansas where I’m an Emeritus Professor of Art from the University of Arkansas.
I love talking to other artists and designers—as long as their work is well crafted and not clunky. Otherwise, I have difficulty knowing what to say.
I exchange ideas with other artist and designer friends, and my husband. I hike deep into the forest with my dogs and let them, the seasons, the trees, birds, snakes, squirrels, coyotes and the deer inspire me.
Finding the Wow!:
I identify with artists who work with pattern and geometry; and/or whose work is an exploratory process; those that allow an underlying structure to the work; those that can make me say “WOW” about the use of color (or value shifts in black and white work): works in which it is apparent there is a great amount of thought involved. I dislike sloppy work and lazy thinking as an artist.