“Everything in the whole wide world is just one big ball of ‘Oh, my god.’”
This is Nancy Josephson, artist, embellisher, musician, Voodoo priestess.
Her sensibilities, she explains, have never come from traditional sources. “I was more drawn to these things that I would see all over the place. It wasn’t similar to going to a museum. It was more like the world was an art piece. Everywhere I looked, there was stuff to discover.”
This discovery began at an early age, when her father would take Josephson and her sister into Manhattan (the family lived in New Jersey) to see various happenings and events, including a lecture by visual arts luminary, Larry Rivers. “I just remember it being hilarious. Just thinking it was the funniest thing. I didn’t know anything about what he was talking about, but I was just this little kid going, ‘This guy is hilarious.’”
Unlike many children who may have shrugged off or been annoyed by the various parental destinations they were dragged to, Josephson chose to absorb it all. “I was never bored. I can’t imagine being bored. This is from both of my parents, and I think my nature is such that I am really curious about the world.”
The curiosity manifested itself creatively, but not first in the visual arts. Josephson’s parents were from the South and on long car rides to visit relatives everybody in the family got a shift to choose the radio station. “Much to the chagrin of everybody else in the car, I turned to the country station. It was so outside of what I was hearing up North.” Hearing “those weird sounds” fascinated Josephson and a love affair with music was born.
By her own admission, Josephson had a good voice and a good ear from an early age. The six-year-old “bought” a Stella guitar from her grandfather’s dry goods store “for a couple nickels” and, even though she continued to explore and find the art in everything around her, music was her home base for most of her early life.
In the 70s, Josephson played the bass for an all-girls bluegrass band. In the 80s, she did the same for all sorts of different bands. “I toured with whomever, and played with a million different people, but I was also always kinda doing other stuff with my hands. I was always putting stuff together.”
“Other stuff” at the time was fiber arts. “Old quilts and stuff. I was painting on fabric and embellishing fabric, and it just kind of morphed into, ‘I kinda want to be doing this.’”
It was her last tour, with folk legend Arlo Guthrie that put her over the edge. She had a child at that point, and her husband, singer-songwriter in his own rite David Bromberg, was on the road with his own band most of the time. “It wasn’t fun. I’m schlepping all my stage clothes, [her son] Jake’s clothes, the diaper bag. I felt as if I was running away from home.”
Another realization, one that she’s only come to fully understand in the last ten years, is that in order to commit to the visual arts, she needed to let go of music. “I used to think that, because the creative part is from one side of your brain, you can take the music stuff and the visual arts stuff and do it both at the same time. But I realized that one of them has to be on top. I couldn’t do both of them [equally].”
That being said, she was able to draw her experiences from her life in music to inform her next life in the visual arts. “Music allowed me to see all sorts of places in the world. I used the same part of my brain [to create visual art] as writing a song or putting together a song with a bunch of other people. It’s part of that creative process, and how to arrange and give[a piece of art] different colors and textures. That’s a really important part of my work: what do you want to be saying?”
Josephson has always been cognizant of what she wants to be saying, but in the beginning of her transition to the visual arts, she let the same curiosity that she embraced as a child lead her artistic decisions.
For instance, she found her love for fiber art through quilts she’d accumulated while touring. She found what she calls “their American scruffy stories” very appealing. “I have one from the 1880s that looks kind of like spaceships. It had all these bits and pieces, and you don’t know what its story is, but you know it’s gotta be weird.”
As she collected these quilts and their stories, she embellished them. “I started finding out about different glues, and how you get stuff to stick on other stuff. And then I started doing cars. Ruh roh.”
It’s the “ruh-roh” of a creative floodgate crashing down as Josephson moved from 2D subjects to 3D. And the cars were a big jump for her. It was a step in the direction of answering that question, “What do you want to be saying?”
“My first [car embellishment] was a minivan. I had seen an art car in Raw Vision, and I loved the idea that this thing that I travel around in, it’s mine. I want it to be mine. So I started putting stuff on it. And my husband said, ‘When I drive your car, it feels like I’m putting your dress on.’”
These art cars have become a very visible facet of Josephson’s portfolio. Her 1996 piece, “The Gallery-A-Go-Go,” a bus embellished with colorful stones, yellow polka-dots, and an army of swans guarding the roof, resides permanently outside Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
But far more importantly than any exposure these pieces garnered her, they gave her an ownership of her identity and an unwillingness to let anyone else define her that was very important to Josephson early in her career. She decided, “I’m gonna just make this up as I go along. I’m just gonna play and work and find crap and stick stuff on other stuff, and think about why I’m doing that and what I want to say. I still do this, but I do it more precisely now.”
“Precisely” is somewhat of a misleading concept to apply to Josephson’s work. It implies a formula or a set path for each piece, and that is definitively not the case.
For instance, when asked about how she picks her materials, she can’t pinpoint specific qualifications. “That’s a question that I actually don’t have a really good answer to. With the cremation urns [one of Josephson’s notable frequent subjects, one of which is emblazoned with the words, “DOES THIS MAKE MY ASHES LOOK BIG”], that’s absolutely about the shape of something. But I can’t tell you why. It’s just in my head as something that I want to spend time with.”
Something she wants to spend time with as well as have a conversation with. Josephson has always eschewed using studio assistants as some artists do, but until recently, she thought it sprung directly from her being, for lack of a better term, a control freak. She only found out when an impending deadline coerced her to use an assistant that it wasn’t that at all. “I was really reluctant, but I found somebody who I did end up teaching to do some of the grunt work, and I trusted her to do that. But one of the things I realized is the reason I don’t have an assistant who helps me with this stuff is because I have a continual conversation with the piece until it is done.”
And the piece doesn’t end until the conversation is over. It used to be more of a struggle. “I’ve talked to other artists who feel this way, too. There’s this three-quarter mark where you’re going along, and all of a sudden, you realize, ‘This is awful. I hate everything. I’m gonna blow my head off.’ And then it breathes. Now what’s happening is, from the very get-go, we’re having a dialogue that’s much more heated.”
She uses an example from the series of spirit heads she’s working on right now. “I did three, and then I started on this other one and it got really cantankerous. It was not cooperating. Things were not falling into place the way they needed to. We wrangled, went back and forth, and the damn thing won. But when I gave in, I thought, ‘Oh. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s just conversation.’”
Another breakthrough in the development of Josephson’s voice came when she saw a Haitian voodoo flag, not so different form the quilt embellishments she worked on early in her career. “It was basically a sequined two-dimensional piece used in ceremony. I was just so overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe when I saw the first one. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
What she did with herself was reach out to Marilyn Houlberg a visual anthropologist whose work she admired, and who advised her to take a trip to Haiti herself. “She looked at my work and said, ‘I think you really need to go to Haiti. I’m going in two weeks, and I’ll bring your picture so people know who you are.’ Six weeks later, I went down to Haiti by myself. What a nutty thing to do!”
Since then, she’s returned many times, become a voodoo priestess herself, and incorporated her spirituality into much of her work. She even designates which of her works are spiritual and which are secular. “The intent about the more secular stuff ends up being my home culture sensibilities and conversations and thoughts. The spiritual stuff comes from a much deeper place and a much more integrated place. For me, ultimately a more important place.”
Josephson is aware of her inclusion in the Outsider movement, but she doesn’t seem to think much of it. “It’s what I’ve been pegged as from the beginning. Because I didn’t go to art school and I’ve just kind of made it up as I went along, but I’m not an “outsider.’ I haven’t been hospitalized, I haven’t been put in the slammer.”
Not that she takes issue with such art. On the contrary, it aligns more with the exploratory attitude she’s had since she was a child. She says that her influences often end up being anonymous “because [they are things] made in people’s backyards by anybody who’s got two sticks and a rubber band.”
Why are these pieces, the ones she’s stumbled upon in this “big ball of ‘oh, my god’” the most important part of the art world? “Because it absolutely comes from this desire and need to create something that’s meaningful to them. Period. Without the bullshit expectation of whatever [the art world] has to say about anything. It’s got this purity to it that is essential and one of the best parts of the human spirit.”