Three self-taught contemporary artists on the relationship that they have with their work and connection to art
Artistic practice and the relationship that artists foster with their work is canonically seeded with the markings of ritual, catharsis, spirituality and catharsis. For many artists, the connection that’s developed in the process makes it difficult for them to part with their work or see the value in selling it—the old adage of art for art’s sake. Brut Force interviewed three contemporary artists to tap into the ethos of their practice and the symbolic implications of their work.
Paula Nadelstern’s Connection to Art
“Whatever it takes, and however long it takes,” says Paula Nadelstern.
The Bronx-based psychedelic artist emphasizes the process and therapeutic value of her practice, and does not sell her work as to not have to “figure out how to get ‘there’ faster,” she told Brut Force. Nadelstern created her first quilt in her college dorm in 1969—at first “playing with some traditional patterns, and being very attracted to the relationship of patterns,” she says. Later inventing her signature style, the kaleidoscope quilt, in 1986. She currently travels the world exhibiting her work and teaching the craft, something that is more lucrative than selling work considering the time and labor that one piece often consumes (sometimes up to five years). The goal of Naldelstern’s practice has always been “to exhibit, and I need a body of work to do that with,” she says.
Nadelstern did not have a background in art when she started quilting, and practices without the monetary stresses that bind many other contemporary artists. “In most art, there’s a whole market and a commercial side,” she says, “There’s always some implied value when someone asks you about your work and, as a maker, when I look at other artists, I very much like to ask that question, too.”
Six years ago, the artist underwent radiation therapy that involved wearing a medical wire mask that bolts the patient’s head and shoulders to the table during treatment and “fits very tightly, with just a little circle for the nose—it’s really claustrophobic and you can’t move,” she says. To memorialize her recovery and to “transform something associated with a deeply frightening experience into an object of art and beauty,” the artist hand-stitched the mask with a fabric cut in small three- to five-inch slivers and applied hundreds of sequins and beads to the piece, an intensive process that “is profoundly peaceful.”
“My art is about taking the time to dedicate to the work without compromising the process in any way,” she says. “Sometimes there’s the implication that if someone else had time—or, if they had the patience—they could do what I do, too,” says Nadelstern, “But there’s skill and hard work involved in developing your own technique.”
When people ask Nadelstern how long it takes for her to complete a quilt, she often responds: “My whole life. Every piece is like a historical document of what I was doing or experiencing at that particular time.”
Nadelstern’s finished work results from a largely improvised practice, with “constant editing and re-editing,” she says. “I almost never sketch anything out, and I’m always auditioning fabric against fabric.” Throughout the year, Nadelstern organizes quilting workshops, lectures and retreats, and has also published several workbooks on kaleidoscopic quilting. Her book came out this fall titled Simple Quilts, Complex Fabrics published by C&T Publishers. Her work was most recently included in the Bedazzled! exhibition at the Lehman College Art Gallery in New York, on view until January 14th 2017.
William Kitt and Divine Influence
For the New York-based artist William Kitt, art is spiritual and something he says was evoked by a calling from God. Around five years ago, when Kitt was in jail, “God came into the light,” he told Brut Force.
Kitt was homeless and addicted to drugs for 34 years before moving into the The Edgecomb, a housing project in New York operated by the Broadway Housing Communities that offers destitute persons a permanent home. When he was 18, he resided with his mother but one day came home and, “the house was dark and everything had vanished,” says Kitt, “The rent was compensated for the rest of that month, and I didn’t understand how to pay bills. She never sat down and spoke to me about it, maybe because she didn’t want to produce a choice where I would opt to move with her.”
When Kitt was in jail, after several years of living on the streets and collecting welfare checks under different identities, he recalls asking God for a million dollars. “God said: ‘Well, you gonna have to work for it.’ And, I guess that’s what happened,” says Kitt. After moving into the housing project, where he has a sunlit studio, Kitt began drawing with oil pastels and rapidly progressed his technique. “You can look at the work and see progress in every picture,” says Kitt, “It’s not about progress, it is progress.”
The work garnered attention from the community and in 2012 the New York Public Library (NYPL) was the first to exhibit it, organizing a show of drawings titled Famous Women in the Hamilton Grange Library. “The neighborhood went crazy over that show,” says Kitt, “It was just about letting the community know that there was an artist in the community and maybe that would inspire them or something. The lady kept them in there for about a year, and always asked me to change it up and put more stuff in it.”
In an interview with the National Public Radio (NPR) earlier this year, Kitt said that he does not sell his work because an angel came to him and told him that he could not sell any work until be finished creating a book of his art. Kitt is currently working on fundraising and compiling a series of four books that will each comprise around one-hundred drawings, beginning with work that he created in his first year practicing. “I gotta keep going with the flow because I really don’t understand what’s inside me but it’s coming—and I don’t know how I got this but it’s coming out.”
Kitt works with the dancers from the Broadway show Chicago every Sunday, working on around five pastel drawings of them at one time and consulting with them each week. “On any day that you see them standing out there handing out flyers, those are my models,” says Kitt, “Those are the girls that have helped me out for the past five, six or seven years—we’re all tuned-in.” He first photographs the dancers, allowing them six different poses, and develops an 8×10 copy of the photo so that “they can judge and see if maybe they are doing something wrong or repeating poses—they’re trying to elevate, too—and it’s all positive,” says Kitt. Each drawing that he completes, he gives to the dancers to hang on their wall.
“It’s cool to have Rembrandt and all that but you gotta have the now, the future,” says Kitt, “When you look at my work, you’re not gonna see nothing but concrete and advertisements—it’s the real thing. I don’t even study books—the only thing that I study is what I have in my heart and what God shows me.”
Evelyn Reyes and the Importance of Ritual
The Guatemalan artist Evelyn Reyes approaches her artistic practice with a ritualistic devotion. Reyes was introduced to the Creativity Explored (CE) program, an organization that aims to advance artists with developmental disabilities, by a social worker from the Golden Gate Regional Center in San Francisco in 2002. At the time, Reyes lived in California with her elderly grandmother, who had been her caretaker for nearly thirty years, and she was transitioning into a group home. She had never attended an art center before, and mentors at CE were “worried that she wouldn’t fit in after living in seclusion for so long,” says Paul Moshammer, the studio manager and visual arts instructor of the CE.
Instead, Reyes fluidly adapted to the open studio environment and started to draw repeated forms for around four hours per day using mostly oil pastels, graphite and prisma-stix. She first drew cakes, then garbage cans, caps, sandwiches, fences and other shapes before embarking on a twelve-year focus on carrots. None of the objects that Reyes draws have a formalist resemblance to real objects, and mentors at the center only deciphered the shapes because “she audibly points out her carrots, or other shapes, to visitors and admirers several times—loudly and proudly,” says Moshammer.
For the last eight years or so, Reyes draws two days per week and completes one drawing per day over the course of a few hours, and creates mostly black and white carrots with oil pastels. When she enters the studio, she lays out paper, scrapes the wood that serves as her backboard, and repositions and stacks the papers on her desk. If something at her desk is out of order or the correct paper or art materials are missing, she notifies an instructor. Then, when the work is finished, she “carries it through the studio and stands still in certain places, very much like she is acting out a ritualistic offering,” says Moshammer.
“Even though she responds quite well to seeing her work up on the wall or in the gallery, she doesn’t like to see anyone moving or hanging up her work, and she doesn’t want anybody to touch or move it from her shelf in the studio. And, showing her work to patrons has to be done after studio hours,” says Moshammer.
Moshammer adds that many artists at CE insist on having a structured routine—for lunchtime, studio time, the organization of art materials and so on—but no one else seems to treat their work in the same ceremonial manner that Reyes does, like when she intently looks skyward when a work is complete. The CE has accumulated hundreds of Reyes’s drawings throughout the years, which have been shown and acquired by art institutions worldwide. Most recently, CE showed Reyes’s work at the 2016 edition of the Outsider Art Fair in Paris, and the gallery will be bringing her work to the OAF in New York in 2017.
The three artists that are profiled in this piece represent a microcosm within a perpetual number of ways that artists connect with their work. Unlike the practical actions that we perform in our lives that demand a linear result—such as having a job in order to make money—creating art is a multi-layered, mindful process that only commands the fervor that inspires it in the first place.