Interview with Gladys Nilsson: Painting Stories, Painting Life

Gladys Nilsson has lived and worked in Chicago for most of her life, and has lived with her family in the same house in a northern Chicago suburb for more than 30 years. As a professional artist, she has been known as one of the original artists who shook up the Chicago art scene with the first Hairy Who show at the Hyde Park Art Center in the ‘60s and later as one of the Chicago Imagists. She is still creating masterful figurative watercolor paintings, but her work has evolved into more complex — autobiographical, mythical, time-shifting, psychological — narratives. Nilsson is represented by Jean Albano Gallery in Chicago.

A Full Time
A Full Time. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson and Jean Albano Gallery.


ArtStyle: What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Gladys Nilsson (GN): Well obviously that old adage “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” applies. Practice, practice, practice. You just have to keep working hard. I think if you don't like your work or yourself, then no one else is going to either. You just have to keep believing in yourself and keep pushing forward.

Those artists who have been able to gain recognition or make a living of some sort are just very few and far between. One is fortunate to be able to do this. The reality is that creativity may fill your soul, but it does not fill your stomach. What I mean is that when things get hard, you need to buy a loaf of bread before you buy a painting. Art satisfies a different kind of hunger, but your creature needs have to be met.

ArtStyle: What has been your art education and how did you start in your profession?

GN: I went to the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) from 1958 to 1962. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be an artist. I started doing watercolor my last part of school and worked on it after I got out of school. We had gotten married while I was in school and along the line had a baby, and I thought watercolor was cleaner to work with. Acrylic hadn't been invented then. Watercolor was cleaner than oil although we know now that all paint and materials can be toxic. As I really worked on my painting, it took me a couple of years before I figured out how I was going to paint and what I was going to do with it. It became fairly obvious to me that this was the medium that I was destined to work in. You use it and something somewhere clicks in the back of your mind or resonates in your soul. Content became fairly evident to me somewhere along the line. I knew I had an involvement with the figure but certainly not realistic.

Grey Brothers
Grey Bros. 4zz’s. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson and Jean Albano Gallery.

ArtStyle: After graduation, you were involved in the first Hairy Who show that took place at the Hyde Park Art Center. What was that experience like?

GN: In 1964, we all more or less started exhibiting wherever we could find space. The Hyde Park Art Center was very amenable, and they liked to exhibit young emerging artists along with older established artists. It was always a nice mix and Don Baum, who was the head of the gallery at the time, always had ideas for some interesting theme shows. For the first Hairy Who show, all of us worked with the figure in abstraction, and we were translating whatever observations, thoughts, and sources we had at the time.

Well, I think we were all rather amazed by the reaction from the first show. I guess we in the right place at the right time with the right people. We got noticed by people who had come into town. We were doing something that was a little different, maybe cruder or hotter than what was going on at the time. What was coming out of New York was a little cooler, and we were definitely not cool. I think we all had success from that point on. It was like a pyramidal ideal where you keep building up. I think we've all been pretty lucky in that regard.

ArtStyle: Did you discuss what you were going to do for that first Hairy Who show with the other artists before the show?

GN: No. I think we all were very familiar with each other's work. I think we all felt there was a congeniality with any piece that we would hang next to one another. There was never any discussion or any dialogue about what we were going to show in regard to a group effort. We knew we had faith in each other's productivity and that it would be good, and the whole thing would come together as something exciting and positive.

Little Attentive Men
Little Attentive Men. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson and Jean Albano Gallery.

ArtStyle: What did you think when they called you the Chicago Imagists?

GN: Well that came after the fact of the Hairy Who shows. I don't think any artist has ever liked labels that are put on them by people outside of their immediate circle. Art historians, critics, and so on don't feel comfortable unless they have a name tag that they can pull out of the air. Although I must confess if I'm somewhere else and I'm meeting people whose art world hasn't expanded to include me personally, and they ask me, “What kind of work do you do?” and then I say, “Have you ever heard of the Chicago Imagists?” That has come in handy in that regard. But I'm not crazy about it. I don't love it. I don't hate it. At this point, it has become somewhat of a useful tool if I get frustrated enough trying to describe what I do.

ArtStyle: Who or what has influenced your art?

GN: When I was in art school, I discovered that I really liked art history a lot. The one art historian who did become a close friend afterwards was Whitney Halstead, who has been deceased for quite a few years now. Whitney had the capability of showing you a lot of art and making you look at it and making you realize that what you could be looking at did not stop at formal art. You could be looking at street signs and store windows, things like that, that all added up to interesting things to ponder. He had a few classes that would involve African or aboriginal art so that your scope of what you were taking in became broader. If I had a faculty person that kind of solidified certain things for me, it would be Whitney Halstead. And as I said, we were fortunate enough that he became a good friend.

ArtStyle: How has your art changed over the years?

GN: I mentioned to you earlier that in terms of applying color and playing with color on paper that the earlier work simply had bigger shapes, less going on, and simpler color. I think that it has gotten more complex physically with the drawing, what's going on, and certainly in terms of the color and playing with the paint. I used to be more interested in having just plain washes without much going on except a little casual definition with whatever the figures might have in it. And now I seem to be thirsting for other kinds of involvement with the paint. I think overall it has become more complex and maybe reveals a certain amount of sophistication. I think I'm going back into things a little more and by that I mean going back in and playing with the visual surface a little more. I'm making it a little more textured to an extent.

The Long Way
The Long Way. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson.

Certainly, I'm looking at this one (The Long Way) and it has the degree of simplicity that earlier things had. But then you can see how much more is going on with other parts of it. About a week after my last show at Jean Albano last May, my mother died. It was very hard. But the upshot of it was that I acquired all of these old photographs. My grandmother (in the furry hat) and her 4 kids came over from Sweden in 1924 through Ellis Island. My mother was 14 years old at the time. My grandfather had already been here a year or two getting things in order. So I started thinking about all of these immigrants and how all of these men would come over to get jobs and a house. The women would be at home and they'd get on the boat and then they'd sail across the ocean. This painting depicts the men already here working and the women are taking off. So I had a couple of pieces that were kind of based on that thought process that I was going through.

ArtStyle: What process do you go through to create your art?

GN: I do the drawings first and then when I get that composition to a satisfactory level, I start thinking about the color and how I want to play with it. I think about where all of its components are and which will be the main thrust, for example, the flashy red boat (The Long Way) in contrast with these nice greens and heavy blues. And I usually work from light to dark because it's better with the paint if things overlap. Since The Long Way involves past family history, I started with the image of my grandmother. In a black and white photo I have of her, she's wearing a coat. I don't know what her coat was like, but I determined what color would be good and then looked at the contrasts that were going on and what to key her in front of. I'm trying to convey the fact that they're in this boat and they're sailing across vast seas to this other place over here. The tall buildings represent where they're going. They're all looking forward, except she's (on the far right) kind of hesitant as to what they left. I can remember hearing my auntie say that she was 4 or 5 when they left, and she was the baby in the group. She remembers that there was a big tall man with a big beard who gave her a dolly and hugged her and that was her grandfather. Everybody left things and people behind and chances are they never saw them again.

New Work
New Work in Progress. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson.

ArtStyle: What are you currently working on?

GN: I'm not quite sure where this came from (new work in progress). A lot of times when I work, I do go thematically so there is this thread of what I'm doing. I guess I was sort of thinking of presenting myself with something a little different: the table top and the still life on top of it, playing with this checkerboard and then filling it, women around the table looking at this still life, and men trying to distract them from what they're doing although they're not doing anything except looking.

I've always had rapid scale change. Generally speaking, the larger figures would be the lead in the play sort of thing, and they would have interaction with all of these little things going on, which do happen to co-exist with them. The commissions for Renaissance altar pieces would portray the donors as small figures on the side praying or something like that. The Sears‘ catalogue offered you, for example, this big bathrobe but it also came in these different colors, and there would be these little bathrobes next to it. I guess because of the Sears’ catalogue, I grew up accepting scale change and then it just rolled into formal art historical content so that it always intrigues me to have these impossible things going on in possible spaces and sizes. The woman here (new work in progress) is far bigger than the other women, which would make her the main character.

The large woman is fairly simple but she's got complexity going on in back of her. And then there's this little table over here where there are forgotten men kind of dried out and hanging around. That's about as simple as it gets. It's more fun for me to begin to have the work have some kind of actual dialogue going on.

See Voyage
See Voyage. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson.

A See Voyage is more in thinking, but not as narrowly, as all these people in boats sailing. I think about people in boats sailing across waters and see all of these different things come into play. You start thinking back on Greek myths and the sirens trying to lure the men in the boats.

It's a sea voyage and what might be seen while they're on the voyage. Again you have the idea of the sirens trying to lure them into places that are impossible to get around. And then it kind of just disintegrates into urban landscape. But you can see surface wise, there's a lot more going on in terms of playing with areas and pushing and pulling with the pigments, which is particularly satisfying.

ArtStyle: How do you determine what colors to use?

GN: Sometimes it's really simple. I might work in a theme color like blues and greens and so on. I've got a lot a paint — 80 or 90 different colors. The more color, the happier I am to play around. I would know that I would want to have certain colors juxtaposed against one another, for example, hot colors versus something that's a little cooler. I usually paint on the table top and I hang the painting up periodically because you can't see what's happening when you're on top of it.

Before I leave the studio, I put the painting up so that the next time I come in, I can see it freshly up from a distance. Is the color doing what I want it to do? Is there readability going on? For instance, (new work in progress) for this leg and this figure, I added a brown, a dark tone, because the leg was disappearing into the figure, and I like to be able to read everything to have enough contrast with the information that's there. You don't want everything to be of equal value where they blend into one another.

ArtStyle: How do you know when a painting is complete?

GN: That's a question that I used to ask myself off and on, and a lot of students might ponder that. The only thing I can say is that somewhere along the line, something felt done. When it doesn't have that feeling or I don't react to it, then I keep playing with it, pushing, pulling, maneuvering, manipulating color and surface until it gets to the point where I feel it's done.

Nightscape
Nightscape. Courtesy of Gladys Nilsson and Jean Albano Gallery.

ArtStyle: Where do you get your ideas from?

GN: Everywhere. I literally do. The older I get, the more I think back on things that I've observed. I'm constantly looking at dialogue between people, exchanges, and by that I mean, little things. I come from a blue collar background and there was a lot to be said for making it through the day. My dad was a factory worker. My mom waited tables. You finished the day, and you accomplished something. I like to celebrate small things.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about your studio practices?

GN: I go out in the morning usually around 9 a.m. to do my out and about: the bank, library, grocery store, hardware store. I have this big circuit I go through and I hit all of that. I'm usually back anywhere from 10:30 to 11. Because I get up so early and I'm done eating breakfast early, I'm hungry by the time 11 o'clock comes around. I have to fix my lunch, and I have to make a pot of tea. Then I might sit and read. Then I come up here (3rd floor of the house) between 12:30 and 1and then work for 3 or 4 hours or so. You deal with dinner and maybe watch a movie. Then I'm back up here for a couple of hours and so on. That's the usual regimen. If I have a deadline, then all of that goes out the window.

Before I paint, I might listen to some music. I don't put the paper on the table until I'm actually ready to work with it. I'm walking around kind of looking and thinking about the painting I'm working on. Then I come over and put the paper on the table, scatter my weights around the table, sit and stare at it, decide if I need clean water, play a few hands of solitaire while I'm thinking. I'm looking at the work, contemplating if it's going the way I want it to go. Is this color working? If everything is working, what am I going to tackle next? Sometimes 15 minutes is all you need to get an idea going and put the paint down. Then I might look at the work and decide: Do I want to work on a big area or how much time do I have because there's a lot of in and out? I don't mask anything out. I use my handed brush to manipulate the little areas. I ask myself if I want to tackle some small areas to begin feeding in color. Those are the kinds of things I think about.

I used to disregard 10 minutes here or there as important time increments before I started teaching a class. Currently I have one class, a multimedia drawing class at SAIC. When I started out, I taught watercolor but it was at night so it was two nights a week. And I do a lot of work at night. That was prime working time, so I discovered I could get a lot done if I run in and paint something for 10 minutes. It became important time management. When I started teaching, I had to restructure how I felt about certain things.

ArtStyle: Do most of your paintings emphasize women?

GN: My paintings do seem to have a lot of female involvement and as I said because of family stuff that I have found myself looking back to when I was a little girl. You get together with family for various outings and so on. The women were pretty much in one place because they were doing all the stuff the women are doing. And the men were smoking cigarettes, and drinking beer, and doing all those important men things. I do find myself thinking about past women in the family, and everybody used to have a date. If I had 20 women in a big piece, I would have 20 men so everybody could have a mate. I went through a long period of time when men disappeared entirely but they're coming back, more in terms of “notice me” in a needy kind of way.

The women are very pleased with who they are and with their station in life and so on and so forth. Even when they're sailing off into the unknown, they're adventurers and looking forward to having this new existence.

Gladys Nilsson is currently preparing for a show at Luise Ross Gallery, New York, opening April 17, 2008.

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