Q&A with Nancy Charak: Infinite Line

Nancy Charak studied photography and design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and painting and drawing at Northern Illinois University, where she received her MFA in 1979. Her work has been shown in several significant juried exhibitions, including the Chicago and Vicinity Show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Davidson National Print and Drawing Competition in NC. She was awarded a purchase prize from the Chattahoochee Valley Art Association in GA. Charak’s work has also been represented by several galleries, including Van Straaten and Bernal in Chicago and Genesis in New York.

She recently juried the Drawing on Experience show at Woman Made Gallery, 685 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. The exhibition is June 27 through July 24, 2008, with an opening reception on June 27th from 6 to 9 p.m.

Field Number 1077
Nancy Charak. Field No. 1077. 2007. Oil, pencil on linen canvas,
height 30″ x 40″.

ArtStyle: You received your MFA in 1979 but describe yourself as an emerging artist. Why?

Nancy Charak (NC): My solo exhibit at the ARC Gallery in December, 2006, was titled Re-Emergence because I hadn't made or exhibited art in any serious manner since I completed my MFA requirements. I dumped the slides and a totally forgettable 14-page thesis to complete the graduate school requirements and then just plain ran away. I had collected so many teaching job rejection letters from colleges and universities that the moment of truth was when I realized I had stuffed them into two three-ring binders all alphabetized and notated. I was married then and that had turned sour, so I dealt with that. I desperately wanted and needed to earn a decent living, so I went into a phase of making a career out of searching for a career. I worked in printing plants, did clerical temp work, worked for a vinyl sign-maker, taught ESL to adults, and somewhere else along the line learned and taught myself how to work with documents and spreadsheets. (Good thing they made us take typing in the seventh grade.) I worked retail, sold cameras, and made copies at Kinko’s.

ArtStyle: When did you start doing art again?

NC: It's hard to pin down the exact moment when I realized that I needed to make art again. There were so many questions I needed answered. I bought some supplies — watercolor paper, the big set of Prismacolors, and oil paints — and set a goal of making 100 paintings in a summer, and thinking that by the end of the 100th painting, I'll know if I'm an artist again. I got to 73, but I knew somewhere around 25. Clearly it was some part of the aging process, some realization that working for a living is just that — it doesn't define you as a person, but what you achieve in the rest of your life matters.

In the years between graduate school and re-emergence, I fulfilled one of my earliest ambitions to become a traveler. I looked at art in New York and Los Angeles in the 80's, then overseas, in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Sao Paulo. I now look at art constantly on the web. Part of the “re-emergence” thing was the unlearning of what I'd done in graduate school, what things were in my head from my professors, and learning how to trust myself and my own artistic reactions.

Number 167 Detail
Nancy Charak. No. 167, Detail. 2007. Pencil, Prismacolor pencil on
black 90# Stonehenge paper, height 22″ x 30″.

ArtStyle: The lines of your drawings are delicate — they suggest something web-like and fragile. Yet, there is a ritualistic quality to the repetition of the same precise line that looks at once spontaneous and controlled. What are you trying to achieve?

NC: I think my drawing is about the movement of my arm and hand across the paper or board. I try not to over-think my drawing process; at times it's almost an algorithmic process, a simple programmatic recipe where I say to myself something like, Make these lines with this 9H pencil until the point goes dull. I have never been a sketcher, and I jump right into or rather “onto” the real thing, right onto the surface with some kind of a mark that I react to.

ArtStyle: From a distance, your drawings look deceivingly simple. But they are comprised of thread-like, gestural network of lines. This quality of your images draws the viewer closer to the work, as if to stop, engage and investigate. Is this why you say in your statement that your “function as an artist is not to tell the truth; it is to captivate viewers for as long as I can hold their attention”?

NC: Part of the reason I say that my function as an artist is not to tell the truth is a gut reaction to hundreds of artist's statements that I've read everywhere, wherein they say something like “my work represents a search for the truth” or some other philosophical, sociological, political blather, dropping words in like truth, paradigm, epiphany, ontology. It's just way too pretentious and grandiose to me. I make paintings and drawings. I don't explicate the truth. Let's leave that to the theologians.

And maybe another reason is that I really and truly want my viewers to look at my work with as few preconceptions as possible. They are objects that might have something to say but it won't be in words.

Number 163
Nancy Charak. No. 163. 2007. Pencil on black 90# Stonehenge paper,
height 22″ x 30″.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about the relationship between your paintings and drawings?

NC: After spending a lot of mental time over the past year — researching, quizzing my fellow artists and thinking about what is a drawing, about whether or not there are any absolute boundaries, what the parameters are, and having finished the jurying — I now realize that it really doesn’t matter to me in the making of my own work. I make what I make and it doesn’t matter whether they are called drawings or paintings. I realize that I use the two terms interchangeably, often referring to the same artwork at different times with either.

So, at the end of this process, the definition of a drawing matters only in a curatorial sense or in an academic, art-historical, or critical sense. I will use whatever tool or method that fits what I need to do at the moment. That said, on the whole, what I make are drawings, whether they’re on paper, board, or canvas.

Layers of Meaning
Nancy Charak. Layers of Meaning. 2007.
Tarlatan cloth, oil, thread, embroidery floss on
acrylic sized raw linen, height 60″ x 24″.

ArtStyle: What brings you to your studio every evening?

NC: There's a difference between being an artist and making art. I'm much happier now that I've figured out the difference, and I'm making better art now than I ever did when I was younger. Being an artist is a lifestyle, tied to that bohemian “I gotta suffer for my art thing” idea. I'd rather worry about making art and not about being an artist. I go to my studio because I like to go there; it's a discipline. I tell my younger visitors, You have to go to your studio, to your art-place and just be there on a regular basis, even if you don't do anything but sweep the floor or sit in your chair reading a book; you're in your creative space. That goes back to one of my things — quantity versus quality. I think a lot of artists would be better and more creative if they stopped worrying about quality and just made as much art as they could. I'm a fan of “don't think, just do” and something will happen. It does for me. It's sort of like when you start to meditate, and you get into that relaxed posture and try to clear your mind, and then you realize that your mind is going “crackers.” When I'm working on my drawings, paintings, I'm making a million decisions, but I'm not thinking hard, and I'm just letting my mind go and my hand follows.

Nancy Charak’s Studio. Photo: Mirjana Ugrinov.

ArtStyle: You said that you spend a lot of time looking at other artists’ work. Who inspires you?

NC: Clearly, Agnes Martin and Joan Mitchell — for the purity of their thought and action on the canvas — Linda Karshan, Sandra Blow, Vija Celmins, Nancy Riegelman, and Katherina Grosse, to name just the women. Whether what they do is lyrical, expository or just plain brash, to my way of thinking, they are all pure abstract expressionists who make marks, lines, shapes, colors on paper, canvas, even buildings. They say to us, “Here look at this, make of it what you will.” I also spend time looking at images from Mars and Saturn, and I subscribe to emails from NASA.

ArtStyle: What is your definition of drawing?

NC: There are a lot of definitions of what is drawing versus painting. One, based on the philosophical work of Walter Benjamin, is that the graphic line can only exist against the background of the substrate, wherein painting obscures the background (which places watercolor and pastel in the middle of that theoretical continuum). My thought is that drawing is the actual placement directly onto a substrate by the actual hand of the artist with a tool that preferably has a hard nib that is unerasable or incapable of being removed. Note that for the Woman Made show I didn't specify a hard-nibbed tool, which would allow for drawing with a brush, but drawing must be primary and no printmaking, monotypes, or photographs.

I also think there's a cultural bias towards thinking of drawing as a prelude to painting, that it's a plan or blueprint for a final more substantial painting or sculpture. The word “drawing” also suggests fragility, impermanence and delicacy. It shouldn't be, but that's the bias.

Number 892
Nancy Charak. No. 892. 2005. Oil wash, pencil, Prismacolor on 140#
Arches watercolor paper, height 22″ x 30″.

ArtStyle: How do you feel about your role as a juror of the Drawing on Experience show, and is it difficult to jury other artists’ work?

NC: I don't find it difficult to make opinions about other artists’ work. What's sometimes difficult is keeping my mouth shut so I don't say something negative and crush a fellow artist's ambition or worse — sound and feel gossipy. That's the one bad thing about the jurying process is that there's rejection built in. But, that's something that has to be built into the artist's psyche: you're going to be rejected, and you can't avoid it. And you know, you can't avoid it in the rest of life either. That's my motto by the way: they can't reject you if you don't apply.

ArtStyle: What are you working on now and are you preparing for any upcoming shows?

NC: I will have work at The University Center Gallery at the University of Montana, Missoula, May 1st to May 31st. Then of course both shows at Woman Made: my own exhibit, which will be downstairs, and then upstairs, Drawing on Experience. And then in the fall, for Chicago Artists Month, there'll be another ArtWalk under the auspices of the ArtWalk Ravenswood organization at the 1800 Cornelia Building.

Contact Nancy Charak at rounder@rounderstudio.com.

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