CMA Stories

“Giving, sharing, and making sure that children, families, and people on the peripheries of centralized power structures have access to art is important”— 5 Minutes with Artist Nina Isabelle

Stone Ridge-based multidisciplinary artist Nina Isabelle works with perception, action, language, and phenomena. Read her interview below to learn about a childhood baking memory that sparked her love of art, then check out our special Dia de Los Muertos program on Sunday, November 1 that involves baking and decorating loaves of bread! Get to know Nina below.

Performance objects and garment for “Voices & Choices” made of recycled foam, silver flooring underlayment, and welded steel

Can you tell us about your art practice and how working with children inspires you?
When I’m making art, I like to move fast and practice being efficient and effective. Some children have a lot of energy and I relate to this tendency as an adult. Being a mother has conditioned me to a certain pace and intensity that translates to my work in art and life. Since I’m usually balancing and working with many variables, I’ve learned to maximize my time so I can direct my focus when I have the opportunity to. Being around children has forced me to be this way and I’m glad about it. Also, when working with children, the important stuff boils to the top of the frenzy, while the type of details I might tend to get tangled up in slips out of view. That’s a good thing — a phenomena I try to replicate when I’m working by myself or with other grown-ups.

Tell us about your most recent project, Ten Thousand Objectives. How does this project relate to your work with performance and process?
I’m continually interested in trying to figure out how the body knows what it knows — specifically, the somatic experience of tangible material, the cognitive experience of intangible concepts, and the interplay between these four variables. I’m also interested in how repetition seems to create the potential to sidestep consciousness, and I wanted to experiment with that notion to see if I could access different modes of perception or ways of knowing by engaging in a repetitive action for an extended length of time. In setting up the framework for this performance, I mapped out and identified all the parameters that I was able to. I decided on the timeframe and squared off the surface area of my work space. This gave me a way to control the tangible aspects of the performance. By laying out this semi-structured plan, I hoped to create a situation where intangibles and surprises could occur.

Starting in the middle of an eighteen foot square of floor space, I set out to make one thousand pinch pots within a span of four hours. I imagined the pots would fill the entire work space and somehow be equally distributed. I counted the pots as I went along and kept track of them in ten groups of ten — something I realized was necessary as I went along and realized would be the only way for me to know when I was done. I was totally surprised to find that, at the end of the four hours, and down to within a few minutes, I had made the exact amount I set out to make. While I was working, the span of four hours seemed to shrink down to about the feeling of twenty minutes. These are the types of perceptive phenomena I’m interested in working with and demonstrating. How did this happen so exactly with such little planning? How and why does time seem to stretch or contract depending on levels of engagement, intention, and focus?

Window installation balancing recycled materials with cast concrete, drilled stone, and hand-bent steel sculptures and an oil painting, 2018

If you could choose any artist, past or present, to make a portrait of you, who would it be and why?
I would choose Käthe Kollwitz because she was interested in representing people who struggled and worked hard in life. Like me, Kollwitz was a mother and she respected laborers and people across social borders who did hard work for a living. In my art and life, I relate to and respect laborers and tradespeople and their ways of thinking and solving problems. My mother’s family were farmers and military people, and on my father’s side, they worked factory jobs, such as in machine shops and as drop-forgers. In my family, we try to fix our own cars and always give things that need fixing a go ourselves. I like it when artists and people who are working with ideas share ways of working and thinking with people who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty or make a mess. Kollwitz’s subjects look solid, substantial, and as if they’re inhabiting physical space in a very confident way in spite of adversity. I would like to see myself that way — steadfast and stubborn.

What advice would you give to young artists who wish to pursue an art practice?
Practice metacognition and perception — where you allow yourself to notice what you notice and feel. Document the things you notice and feel by writing them down — take photographs or draw things out. Let yourself move, make noise, or build things. Talk to your friends and family about what you notice, identify mysteries and possibilities, and try to figure out how and why you notice what you notice. Listen to other people talk about what they notice and feel and practice imagining what it might be like to be them. This way, when you notice problems or things that excite you, you can figure out what to do about it on your own or together in your community. This is how art thinking and practicing can be a valuable way of going about life.

Performance garment made from recycled materials for an exhibition at HiLo, Catskill, NY, 2018. Photo by Nurya Chana

Why is it important to make art accessible to all children and families?
There are a lot of great opportunities for children and families to experience certain types of art, such as classes and special events at museums, that are made available to them by institutions and art organizations that operate and share art with communities by collecting donations and other types of financial support from generous people. There are art collectors who are motivated to share their collections publicly. Giving, sharing, and making sure that children, families, and people on the peripheries of centralized power structures have access to art is important. At the same time, there is and always will be the type of art that happens outside of schools, galleries, and museums that is free and always will be. It’s important for children and families to know that they have the ability to grant themselves access to the type of art and art thinking that is most beneficial to their way of life and their community, and that they can do so no matter where they come from or what types of resources are available to them.

Do you have a favorite memory of making art as a child?
At summer camp, there were these vats of clay, and I loved to shove my hands deep into them and wiggle my fingers around. All the children would make little pots and monsters out of the clay. Next we would glaze them, and it was super exciting when the tiny sculptures emerged from the kiln looking like little solid glossy blobs. Another memory I have — each Christmas, my mother would have us make a crèche out of salt dough that we would bake and then paint. One year, we were tired of making the regular donkeys and sheep, so my brother and I rolled up hundreds of snakes to surround baby Jesus and the manger. We were compelled to go way overboard and just made tons and tons of snakes. For some reason, we found this very exciting. I still have this snake-making memory marked as an important point where I recognized something valuable about repetition, gesture, speed, action, and enthusiasm for challenging ideas and expectations.

Original artwork obscured by recycled material. Installation at HiLo, Catskill, NY, 2018

Can you share a work or artist that inspires you to make art?
Linda Mary Montano
has influenced me the most. We do projects together and are also friends. She has taught me that art and life are inextricably bound through a mystical entanglement that deserves the utmost attention and care, and that ordinary life events such as phone conversations, laughing together, visiting trees, and helping each other with chores can be transcendent when approached with care and love for each other and all involved. My favorite artists are my friends and people who are excited to make work together and try new things.

Top Image: Performance structure made of recycled material with paintings by Paul McMahon at Bedstock 2018. Photo by Amelia Iaia.

View more of Nina’s art at ninaisabelle.com and learn about her project space at threephasecenter.com

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