Veteran Feminists of America Member CloseUps


The Flowering of the Fig Tree

Nancy, age 4

When I was born in 1939 in St. Bernadette’s Parish in Brooklyn, I was supposed to be a boy and my name was to be Nicholas. My mother had had two miscarriages which she said were boys. Though the family hid their disappointment, I still knew. It wasn’t hard to figure out. I was called Annunziata or Nancy after my mother, her mother and grandmother and many other women centuries back in time.

Expectations for me were limited since girls were brought up to be mother’s helpers and to live either next door or in the same building. In the Italian American culture children essentially brought themselves up within the strict confines of their designated roles in terms of gender. They played mostly with their cousins and all relationships centered around the family.

We had a lovely garden with roses and peonies, and apple, peach and fig trees. Every year the fig trees were cut down to the trunk and tarred at the cut edges. The beautiful branches and leaves fell to the ground and my father would explain that it was “for their own good,” because they wouldn’t survive the winter. I was always upset to see this.

In the 35 years of my teaching art, I have found that anyone can make art. I didn’t always feel that way. When I was a child I loved to make things, but never thought of myself as an artist. Even though I knew somehow that art was natural to everyone, I couldn’t make the leap. I didn’t think I had ability because representational art was what everybody in my family liked. Michelangelo and commercial art out of magazines were admired. My desire to pursue art was great, but my ability to do it was held back by other people’s definitions of what I should be able to put on the page. I eagerly painted by numbers, made leather craft wallets and assembled crepe-paper flowers, but to create from an empty space, a blank canvas or a bare wood stump, I didn’t even consider.

When I think about the things that have formed my sense of self as an artist, I always return to those lessons from my grandfather’s garden, which delighted me and heightened my sense of observation, awakened my curiosity and made me comfortable with solitude. It opened my eyes to an appreciation of colors and shapes, and brought wonder at its different cycles. Because there were no children my age in the neighborhood, I was often left alone there. Still vivid in my mind is the explosion of colors in the spring, the change of colors in the fall, the brilliance of the sun, the softness of the moon, the shadows cast by the trees, the rhythm and patterns of spacing and thinning, shaping and pruning, of watching things change, of seeing birds and plants mature and die. I remember observing this garden, its everyday activities and the activities of the adults who worked in it. My grandfather and his gardener used such love and caring. As I watched their passion I learned how to bring the same kind of attention that I now bring to my art.

I would lie on the grass under the flowers, pressing my body into the damp earth, watching the daily comings and goings of garden life. There were fragrant lilies of the valley lining the side of the garage. An abandoned doghouse with its musty smell brought to life the image of lost dogs and children. There was a garden with lettuce (lattuga my father would say), zucchini and string beans. A neighbor’s garden was behind a vine-covered fence where I could watch huge summer squashes with their exotic southern Italian names. A neat row of proud wild cherry trees separated the properties. My first experience of creativity was making crepe paper flowers in after-school and summer programs. I began with tracing the petals, then cutting and shaping them. It was like magic to see them come to life as beautiful bouquets of pink and yellow and red.

Twelve years later I learned it was possible for me to become an artist when I was interviewed for a class in fashion design by a teacher at Finch College. She told me emphatically that if I could write my own name, I could learn how to draw. “News to me,” I thought, “but I’ll try it.” So I timidly signed up for her class. During the semester I found that my hand could develop a memory for information about vision just as it had learned to make letters. I have never turned back since.

After graduating from Finch, I became a costume designer for the theater. Although I loved what I was doing and had fun with it, I began to look for something that was more of an artistic challenge. Gradually, I began to think that maybe art was what I was looking for. I experimented with canvas and paints. My first work was of the light of the lamppost across the street from where I lived. I made a big almost life-sized painting of the black metal lamppost head and then tried to paint the light that radiated from it. But no one liked it. It seemed odd, not pleasant to look at.

I wasn’t looking for a pretty picture--I was looking for a way to describe radiance and put it into paint, a way to make a relationship between this radiance and the spiritual aspect of making art. Obsessed with painting those rays from that streetlight, I spent hours on them. The result was not that interesting, but it was a start. How odd it is to look back at that first painting from where I am now -– an artist who has used so much gold leaf in my sculpture. It is curious that even when I was 20 years old, I was trying to do with paints what I now do. Now I can see a common thread in all my artwork, a thread of a desire to express the radiance.

That first painting inspired me and I signed up for classes at the Art Students League in New York City. As I would make a head, a body or figure, I would realize that over and over a particular form would surface.

But art school convention was that these were unskilled and unformed vestiges from a place not to be honored. Teachers told me to erase them. I learned to tell myself: “That’s not right. I have to change the shape.” I would erase this form and cover it over with something that was more acceptable to the teacher and the convention I was learning.

The 1970’s were very exciting for me. As a working artist, I was discovering empowerment inside myself. I was so grateful to be alive because I could be involved in feminism, which for me meant exploring everything. Nothing was excepted.

The impact of feminism on many women artists inspired a women’s cultural movement. As part of a consciousness-raising group, I discussed, discovered, examined everything from the very essence of my birth to my life as a woman, to the forms, colors and shapes I put in my art. I asked myself what was male, what was female. Did the Divine have a gender that could be female? Were there unique female images? What did they look like? How were they relevant? Some of us examined women’s traditional ways of working (quilting, braiding rugs, and weaving fabrics) which until then was considered lesser art. We considered these things as important as paintings and sculptures.

The impact of ideas such as “the personal is political” was a revelation that I began to put into my life and a whole new way for me. Before then, the personal was belittled, as something only women were engaged in and therefore not important. My everyday experience developed a relevance that I no longer ignored or diminished but included in relation to my artwork.

I began to draw during these consciousness-raising sessions, trying to record visually what was being said, but I found it could not be translated. However, by doing these original primitive drawings, forms belonging only to me would surface. In fact, I noticed that the same forms, similar to the kinds of images I had been taught to erase in art school, kept returning again and again--and even then I found myself erasing them. But eventually I came to treasure them, realizing they had emotional import, an expression in shapes and colors of the emotional dialogue that was happening those evenings.

A whole new presence beyond words kept emerging through these forms. When finally I allowed them to come through completely, my work began to flower. Eventually, I accepted this process as natural and normal, and began to think of ways to share it with others--not only so they could put it into their process, but also because I was interested in whether it would be as natural for them as it was for me.

In 1979 I co-founded The New York Feminist Art Institute (NYFAI). Our intent was to examine many of the issues relating to gender, self and identity. For my first workshop, I devised a way to share my experience of recording images in a class called “Consciousness-Raising, Visual Diaries, Art-Making.”

That first year, as we met in a classroom, we chose a topic. While others spoke, each woman drawing in a blank book, made a visual record of what was said. It was a fairly standard process, the same one I had been using in my women’s group. The drawings that came out of the workshop confirmed what I myself had found.

One of the rules of the class was that each participant was to treat her drawings not for publication or display, but her own very personal diary of her inner life. As the women became startled with the freshness and newness of their visual pieces, I reminded them that these images hadn’t come from another world, but were part of their interior landscape which they lived with all the time and had not, or just barely, noticed--or had erased, as I had done.

It was thrilling to be a part of their discovery. I could literally watch women change their process, many returning to art after years of being stuck, others shifting gears and making images which came more truly from themselves. We drew and made collages, built up pages in our books and made substantial and powerful diaries. We showed sections of them, tying off the other pages with ribbon or clipping them together, to keep private what they were not ready to reveal. In those books were new visions, ideas, ways of seeing shadows from the past.

"Hand Garden/Doctors Wall Part I" (studio shot),
carved and painted wood w/ gold leaf 2004 6 1/2’ x 24’ x 8”

After about 10 years NYFAI closed due to many circumstances, especially the political climate and the shortage of funds. We were “too political” for arts funding and too “involved in the arts” for political foundations.

The institute changed my artwork and brought me closer to my inner vision. My sculpture became larger, returning to some work I had done in the early 70’s. Since then I have created “Passages” (1999), a carved wood book made with poet Judith Barrington; “Heart Wall” (2000), a 22-foot long six-foot high sculpture incorporating symbols of love and compassion, shown in 2000 and again in 2008 in a lobby at 344 Madison Avenue in New York City. I have had four artist residencies, three in Italy and one in Kerala, in Southwestern India. I began the “Changes” works-–12 x 12” panels-–while in Florence in 1999, continued them in India and began a series of rubbing woodcuts on paper and mylar from these woodcuts.

I have made several commissions including “Hand Garden/Doctors” Wall for the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton, NJ, a carved gold leaf 28-foot wall commissioned to honor the doctors’ hands. “Hand Garden” was hung in a much-used corridor and has become an integral part of the hospital community.

In March 2010 I exhibited new large sculptures at the Andre Zarre Gallery in Chelsea, NY. My colors are now white on aluminum leaf so that a light shimmers through the surface. I have been using less and less color over the years, and am looking more and more at the interaction between my life and its passing as time goes on. I showed the ten-foot “Dawn/Light,” the memorial to my mother, the six-foot “Leaf Altar to Nunzia 1913-2004,” as well as smaller works and collages.

The large work continues. I just finished “Third Moon,” a 6’ x 8’ x 1’ wall sculpture, also luminous and white, which has sections of branches and leaves, giving new life to a fallen tree. I am also making many rubbings, some quite large, which have the same theme: tree, woman, person, leaf.

Making art seriously, as a woman, as a professional, is a radical endeavor for women. After all, it has been only 40 years that we have demanded the right to have our humanity acknowledged and our voices heard. Even now there are only a select few who get recognition. Some women artists feel this is because men and women in the art world have to get accustomed to seeing what we are making, much of which hasn’t been described before and may make men especially uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, there is still 80 percent men to 20 percent women shown in galleries and museums, so most of what we look at is a male interpretation, perceptions and world visions.

I encourage VFA members and other women to support women artists, to look at our work and hang it in your homes. That is the kind of support we need and a very special affirmation of who we are. I invite you to look at my website and facebook page and at NYFAI’s website

Contact Nancy Azara

Comments Jacqui Ceballos

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