Ten years of baby dresses, 1995-2005, all mixed media
"Youdelman has continued to create art inspired by the herstory of her gender."--Curator Michele Ellis Pracy
Nancy Youdelman’s retrospective, Fashioning a Feminist Vision, 1972-2017, at the Fresno Art Museum spanned five decades. Curator Michele Ellis Pracy chose 65 dimensional objects, which were placed within three galleries. I drove up to Fresno a few days before the show closed to hear Nancy present her talk. For a materials and textures junkie such as myself, the experience was exhilarating! Before spending time with each piece up close, I stood in the room, breathing them all in together. I felt comforted and welcomed by the presence of a kindred spirit and her vast body of work.
The title wall opened with 10 mixed-media sculptures ranging in size from about 11 to 17 inches tall. Each of the monochrome dress forms was embellished with specific bits of plants, glass, or ephemera, some of it secured with encaustic. Surfaces varied from smooth to thorny, coloration from earthy to metallic. On the wall here and again throughout the show was the much needed signage: Do Not Touch The Artwork.
The show, organized by decade, began with the earliest work from the 1970s when Nancy was a student at California State University, Fresno (formerly Fresno State College). As luck would have it, in the spring of 1970 the CSUF art department hired Judy Chicago. In response to the criticism received as she began her professional career—“you can’t be a woman and an artist, too"–Chicago posted a note in the art department outlining a class solely for women. Nancy was one of 15 women invited to participate. This class grew into the program known as the Feminist Art Program, which emphasized personal content, the value of female experience, and the aesthetic potential of non-traditional materials. The genesis of the work was to come from ideas. No subject was off limits. After three semesters in Fresno Nancy followed Chicago to CalArts, graduating in 1973. She went on to earn her MFA from UCLA in 1976.
Installation view of the exhibition, with Youdelman's recreation of Self Portrait as Ophelia in foreground, originally made in 1977
All photos by Michael Karibian, courtesy of the artist
All photos by Michael Karibian, courtesy of the artist
Of the 1970s, Nancy writes, “My method was to get an idea and begin working with complete faith in what I was doing. I was driven, focused and didn’t question what I needed to do. Ideas would come to me, either as imagined visuals or via my dreams and I would pursue what I needed to do to realize them as completed works.”
Thorn Shoe, 1976, mixed media, 3 x 5 x 2 inches
Nancy and her husband rented a house in Los Angeles. They lived on the ground floor; her studio was up a flight of stairs on the unfinished second floor. Her children were born during this time and she learned to work efficiently in shorter stretches. The children were often present in the studio working on projects she’d given them. It was during this period that she began rising very early to work for a few hours before the house was awake, a practice she enjoys to this day.
Nancy and her family left Los Angeles and returned to Clovis, the city she’d lived in as a child and where she’d first begun making art. In the beginning, she had no studio and used the kitchen table to create small works. The materials and tools needed to be put away each afternoon because the space also functioned as the family’s dinner table. Eventually she rented a storefront in nearby downtown Fresno where she concentrated on creating sturdy forms for her artwork. These were primarily dress shapes, both free standing and wall hung. She began using metallic paints to create the illusion of cast metal.
In 2003, a studio that Nancy calls her “dream space” was designed and constructed by Roger Johnson (now her ex-husband) behind the house where she still lives. The studio is bright and airy thanks to a high ceiling and a wall of windows bringing in views of the lush exterior garden. In 2005 Nancy was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, and in 2007 she received a grant from the Adolf & Esther Gottlieb Foundation. These grants afforded her the opportunity to reorganize the studio, purchase new supplies, and have an edition of work cast in bronze. It was, she recalls, a prolific time.
Vessel, 2005; bronze, edition of 5; 16 x 16.5 x 10.25 inches
The Current Decade
Retired from teaching, Nancy began working full-time in the studio. In addition to the dress forms she began using thread to wrap bundles of objects such as glass doorknobs, baby shoes, hair curlers, roller skates, hand tools and dried flowers to create assemblages. In 2014 she began incorporating broken rhinestone jewelry to create the Embellished series. In 2016 Nancy received a grant from the Tree of Life Foundation to create a short documentary about her work. The 18-minute video, Nancy Youdelman: The Texture of Time and Memory can be seen online.
Seeing 45 years of Nancy Youdelman’s artwork in Fashioning a Feminist Vision allowed me to reflect on the unmarked path we travel as artists. Looking back we can see where we've been, and that allows us to take stock of where we are now. While we cannot know where our path will take us, we do know there's no getting there without the work we have made today.
The day after her talk, I met with Nancy in her Clovis studio. We talked for close to three hours about making art, hanging dimensional art (particularly the importance of integrating the hanging system into the piece), gathering non-traditional materials in such places as thrift stores and eBay, and ways to store them (we both like clear plastic boxes).
Nancy opened her flat files to show me a series of flat paper collages she had made. She'd taken a class as a way to try something new and step out of her comfort zone. We talked about process. "It all starts with an idea," she said, adding, "working through an idea--pushing it beyond where it is--is more important than the finished look of the piece." Long ago, she had learned not to question herself while working in the studio.
Her favorite quote is by Marcel Proust: “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object which we do not suspect.”
. Nancy Youdelman's website
. To purchase the exhibition catalog, email Nancy directly. She will sign/inscribe if requested. Cost is $22.50 with postage