When I was going to Ball State in the middle right of the great state of Indiana (and earlier, when I was in high school in South Bend) Chicago was a place I went to get cultcha. Marilynn Derwenskus, my watercolor professor and a dynamo mentor, took us often on field trips and showed us how you could get in touch with well-known artists you admired by… getting in touch with well-known artists you admired. She helped us bring people like Karen Finley, Judy Pfaff, David Reed and Faith Ringgold to our mid-America campus, and when we would travel to Chicago, she’d make arrangements there as well. One trip, she arranged a studio visit with Gladys Nilsson, and I’ve been thinking about how much impact that seems to have had on my own pursuits. The whole “Hairy Who?” a group of artists including Nilsson, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum, and other Chicago Imagists like H.C. Westermann, fed into my interest in the possibilities of the figure as a profound and profoundly goofy reality of life on earth. There’s something about the scatalogical humor conjoined with an almost dancerly grace that describes the feeling of living in unpredictably embarrassing, unexpectedly resilient bodies.
On Jim Nutt:
While it was undoubtedly inspired by mid-twentieth century pop culture, especially comic books, advertisements, jukebox and pinball machine art, and street signs, Nutt’s art also explores the formal devices and techniques of historical painting. Northern European portraiture of the 15th and 16th century; Colonial American painting; the color and line explorations of Henri Matisse and Joan Miró; the quirky individualism of such artists as John Graham, Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, and H. C. Westermann all offered lessons as Nutt has matured over four decades of artistic development. (via)
I also found out, by reading this interview in Bomb, that Nilsson started using watercolor when she had her baby. I did the same thing with drawings and gouache when I had my second son, and I’m so glad that I happened into what has become a very fruitful way of working. It has been for Gladys Nilsson, too. I like what she has to say about one of the reasons she and Jim Nutt, who is her partner, stayed in Chicago:
There were couples who had met and married in art school, and then he kept up or didn’t keep up, and she became not an artist. There were one or two women on the West Coast we knew were involved with art, but, basically, it reminded me of my childhood. You’d have a gathering and the men would be doing men’s stuff and the women would be in the kitchen with their aprons. It was like stepping back in time.
When we were showing in groups here in Chicago, there wasn’t any difference gender-wise. It was all about your art.
There were fewer well-known women working in Chicago than men, but there were some exceptional ones: Miyoko Ito and Evelyn Statsinger come immediately to mind. On the West Coast you had Joan Brown, who’s our age, and then Jay DeFeo, from an older generation. You had examples of well-respected women who were in shows, yet at these parties, it seemed like two different worlds. When Jim Falconer and I were dreaming up small groups to propose for shows at HPAC, it never occurred to us that by including women we might be doing something unusual. For the lists that we took to Don Baum—the lists from which the Hairy Who, in a sense, came out of—we were looking for work that we liked and fit together well and nothing else.