Artist Profile: Nancy Gifford
By Debra Herrick
In her expansive and light-filled Montecito studio, Nancy Gifford sighs with Leonard Cohen’s parting lyric, “You want it darker.”
Gifford’s work can be bright and bold, or somber and haunting, or both.
Born on a grain farm in Ohio, Gifford is no stranger to hard work and grit. “My parents were simple people, but my father could build and make anything,” she says. “We grew most of our food and bartered for what we did not produce ourselves.
“Someone once asked why I had so many grids in my work. I grew up in a house that was surrounded on all sides by grain fields which changed colors and patterns with the seasons. It was like living inside a quilt of grids and rows.”
As a child, Gifford took apart toasters to see how they worked, as an artist she spent years working with a chemist to design acrylics that she could shape like clay but would maintain their form over time.
All Gifford’s work is meant to be archival. Some of her work contains multitudes of components, each carefully bound and protected. Gifford’s is an unsung meticulousness—one that resounds her own strength and sense of self.
“The modeling world was extremely predatory and drug-fueled and I had to learn immediately how to take care of myself. My strength came out of a pure survival instinct. I had Midwestern values and an understanding of hard work and perseverance which is needed to be an artist.”
Gifford’s path to becoming an artist was unconventional. She studied psychology at Kent State University and minored in art. It was 1970—the year the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students near Gifford’s dorm during a mass protest against the US bombing of Cambodia—and Gifford was discovered by a modeling agent. She landed on the cover of a magazine produced by Richard Avedon, and after that, she left school and spent the next eight years living abroad.
“Modeling was my ticket off the farm and afforded me access to filmmakers, dancers, writers, poets, musicians, diplomats and artists. My artistic influences were not so much academic but developed from visits to the museums and galleries of Europe and the souks of Morocco.”
In 1979, looking for substance to her life beyond “standing in front of a camera,” she moved to Los Angeles and started making art. She learned building and construction from Allen Harrison. She became good friends with her mentor Avant Garde artist Beatrice Wood, who lived to be 105, and helped her understand the “long” game. She found a champion in the painter and museum director Henry T. Hopkins. She met Helen Frankenthaler, Yoko Ono, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg.
Gifford knew Leonard Cohen in the ‘60s. He was a steady influence on the use of text in her work and on her own writing. Her monumental installation “Lament” is comprised of hundreds of book covers and casts an elegant shadow over the onlooker, like the somber approaching the wailing wall. Threading book titles, the viewer finds secret haikus that Gifford has tucked into “Lament,” some like prayers, some like puns.
Indeed, Gifford is a great reader. “I read Lawrence Durell and the “Alexandria Quartet” was very inspirational to me in those early years. I lived in Morrocco in the early ‘70s and Paul Bowles was around and his writings spawned a desire for the exotic in my reading and tastes. I love Margaret Atwood and devour poetry. Poetry ignites my senses and spawns imagery for me. Important books for me were “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, “Sculpting in Time” by Andrey Tarkovsky, and “Kant after Duchamp” by Thierry de Duve.”
Artists left indelible impressions as well, “Eva Hesse showed me I didn't have to always use paint, Jenny Holzer's influence brought text into the work, Marcel Duchamp allowed the humor, Anselm Kiefer the scope and scale, Joseph Beuys the pathos, Ann Hamilton the grace and Julian Schnabel said ‘just keep swimming.’”
Gifford was fortunate with the men in her life, particularly her current husband. They were supportive of her being an artist, she says. “They did not do things to sabotage my desire to eschew traditional homemaking in order to pursue my work.”
The tension in Gifford’s work pushes against those childhood grids, always looking for ways to break through. “I love anarchy but hate chaos,” she says, “and so there seems to be this controlled bent in the work that I struggle against.”
She tends to work in series, creating a nonlinear visual and textual syntax, drips in “Stacks,” noodles in “State of Mind,” legs in “Good Girl Bad Girl,” aluminum rectangles in “Crazy Times.”
“I am primarily a narrative artist, so a thread weaves through the series. I like to say, painting is the refuge of the failed poet. What artist would not rather be the poet? Art is so laborious, at least the kind of art I do.”
And last month, Nancy Gifford who grew up between rows of grain in the rural Midwest, with no access to art or libraries, held an audience with California Senator Dianne Feinstein, in the living room of her home.
Because Nancy Gifford is a Nasty Woman.
Environmental and political themes emerge in her work in response to contemporary states of affairs. Gifford writes, “Leonard Cohen's parting words were MAKE IT DARKER and I took those words to heart...” Her series “Crazy Times” which she began in the months after the 2016 presidential election, includes the subseries “Heaps of Trouble,” hairy, organic, ghostly heaps that seemingly gather strength and form as they glide and expand.
With a unique blend of drama and comedy, in the same tone as her work, Gifford says,
“I’ll keep doing heaps of trouble until we’re out of trouble.”
A selection of Nancy Gifford’s art is included in the exhibit The Red-Headed Stepchild: The History of Collage and Assemblage in Santa Barbara, 1956–2018” from Sept. 20 to Oct. 21, 2018 at Sullivan Goss An American Gallery, 11 East Anapamu Street, Santa Barbara.