A conversation with artist Nancy Gruskin: Her Path, Her Painting

• Saturday, January 27, 2018 •

Norma:  You have a very unusual route that led you to your current vocation of being a full-time painter. As a young girl, you attended museum art classes for youth, your college years steered you to a Ph.D. in art history, then you followed a familial trail to becoming a lawyer. Can you talk about how these intersections on your path have, and are, informing your current work?

Nancy:  Painting has always been in the background, since I was a kid.  It wasn’t until about four or five years ago that I decided it was time to move it to the foreground.  I think it was one of those mid-life moments where you stop and think, what is it that I truly love to do?  I also think that the twisted path I took getting to that moment shaped me as a painter.  As an art historian, I developed a pretty good eye for color and composition and my life experience definitely affected my choice of subject matter.  I’m not sure what I would have chosen to paint as a twenty-something, but having a family—and the joys and the mundane responsibilities that come with it—is a treasure trove for me as an artist.    

Norma:  Since you have a Ph.D. in art history I am certain you have a few “heroes on your shelf” -  those that you honor and whom you feel you are in conversation with when you approach your painting. I have some suspicions, but would love to know your premier influences – those you revere and whose aesthetics you honor in your own painting.

Nancy:   It’s a long list!  From a subject matter perspective, I’m definitely drawn to painters whose work tends to be autobiographical—painters like Pierre Bonnard, Fairfield Porter, Joan Brown, and Alex Katz.  Bonnard’s compositions and Porter’s palette floor me every time.  Matisse, for his color sense, love of decorative pattern, and the seeming effortlessness of his work.  I also love the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Elizabeth Blackadder and Janice Biala.  I could go on and on!   

Norma:  I love the direct, decisive brush work in your painting, combined with very intriguing compositions. Your subjects may be pushed almost out of the picture plane. I am also pulled into your world when I see common objects – the take out Chinese food box, the kitchen table strewn with the cereal box and empty bowl, your son nearby tying his shoe, part of what appears to be your husband reading the paper, and the black dog splayed out on the floor – It makes me want to be on the couch in the living room reading a book while this warm everyday drama in your home plays out. How did this autobiographic way of working come about for you?

Nancy:  I think it’s a little like when people tell writers to write what they know—this is my life and it’s what I know best.  It also has a lot to do with the fact that my studio is in my house.  I’m often dragging my easel around different rooms.

Norma:  I know you have taught on many levels – classes, workshop, university, etc. You will be teaching a 3-dayworkshop with Cullowhee Arts in Snow Hill, Maryland, starting with your slide talk the night before the workshop begins -  March 8 – 11. What can students expect to take away from their time with you?

Nancy:  I think they can expect to take away some very concrete tools—for example, how to simplify, abstract and edit form and how to mix a wide range of colors with a limited palette.  Conceptually, we’ll be exploring how to combine direct observation with painting from memory and invention.  There is a take-away for me too—my love of painting is reinvigorated by the ideas and practices of my fellow artists.  Painting can be such a solitary activity.  Being in a studio for a few days with other people who share your passion is a win-win! I think it’s going to be a really energizing weekend! 

The Workshop:

March 8 - 11, 2018
Medium:  Drawing, Painting
Tuition:  $575  | Lab Fee: $75 (includes model fee)

Nancy Gruskin lives and works in Concord, MA.  She holds B.A. in Art History and Studio Art from Connecticut College and a Ph.D. in Art History from Boston University, where she was the recipient of the Angela J. and James J. Rallis Memorial Scholarship.  After teaching art and architectural history at Harvard University, Tufts University and Connecticut College, she now devotes herself to painting full-time.  Her work is in private collections in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and has been exhibited in numerous galleries, including Galatea Fine Art in Boston and Prince Street Gallery in New York City.  She teaches painting at the Concord Center for the Visual Arts.

Autumn Colors - Artist, Retreat!

• Tuesday, October 03, 2017 •

I have seen it happen over and over again – the deep connections made when artists “retreat” from the demands of daily existence to a place of natural beauty and serenity. From the first gathering – the opening reception - artists find commonalities and meaningful exchange. A thread begins to weave through what is forming as a “community” of artists. We all come with different expectations, that soon to melt away, and pure joy instead takes root. How does this transformation begin to take place so quickly, I ask? Through the years of organizing and facilitating artist retreats with workshops or open studio, I believe I have some idea.

Today’s culture is a steady diet of stress; our demanding jobs, our over connectedness to technology, the sheer weight of keeping up with emails alone, add to this short list the constant borage of negative news assaulting us wherever we go - even when we simply want to read a book while waiting for some appointment. We starve for solace, peace and a measure of playfulness.


During the Retreats, I offer morning mindfulness sessions, that begin and end with a poem selected for that day. On the first morning, after everyone has had a night to sleep in a cabin without internet or cell service and has awakened to the sound of the breeze rustling though the leaves, or the sound of Canadian Geese calling in their flight over the lake, I always read the following poem by Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”


When despair for the world grows in me

 and I wake in the night at the least sound

 in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

 I go and lie down where the wood drake

 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

 I come into the peace of wild things

 who do not tax their lives with forethought

 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

 And I feel above me the day-blind stars

 waiting with their light. For a time

 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

We all get it and it helps us to sink into the blessing of time set apart to be creative, to reflect, to smile and laugh, to be at peace.

 If you would like to share in this experience, there is an upcoming Retreat at Beautiful Lake Logan Conference Center, Canton, North Carolina, October 25 - 30 - workshop with Alice Ballard and Open Studio  - spaces are still open, (click here for all the detais)


Lisa Pressman on "Personal Language" in art

• Thursday, August 03, 2017 •

Lisa Pressman and I recently had a conversation about the idea of
“Personal Language” in one’s art. 
Below are questions and answers about this topic.

Lisa Pressman teaching  in Taos, NM

Norma - Your upcoming workshop, September 8 - 10 in Snow Hill, Maryland, is titled “Exploring Personal Language through Mixed Media.” How would you define your personal language?   

Lisa - My visual language has been developing since I was in high school and constantly doodling. Those doodles were boxes in boxes that became structures including doors, windows and portals. These still appear in my work both as marks and as image.

Lisa Pressman

Norma - Is there a point where you began to recognize your own language in your work?  

Lisa - I didn’t really name it for a long while. “Personal language” was not a buzz word when I went to graduate school. Recently, while I was making a power point with all my work, my language became clear. Like learning any language—it takes time, practice and work to be fluent. 

Lisa Pressman

Norma - A three-day workshop is condensed and intensive. What can happen in three days for students in the pursuit of finding their own visual vocabulary? And as the facilitator of this goal, what happens as the days unfold?
Lisa - Three days is short but by placing the emphasis on experimentation, quick exercises and thinking about inspirations, connections happen. The unfolding starts with excitement and fun, sometimes turns into frustration and then the understanding comes: either of the material, or personal image or both.

Norma - You live close enough to NYC that you can frequent galleries and museums and have the opportunity to see lots of great art. Can you name a few artists whose work is important for students to look at especially—as examples of unique personal language? 

Lisa - Anselm Keifer, Brenda Goodman, Amy Sillman, Mark Bradford, William Kendridge, Pat Steir, Vija Celmins, Julie Mehretu are just a few that come to mind.

Anselm Keifer

Norma - After teaching a 3-day workshop, what do you think students will be taking with them back to the studio. Students go home with a different idea of how to move paint and how to think about the painting process.

Lisa - Students go home with a different idea of how to move paint and how to think about the painting process.  I try to stress ideas of freedom, of not rushing a painting, and playfulness. Works done in the workshop often become springboards for a new series!!