Beauty as Action: An Interview with Nancy Willis

Artist Nancy Willis lives and works in the Napa Valley. Willis works with themes of intimacy and connection across paint, printmaking, and video mediums. Here she discusses her latest project with 10 Years + Counting.

Please describe your project.

The project is an exhibition called Discrepancy/Living Between War and Peace. It looks at the impact on daily life from three events: the World Trade Center bombings and the two wars. Twenty-three artists, three writers and veterans from Pathway Home, a residential recovery program for vets with PSTD are participating.

What inspired you to tackle this issue?

I began to question the beauty of where I live (Napa Valley), and also the nature of beauty in my work in relation to the images of conflict and trauma that I would see on the news.  I was looking to reconcile the discrepancy between the two. I could recognize that geographical distance was part of my feeling of disconnection, but I also felt that no matter how much I read or saw, I didn’t really know what was going on. I do not know anyone in the military. Any information I received was mitigated through another source.

I felt that in creating beauty I was taking a counter action to assuage suffering, but over time, I had feelings of discontent that it wasn’t enough.

"Smolder/Vermillion & Dust" Monotype by Nancy Willis

In 2008, I began collecting images of suicide bombings, the two wars, and the collapse of the World Trade Center. In both printmaking and painting, I began to lay images of chandeliers on top of the images I had collected as a way of talking about filters, that there is always more going on below the surface of what we see.  When I found what I was looking for in my own work, I knew I wanted to curate a show. I specifically reached out to artists who had an inherent sense of beauty in their work and did not typically deal with overtly political or conflictual themes.

I had heard about the remarkable success of a small program, Pathway Home; a residential recovery program for veterans with PTSD, specific to Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of their arts therapy, they are asked to illustrate a plaster mask, showing on the outside how they are perceived by others and on the inside, how they perceived themselves.  I sat in with one of the therapists and a group and witnessed the open expression of their feelings through the creative arts. I knew that people want to know how they feel.

 What have you learned from this project?

That one small pull in a new direction of an artist’s exploration can lead to collective action. A project like this is an organic experience. You must be able to learn what to hold on to and what to let go of along the way. I also believed that if you put your faith in the artists, they will come through in a big way and that was confirmed.

Were there any surprising outcomes?

Yes. I knew the masks made by the vets from Pathway Home would touch people, but what I didn’t think about was how the artists’ work would have such a powerful effect on the veterans. One of the vets said, “When I read the artists’ statements with the work, I realized we are not so far away from one another. We feel the same way.” To see that as artists, our work can have some positive effect on their healing was a nirvana moment for me personally.

How do you wage peace each day? 

I try and sit in wonder with opposition. There are always at least two sides to every story. I try and see the other perspectives.  I advocate that art can make a difference.  Any pointers for the rest of us? Don’t make assumptions about what you think you know. People, mechanisms and institutions are complicated but not impossible. Turn judgment to open-mindedness.

If applicable, how can people get involved in your project?

We are having a community art memorial hands-on project on September 11th and other panel and lecture discussions. They can also tell people about Pathway Home. This is not a government-sponsored program. It is funded through private donations and the need is great.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

Trust your instincts. If you believe in your idea, it can be done. Don’t ever give up.

Tanya Boggs Photography

Nancy Willis’s work is currently on view in a world printmaking exhibit in Sofia, Bulgaria as well as in DISCREPANCY/LIVING BETWEEN WAR AND PEACE at the Napa Valley Museum where she is also the exhibition curator.

Willis teaches painting and printmaking at the Napa Valley College and Nimbus Arts and the Principals of Design at the Culinary Institute of America. In 2007, Willis successfully launched annual Path of the Artist painting tours to France leading artists through an intimate view of Paris, Bordeaux and Bergerac. Willis advocates good wine and long dinners for all artists and can be found looking to stir things up in and out of her studio in St. Helena.

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