Recently, Freeman’s Modern & Contemporary Art Junior Specialist Shannon Jeffers (SJ) spoke with Maria Nevelson (MN), granddaughter of prolific artist Louise Nevelson (American, 1899-1988). They discussed her grandmother’s legacy and the influence she had on Maria creatively and spiritually. This intimate glimpse behind the art reveals a passionate, expressive woman who valued family and followed her own path.
SJ: What are some of your favorite memories of your grandmother?
MN: A childhood memory was wincing yet loving Grandma gently biting my little wrist out of excitement when she saw me. As I got older, she shared her metaphysical knowledge with me and encouraged being centered in myself and strong.
SJ: Were you ever present as she built her sculptures and what were your impressions of her process?
MN: When I stayed a long weekend with my grandmother I would catch a moment here and there of her working. I was very quiet and did not intrude out of great respect for a master in process. Most of the time she took off work to spend time with me, as family was important to her. Her process happened day and night.
Her five-storied house was set-up so most floors held a studio, allowing a high degree of organization and immediate access when creativity struck. Her creative flow was very intuitive and required considerable focus. Anyone in her creative space had to be in sync with the process.
SJ: What was it like growing up with the influence of your grandmother in the family?
MN: I thought she encouraged independent thinking. As you get older, you can see many people are not comfortable with independent thinkers, so you recognize when not to push them out of their comfort zone. I found her way of thinking super liberating and it allowed me to follow my own interests and path rather than adopt someone else’s. I can see many people get lost in wanting to be something they can’t be, and my Grandmother’s philosophy taught me to stay centered and uncover who I am. Her courage to follow her own path made it so much easier for me to do the same.
SJ: How did growing up in this artistic environment impact your own understanding of art?
MN: First of all, making art was very natural if that’s what you wanted to do. Second, I observed as a child…looked and listened. I did not feel I had to make something and part of me was sure it wouldn’t be good anyway. In college, I studied art history at George Washington University and that flowed into curating a collection of Correspondence Art for the Museum of Temporary Art. I was comfortable helping other artists.
Later here in Philadelphia, I volunteered in various capacities at Nexus Foundation for Today’s Art ending up as Chair of the Board. Now I help my Grandmother’s Legacy through the Louise Nevelson Foundation. I have the creative art awareness but the necessity to make a living blocked it. When I turned 40, Tibetan Buddhism showed up and I studied and practiced extensively. Peeling back the onion allowed this amazing energy out and I created my own sculpture and established the Louise Nevelson Foundation.
I think creativity comes in many forms. But Buddhism gave me my center that my Grandmother spoke of and that center is unshakeable, unstoppable. And then I was able to feel art, then I was in the creative flow more than I had ever been. I do feel all the professions I have undertaken are an extension of my creativity, but art allowed me to experience the Fourth Dimension.
SJ: Can you tell us a little bit more about Nevelson’s interest in creating monumental large-scale sculptures, and how these works fit into the broader oeuvre?
MN: New materials become available and some of them are good fodder for artists. My Grandmother was introduced to Cor-Ten steel when it was new to artists. She said she was first uncertain about it but soon found she took to it like “butter.” Cor-Ten allowed her to work big, e.g. 40 feet high with “Shadows and Flags” at Louise Nevelson Plaza in Manhattan, and it allowed her work to remain outdoors in all kinds of weather. This was her new oeuvre and she made over 100 outdoor sculptures, big and small, and municipalities and corporations were commissioning these large-scale pieces for their public spaces.
Some of these sculptures like the “Atmosphere and Environment” group used steel boxes to contain the shapes, much like her wooden boxes. But then she broke free and in pure inspiration composed free standing sculptures from the miscellaneous shapes and cast-offs around her. You can’t work so big and in this way unless you are centered We see a lot of large outdoor sculpture that was composed from an imbalanced artist. These metal sculptures made on the spot were paralleled when she made wooden sculptures without boxes to contain the elements, e.g. “Mirror Shadow” series in 1987, at the end of her life.
SJ: Do you have a favorite work or type of work by your grandmother?
MN: No. Each piece captures a moment in my Grandmother’s life, so I accept each one. Sometimes they are simple meditative groupings of shapes, and sometimes they get quite complicated which is super fun to explore. I recently visited the white painted “Dawn’s Forest” (1986) at the Artis-Naples Baker Museum and because its many components are spread through out the museum I felt like I stepped into Alice in “a White” Wonderland where time stands still. I admit in the past the white sculptures didn’t grab me but I’ve changed and really enjoy them now.
SJ: What is one thing you wish people knew, or one message you wish people understood about your grandmother and her artwork that they may not already?
MN: I wish people revered the creative process and the creator. It’s not entertainment. What looks simple ain’t.
SJ: What do you think is Louise Nevelson’s legacy and how is her impact felt in contemporary art?
MN: Her legacy is inspiration. That’s a great gift to others and she encouraged, supported and shared her philosophy with other artists and the world. She makes sense if you are willing to walk the walk but forget it if it’s just talking the talk. That will take you nowhere in understanding her or receiving her gift. She shared how much she struggled within herself to make art and then had to struggle with the world around her to recognize it. Fame did not come easy for her and she earned every inch. It’s comforting to know someone else has struggled and you know how they handled it.
SJ: What inspired you to continue this legacy through the Louise Nevelson Foundation?
MN: Mary Louise Pierson Rockefeller. She told me when I was 17 years old that she was taught as a child to donate ten percent of every dollar to charity. Well, I knew I wasn’t rich, but I could donate time. I am a philanthropist with time. For so many years, I thought someone who was better equipped than I would establish a Foundation to preserve my Grandmother’s Legacy, but it didn’t happen. So, after a long wait I did!
SJ: Can you tell us more about the Nevelson Foundation and its mission?
MN: I established the Louise Nevelson Foundation, Inc. May 2, 2005 to educate the public and celebrate the life and work of Louise Nevelson.
SJ: What are your current projects at the Foundation?
MN: Our two primary projects are assisting the Getty Conservation Institute with developing a highly durable and long lasting black paint for the outdoor sculptures; and my catalogue raisonné documenting every artwork my Grandmother produced from childhood to passing away. In between, I lecture at museums, universities and grade schools, and research for auction houses and collectors. I also have a few books underway on aspects of my Grandmother’s work.
Beginning May 30, stop by Freeman’s to view two works by Louise Nevelson featured in the exhibition, 18 Works from the Bachman Collection.