In contemporary art, the archetypal image of a masterful artist often has a lot more to do with personality, identity and social circles than the work itself. Narratives of solitude and the tortured maker are a seductive trope for historians and curators alike, and a selected artist’s singularity requires a certain level of resignation from daily responsibilities—a resignation that is impossible for those residing outside of a particular, privileged pocket. In fact, many artists—mothers and working parents among them—occupy a creative experience that is vastly different from the preferred paragons we see on textbook covers.
For as long as she can remember, Bea Nettles wanted to make art, creating something resonant out of the bits and pieces surrounding her daily life. Growing up in the Southern US, she didn’t have access to fancy museums or an education revolving around Art History’s selected figures, but she did know that her internal self required expression through making. The path that followed has been filled with experimentation and the breeding of countless media. Through Nettles’ work, different modes of emotion are stitched together, resulting in mixed-media techniques—a spider web of expression rather than a linear, glossy print housed in the confines of an expensive frame.
Fifty years after her first solo exhibition at the Eastman Museum (previously called the George Eastman House), a retrospective of the artist’s work is on view, welcoming audiences old and new to explore the magical world of Bea Nettles. In this interview for LensCulture, Nettles speaks with Cat Lachowskyj about the evolution of her practice throughout teaching and motherhood, and what inspired her to continuously pursue projects outside the confines of straight photography.
Cat Lachowskyj: The foundation of your training is in painting, but today your work is largely considered photographic. Looking across your oeuvre, it’s clear that you approach photography as a medium catered to your own expressive needs. Formal photography training is usually grounded in perfecting the craft, but when you first encountered photography, you manipulated it to act as an extension of your previous work in other mediums. Walk me through those initial experiments, and how you saw them flowing in and out of painting.
Bea Nettles: In my senior year of my MFA, in the Fall of 1967, I was required to take an art class in photography. My teacher was a man named Robert Fichter, and he was a free spirit himself, making cyanotypes and doing odd things with photographs. His first assignment for our class was: pick any one object and make lots of photos of it. I picked a seed pod that we call a ‘winky pin’ down South, and I didn’t make any straight photos of it at all. I immediately started manipulating in the darkroom.
When the next semester rolled around, Robert told me to take photography again, but I simply couldn’t afford it. I grew up with four siblings, I lived at home, and even though college itself wasn’t that expensive, by that point three of us were studying, so money was tight. But Robert pulled some strings behind the scenes and got me a lab assistant job, which made it financially possible for me to enrol in photography again.
CL: The expense of materials in art school, in addition to tuition, is something many people don’t consider. And it’s true, the pursuit of photography does require a certain level of privilege. There is so much equipment involved, from materials and chemicals to the actual apparatus.
BN: Exactly. I think that explains a lot about my aesthetic, which is piecemeal—that constraint of materials had a lot to do with economics. But working as a lab monitor for the new instructor, Jerry Uelsmann, I continued with experimental photography in the darkroom. One day, I noticed another student trying to put photos on ceramics, and they were coloring them with Edwal toner. Once I discovered how toners could change the colours of photographs, I realized I could make my images look more painterly, in line with my other work. I began hand-coloring that Spring, and that’s when I made pieces like Self Totem.
CL: What I find crucial about your creative evolution is that it’s deeply intertwined with the evolution of the photographic process itself. Many people today aren’t aware of how many options and innovations were simultaneously popping up and going extinct in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, especially color processes, from chromogenic methods to dye diffusion. What was it like to develop your own craft around these methods?
BN: I continued to hand-color photos until I ran out of steam. I was always on the lookout for color, but it was very rare to have color photos back then—there wasn’t a safe, non-toxic way to work with it. I started making photobooks and working with an Instamatic camera, and I taught students how to work with cyanotypes and Van Dyke brown printing. Teaching is what really pushed me to learn as many techniques as I possibly could, so that I could convey those methods to my students.
CL: And at what point did you discover Kwik Print? This is the alternative process that most people associate with your work.
BN: The first time I encountered Kwik Print was around 1970, and at that point it was called Kwik Proof. The person who showed it to me was quite proprietary, and didn’t explain that it was something anyone could do or buy. He kept calling it ‘gum printing’, but was doing it on plastic—I thought he was a god or something!
Maybe five years later, Robert Fichter and his partner at the time, Eileen Cowan, came through Rochester and stayed with my husband and me. Eileen was working with Kwik Proof, and she told me that the stuff was made in Brooklyn and easy to get, so I got my hands on some. I quickly discovered that the material was like light-sensitive paint, and I could make my images look like paintings, even though they were photographic. I would say Kwik Print was the material I became most known for. When you look at the series Flamingo in the Dark, you think: How does this work? How can you make an image that has a luminous, continuous tone and quality that isn’t the same as screen-printing, which has that half-tone dot? And keep in mind this is way before Photoshop, so these photographic techniques were all manual tricks.
CL: How long would it take you to make a piece with Kwik Print? I assume the process is quite long, and now that we have software like Photoshop, as you mentioned, many people don’t understand the time involved in using these manual processes.
BN: They don’t. One piece would rarely be made in one day. They would each be made over time, and conceiving of the image was never straightforward—it was like putting puzzle pieces together. I had large, contact-size ortho-film negatives that I made in the darkroom. Once they were washed and dried, I would start laying them on top of my work surface, seeing what might fit together, be they gestures or people. Then I would add in things like landscape, water, ripples, palm trees, the cloud—that’s about six pieces of film in the mix.
After that, I would coat the vinyl in one color, lay the new negative conglomerate down, do an eight to ten minute exposure, go to my sink, wash out the unexposed color, and do it again with each subsequent color. I always told my students that my main trick was Ajax with a sponge. It was destructive, but it was effective to scrub off some of the color, and then keep building. That was how I got results that were less flat than other people who used the process. Because the base was vinyl, it dried immediately and didn’t shrink, so you could have perfect negative registration for subsequent layers.
CL: That explains how these images look so different from regular screen printing—they are incredibly luminous and ethereal. But why did you stop working with Kwik Print, and how did you explore color afterwards?
BN: At a certain point, I brought the product to Light Impressions, which was a business run by my husband and his partner. It allowed the process to be more accessible for the public, but at some point, my husband lost his business to this same partner. I just could not continue to work with the product in good conscience, so I stopped using it, which was incredibly sad and hard. I struggled for a while. I took a color course and learned how to make c-prints, and then I learned how to make dye transfer prints, which is the work that makes up Rachel’s Holiday.
For various reasons, I bounced around the country, and at one point I moved to Illinois, but there were no facilities for dye there. I did have access to print-making facilities, and that’s when I made the work Landscapes of Innocence. After that, I did a little more hand-coloring, but that was pretty much it until digital methods started popping up.
CL: Aside from photographic processes, you harness a range of formats for sharing your work. You aren’t particularly interested in making something static and flat; instead, you favor tactility and engagement, so that each piece is more than just an image. You’ve created so many books of all shapes and sizes, and you also create decks of cards. What is it about these methods that you find creatively useful?
BN: Interactivity is key in my work. I want people to get up close and touch and manipulate things, rather than just stand and look at them all framed up. There was always a certain element of humor to my work, inviting people to change and interpret things, making them a little more their own. That’s why card decks are so great—because you can deal them out and wait for people to incorporate their own experiences.
CL: Mythology is also a consistent theme in your work, from Norse traditions to Tarot to nymphs. How have you seen these magical realms evolve through your work? When did you first allow metaphor to seep into your practice?
BN: I’m Southern, and there’s a lot of storytelling that goes on in the Southern US. I’m also a pre-television kid, so I grew up in a time when reading and storytelling is what entertained us. There were financial reasons for why we didn’t own a lot of books, but my mother would take us to the library all the time. I wouldn’t say I was an avid reader as a kid, but I did like stories.
When I was older and I started my training in painting, my mother went back to grad school to get a degree in English. She was fifty years old, and she ended up teaching at the community college; the university administration blocked her from getting a PhD because she was a ‘professor’s wife’. She taught for 22 years and retired at the age of 72. She was very into archetypes and symbols, and while I was in college, she would look at my work and say things like, “Oh, you’re using the Tree of Life,” and I’d say, “Um, come on, Mom—it’s just a tree.” She always pointed out these archetypes in my work—roads, bridges, trees and maps—even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about symbols. But in 1970, after my schooling was over, I started to read texts by Carl Jung and Robert Graves, educating myself on archetypes and myths more and more, bringing them into my work more consciously.
CL: How did pregnancy and motherhood change both the substance and materiality of your work? You’ve mentioned that you had to find new ways to make images because of time constraints and daily chaos.
BN: I definitely had to adapt to bits of time rather than rely on a continuous flow. During my first pregnancy, there were still little pockets of time here and there, because I wasn’t keeping an eye on two children. I was able to publish Flamingo in the Dark when my first child was about nine months old. But I shifted to the pinhole images soon after she was born because building on multiple exposures over time was no longer practical. I needed something immediate that could be stopped and resumed at a later date without a loss of concentration, and the pinhole camera was the answer to that problem. I also liked how the images looked like how a toddler might see the world. It’s all about adaptation and finding ways to shift your work to stay closer to home.
CL: Let’s talk a bit about the current exhibition at the Eastman Museum. It’s a major retrospective, and of course there are curators involved, but what was the process like for you personally? It’s always interesting when a living, working artist finds themselves in a context where people are writing and postulating about them in conceptual ways. How does it feel to be interpreted while you’re still occupying your own body and moving through the world?
BN: It was pretty intense, and it is very strange. What was interesting for me, as a sort of participant, was that I would sit back and marvel at what they would spot and connect. They’d suddenly say, “Oh, you used this negative here and you used it fifteen years later in this other work,” and I had completely forgotten. But they were on it!
CL: Of course your work is made for other people to see and interact with, so what do you hope visitors take away from the show?
BN: I hope that people will have an appreciation for what came before this particular moment. There is this new resurgence in ‘alternative processes’, which I think is exciting, but I also think people need to see how artists were using these methods before them. It’s really important to have something to say with the processes you choose. You shouldn’t look at older work and simply say, “Oh look, she was doing cyanotypes forty years ago.” Try and locate what artists were trying to say and feel with those methods.
CL: And why were these methods so important for you? Was it the process of making?
BN: It’s so many things. It’s emotional, purgative, restorative, relaxing—all these different reasons are why I take so long to make an image. I like that process. I like being immersed in the production of something. If anything, it’s extremely frustrating when it goes by too quickly. I spent ten years making Return Trips. Of course, I was doing other things, but these works are really puzzles, and there are almost 100 of them.
CL: I also think the more time an artist spends on a particular work, the more it remains relevant to their own life, even in predictive ways. There is something spiritual about it, connected to alternative consciousness.
BN: Exactly. There is definitely work that predicts my life in ways that I may have known in some way, but didn’t know consciously. For example, in the piece Two Doves, you see an image I took in Florence of a statue of a woman holding two doves. We weren’t supposed to photograph in the room, but I couldn’t resist. I ended up pairing it with an image of my own stomach, and an image of a squiggly tree, and then a column in Italy with a bird flying away.
As soon as I brought the images together, I was very happy with it, and couldn’t quite say why. A few months later, I had an ovary removed though my belly button, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that bird flying off. And those birds in her hands, they’re just like ovaries—little, warm and fluttery. You can just feel the warmth of those things. I had a cyst and it was removed, and that’s what this composition predicted. I love it when that happens, and it only happens when you take the time to let the connections come to you.
Editor’s Note: Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory is on view at the Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY until June 14, 2020. After that, it will travel to the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL (August 27 - November 28, 2020). Ongoing COVID-19-related measures will likely affect the opening of these institutions, so please be sure to visit their websites to keep updated.