Anagnorisis Fine Arts

Bea Nettles: Myths Behind the Woman by dezzoster
February 17, 2010, 1:53 pm
Filed under: interview, photography | Tags: , , ,
Since the 70’s, Bea Nettles has been one of the primary players in this niche group of alternative photographers – pushing the boundaries of the creative process and innovating technique. Her work often marries these photo methods to mixed media, as well as, book binding. Her work is included in numerous collections including in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada, the Polaroid International Collection, the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, the International Museum of Photography at the Eastman House, and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.  Over the years she’s shared her knowledge by teaching and lecturing at Rochester Institute of Technology, Tyler School of Art, and the University of Illinois where she is currently Professor Emerita.  I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to her about her story, and what’s in store for her in the near future:
DE- What were you doing in Italy over the past fall?
BN- I was teaching book arts for the University of Georgia’s Study Abroad Program in Cortona, Italy for the fall semester.
DE- What led you to book binding?
BN – I made my first book of collage images in 1970. Early in the seventies I learned to run an offset press and used it and various other means, including screen printing, to produce small editions of my photographic books. These can be seen on my website here: and,_1974.html
Through the late 70’s until the mid 90’s,  I was involved with creating over twelve self published books utilizing offset printing and commercial bindings. These were done in larger runs of 1000-4000 copies and began to be distributed more widely. I learned a great deal about the printing industry. As a photographer, my interest has always been in the narrative qualities of photographs, either alone or combined with text. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Photography twice during my career. The first time, I used some of these funds to produce the book Flamingo in the Dark, and the second time Life’s Lessons: A Mother’s Journal. Samples of these offset books can be seen here:,1979.html
I taught my first artists’ book class at Tyler School of Art in 1973. In around 2000, I had the opportuntity to teach more semester long classes in book arts at the University of Illinois.  I had always included the creation of books as projects in my course up until this point. In order to teach these classes, I needed to expand my skills in binding. I took several workshops and returned to making small editions of artists’ books. These can also be found at my website if you follow the links to my artists’ books found on the main page. Here is the link to the books of 2003-6:,_2007.html
DE- Who are some of your favorites emerging visual artists?
BN – I would hardly call him emerging, but I find the work of William Kentridge to be awe inspiring. He has taken such simple means (drawing with charcoal, collages with cut paper) and created profoundly moving statements about the human condition. I also really love Dave McKean’s work in The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch.
DE- What are you doing in 2010 that we can look forward to?
I have a large exhibition of Life’s Lessons: A Mother’s Journal, opening in March for six months at the Harn Museum in Gainesville, Florida. This is the complete show of the 20×24 Polaroid prints that became a book by the same name. I will be giving a lecture there on March 21.
DE- Are there any must see exhibitions right now? Why?
I want to see the exhibition at the Morgan Museum in NYC of the unbound pages of The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. There are over 100 illuminated images in this book which is currently being rebound. This is an opportunity to see them all. Once the book is rebound, only a very few people will ever see these images in the original again. It is a once in a millenium opportunity.
DE-  Tell me about your book, Persephone’s Descent and Return?
Much of my work has dealt with the passing of time, through themes of major life’s passages, the seasons and aging. The story of Persephone explains why winter must come each year, but also why there is always hope for another spring. She was the daughter of the earth goddess, abducted by Hades and taken to his world underground. Her grieving mother Demeter caused all vegetation to die unless she was returned, but Persephone had eaten some pomegranite seeds while in the underworld, and was only allowed to return in the spring and summer. I was born and raised in Florida, so I find northern winters depressing. I often find that the artwork I make in the winter months involves a longing for spring. There are many examples of this dating as far back as the 70’s when I made a series called “Warm Weather Wishes”, or “Rachel’s Holidays” in 1984
On a broader level, this book is about hope. No matter how dark things seem, I have hope for change and brighter days. One has to learn to roll with the punches.
DE- Iceland has been one of my favorite travel destinations. Their history is deeply rooted in the fairytale stories called Sagas. Was your book Fate, Being  & Necessity inspired by this tradition?
BN- I spent two months living in Iceland as an artist in residence in Harfnarfjordur. I read many of the sagas and also studied Norse Mythology. While there I made eight books, all inspired by my stay. The first was a retelling of the death of Snorri Sturluson (Snorri’s Pool) I made a book about the Norns, Heimdall’s Horn, and Odin’s two blackbirds Hugin and Munin (mind and memory). I also made books about the landscape, a set of waterfalls, a botanical and a book that retold the story of the Guardians of Iceland that are pictured on the back of every coin. All of these books, and a couple of videos can be seen if you follow the link called Iceland: Books 2007. It is an amazing country. I hope to return again to see parts that I couldn’t travel to on my first trip.
DE- Mysticism seems to be a running theme with your work, shown once again in your Mountain Dream Tarot Deck among other projects. What significance does this hold for you?
BN- I wouldn’t call myself a mystic, but I am very interested in myths, symbols, and the ways that artists have developed imagery to address the human condition. While I was in college I read extensively about archetypal imagery, the works of Carl Jung. This led a colleague to show me a book about  the Tarot deck. I was primarily intriqued by the imagery in the deck, and how it represented such a range of human personality and experience. It took me five years to complete my photographic deck. I don’t “read” the cards, but I do find them fascinating to contemplate.
My work is generally narrative. I enjoy playing one image off another. Some of my works are fairly specific, as in the Icelandic work that I mentioned. Other works are more evocative and try to address the ineffable. For over a decade I have worked on a body of photographs called “Return Trips.”  I continue to travel throughout the USA and Europe revisiting familiar sites and photographing in new territory as well. I have been combining these images with portraits and glimpses of my daily routine in ways that deal with the layered and cyclical nature of time and the sense of place that I experience strongly, perhaps more strongly as the years go by.
DE- More and more, I’m understanding the importance of teaching as a part of the artistic role in the community. What is your impression of teaching, and how important is it for you to do in your career?
BN- I have always thoroughly enjoyed teaching. It is a way to share what I know, but also to keep learning. It has been challenging to keep up with the technology. So much has changed in the photographic world since I first began. Also, the ability to create books using print on demand services, or one’s own digital printers, has been liberating. I can remember the excitement we all felt with the availability of xerox machines! The pace of technological change has been astonishing, and I know that teaching has forced me to be adaptable and resourceful.
DE- In your experience, what is the best way for artists to survive on their artwork? Should they be focusing on building a repertoire of exhibitions? Teaching? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t?
BN- I wish I knew more artists who could survive on their artwork. My peers have been artists who also teach, mostly at the college level. This allows us studio time, especially in the summer months. I have taught many times at Penland School in North Carolina. Here I have met studio artiists who are able to live simply and make a modest living through the sales of their ceramics, blown glass or blacksmithing for example. I never felt that I would be able to sell the quantity of work needed to live in that manner.
An exhibition record is very important. People need to see what you make to appreciate the tactile qualities and the scale of the work. My work has predominantly been shown in museum and university exhibitions. I have had modest relationships with galleries, but unfortunately none that were really long lasting.
The web has been a terrific way to reach new audiences. It has strengths and weaknesses like any other medium. It is imperative these days to have a web presence.
Another important boost to an artist’s career is publication and reviews. I expect that most people who know about my work have seen it in books, either my own or history books and catalogs. Books create a permanent historical record and I think this is a good thing. When I was teaching, I relied heavily on books to inspire my students.
DE- What’s the most satisfying thing about the creative process for you?
BN- When I am working, either in the studio, or out in the world photographing, I am able to immerse myself in what I am doing. When things are going well, I find it incredibly exciting. There is a great book that discusses this phenomenon called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  It feels wonderful to dip into that part of my brain, to draw upon my experience, to use my hands, to think and be alone. At other times it is very difficult and challenging to keep working. When that happens, I take a break and go work in the garden…which, for me is another form of creativity.
DE- Let me alittle about your connection to Light Gallery…
BN- I was asked to be one of the original thirteen photographers to show at Light Gallery in 1971. It was an incredibly exciting and heady time. I had my first one-person show there in 1972 which was reviewed in the New York Times and Arts Magazine. I certainly felt that I had arrived. Prior to this I had shown in a group exhibition called “Photography into Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art that opened in 1970. This was my first amazing break, made possible because a former teacher (Robert Fichter) had seen my work at a conference and mentioned what I was doing to Peter Bunnell,  the curator at MOMA. At the same conference I was also offered a one-person show at the International Center for Photography at the George Eastman House by Harold Jones, who went on to be the original curator at Light Gallery. It was after seeing the work in this show that he invited me to be in the gallery. I was the only female, and most likely, the youngest member. I was hand-coloring, machine stitching, and generally doing some very strange things to photographs.
I continued to belong to the gallery for about four years. My work changed during that period from wall work, to inexpensive artists’ books (Events in the Sky, Events in the Water These $10 books were not particularly profitable for a gallery. It was a different way to get my work out. It became apparent that I wouldn’t have another show at Light any time soon, so we parted ways in a friendly natural manner. A few years later, when I had begun to work with a  process called Kwik Print, I joined Witkin Gallery and had another exhibition called “Moonbeams and Dreams”…work that eventually became the basis of the book Flamingo in the Dark. It was this work that had won me my first National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in photography.
DE- What are some of the best galleries for finding new photographers that work with alternatives processes?
BN- I’m not sure who focuses on that work in NYC at this current time. In Chicago, you can see examples at two galleries: Catherine Edelman and Martha Schneider.

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