by Carol Westfall
Nisha Drinkard is an artist and educator who is also currently curating exhibitions emanating from both historical and contemporary textile traditions. When Professor Drinkard began her teaching career at William Paterson University some seven years ago, she teamed up with Gallery Director, Nancy Einreinhofer, to produce some very “edgy” exhibitions exploring the boundless aspects of cloth as art and artifact. Currently, Nisha is teaching textiles at Kean University in New Jersey.
The artist has also taught workshops both locally and nationally. These would include Peters Valley Craft Education Center of New Jersey and the Surface Design Conference of Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, Kansas. The following is an interview via email with this inspiring young artist:
How did you decide that you were going to pursue being an artist?
I am not really sure. I started college as an undecided major; I knew I liked photography and had been taking pictures since I was fifteen, so I decided to sign up for a class. However, to register for the class I had to declare myself as an art major. The next thing I knew I was taking art classes and getting my Bachelor of Creative Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
What are you working on now?
In my current body of work I explore drawing on fabric with charcoal. The first stage in the process is to dye the fabric with rust. During this process I leave white negative spaces on the fabric creating positive spaces dyed with rust. Later on I use plants from my garden to draw in areas of the negative space with charcoal along with abstract gestural lines. The use of natural objects is a continuation of my other work which express my personal relationship with nature. In the vellum plant drawings, I draw on top of plant material sandwiched between two layers of transparent vellum, for example a leaf from a hosta plant. When I draw on top of the surface of the leaf I break the cells of plants with my pencil; pushing the plant juices out away from its original form into a new place creating new bonds and new seams between chlorophyll and graphite. In this work I am having a “conversation” with the plant by the marks I make with the graphite and by my interaction with the natural form
How are you working now?
I create my work through the use of automatic drawing. My hand, body and mind are in the moment, reacting and moving in time to what is on the fabric or paper. The drawings reflect my emotions at the moment. Drawings are an immediate way for me to stay in touch with my artistic voice and vision. When I am drawing there is no separation between the creative thoughts in my mind and the creative action of my body. The actions of my body, in drawing, are rapid, quick and decisive. There are no second chances or edits. The beauty of exploring this art form is its ability to create a stream of consciousness from the mind, the point of creativity, to extend it to the body then to the arm. There is for me, no separation between mind and body as the pencil moves on the fabric or paper. This is so different from my other creative processes. It is that contrast which is engaging and enlightening to me as an artist; to be able to view two completely different methodologies used in the creation of my work, one right next to the other
What materials do you use? What is your motivation for using the materials and processes you use?
I use natural fabrics (cotton and silk), plant materials, charcoal, pastel, graphite, and natural dyes. They are all part of a continual theme to my work relating to memory. My childhood memories inhabit my work. I am constantly relating my thoughts and ideas back to childhood experiences such as collecting flowers on Sunday afternoon with my mother and sisters. Also because I lived in Taiwan and was very influenced by the forms of Chinese art such as scrolls and panels, I use these forms in my work. I love fabric, this comes from my mother and mother’s mother; they both sewed and were gardeners. I like the feel of fabric in my hand and how stitches add texture to the fabric. I like how fabric is a soft structure that can be used to create installations that impact a room but still have the ability to move in the air, drape, and retain the elements of the original material.
In drawing on fabric I love the use of charcoal and its ability to be edited, changing a line or a mark if placed in the wrong area and the layering of tones from light gray to black on the surface of the cloth. In using pastels, this media gives me the ability to edit and to rewrite what has been drawn on the surface of cloth. Also by adding layers and layers of color on the surface, there is the possibility for the color to show through all the different layers.
What is your work routine? (Ex: what time of day do you work, do you work every day or in spurts, where, with assistant, etc.)
Usually I am in my studio every day but my routine is varied. Sometimes, being in my studio means my hands never touch fabric and other times it means I have spent hours working. My life has many commitments which influence when I get to work and working also really depends on what else is going on in my life. I have learned to be flexible with my time and with my mindset; not locking myself into the idea I have to be in studio from 8-2. I have learned for my mental health that if I am in the studio everyday then I feel good. But I do not add anything predetermined to that: number of hours, tasks accomplished, time on art, time on business. If I add the pre-determinates to my thinking then I get bogged down in numbers and check lists. None of that does my creativity any good. The only thing that helps my creativity is working and maintaining a relationship to my art.
What other artists have you been influenced by? Please describe them. How do they affect your work?
Some of the first installation artists creating work in the landscape like, Mary Miss, Robert Smithson, and Andy Goldsworthy had a great impact on me early on in my life. I loved what they were doing in the environment and the fact that much of their work would never be seen first hand by anyone but themselves. When I started to create my own work I wanted to work in the landscape, however later on realized that I loved materials too much just to let them go. So my work became a mix, half about process, living in the moment, and the other half about the end product. The final piece is a balance between process and object.
Other influencial artists include: Ansel Adams, Leonardo da Vinci ,Eva Hesse , Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet, Lenore Tawney, Anne Truitt, and Cy Twombly. I greatly admire all these artists. However some of these artists influence me not only because of their artwork but also for the journals, written and visual, that they kept during their lifetimes. Very intrigued about journal writing, something that I have done since I was a teenager.
Who or what has helped you most in your work and why?
Sue Schear and Clare Verstegen are two very influential people in my life. Sue Schear, president of Artisin LLC (www.artisin.com), was my art consultant for many years. Working with her has given me focus, stopped me from spinning my wheels, and has helped me discover my professional voice. As my husband says “she is worth her weight in gold.”
Clare Verstegen, Professor, was my mentor in graduate school at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. She helped me find my voice as an artist and my voice as a teacher. Everyday that I teach I use something that I learned from her. Thanks Clare
Who or what, if any, has negatively affected you and your work and why?
It is not quite a negative but because my work does not fit into a neat category of fiber, sculpture or drawing it sometimes gets overlooked and is many times misunderstood. This has greatly impacted where my work is shown. In general my work does not get into juried shows or win prizes. However, on the plus side I get into shows in colleges and universities; they really respond to my quiet and ephemeral work
What other art forms (literature or music), if any, has affected you and your work?
Reading about creativity and plant lore has influenced my work. The history of plants, Victorian plant language, and medieval herbal language is fascinating to me. I find this adds layers to my own thinking about the plants I use and adds richness to the work. I also like studying maps of gardens. This comes from a childhood book. In the book the end pages were a map of a garden written about in the book. I would visualize what it would be like to stand in different places in the garden. The book is called “Miss Jaster’s Garden,” by N.M. Bodecker. As a child I always wanted a garden, to tell a story, to make drawings, and to write a book like what I found in the book. I think that book was the most powerful book in my experience. It really defined many parts of my psyche: my ability to read maps, to be in a particular place in real life and to find my way around, to never get lost, my love for plants and nature, my ability for visualization and my ability for put myself into different places and mindsets.
What response do you want to get from your work?
I want people to see and enjoy my work. Even if they just walk away and say, “well I have never seen anything like that before” it would be satisfying because in a way I might have opened their minds a bit. Get them thinking outside of the box. To see more of my work go to my website www.nisha.net.
Does living/working in Jersey City influence your work in any specific way? How?
Being in Jersey City is an inspiration. People are always digging deep into creativity and bringing some good work up with them. There are always surprises in the work that is being created within the city it is never predictable, there is always something new.
What’s the best-kept secret in the arts scene in Jersey City?
The artists. Once you get to know one artist they introduce you to another and another. Each artist is this fascinating person, full of interesting rich personal history.
Like the work of Philip Taffe as well as the artists Goldsworthy, Smithson and Mary Miss whom Ms. Drinkard mentions as being important in her development as a practicing artist, Nisha’s work exemplifies the close study of and a sensitive appropriation of elements from the natural environment. The work takes the humble art of plant pressing into a new realm whereby the viewer can see and sense the essence of nature now transformed into a sensuous, refined length of cloth.
Carol Westfall is an artist and writer living and working in Jersey City, New Jersey
click on thumbnails to see Nisha’s images