Looking back, I realize that the use of clothing as a metaphor is a common thread (pun intended) that links all of my work. In 1973, I did a piece that I called Leaves, an installation with a partially life-cast/life-size figure in a large, arranged pile of dried leaves—the piece suggests the cycle of life as well as the fragility of existence. Over the years my “clothing as a metaphor” approach has evolved and is currently based on my fascination with the material objects that are left behind after people die.
For more than 40 years I have created sculpture using both found objects and bronze. I make casts from actual clothing and cover it with discards, such as used buttons, anonymous photographs, forgotten correspondence and natural materials, leaves, dried flowers—remains from my garden. It is my desire to suggest the fleeting, beautiful yet bittersweet nature of our existence.
In the beginning, my work emerged from childhood memories: an Easter hat blew off my head into a small weedy yard; when I found it much later, it was rotted and transformed; yet it retained a strange beauty. In my mind’s eye, I see my mother sewing, her hands using pins, buttons and thread to create exquisite dresses for me; I created my first clothing pieces at CalArts in her honor. My father died when I was nine, and after that my mother took us to the cemetery for picnics. We would spread a blanket by his grave, eat lunch, and just be together. My sister Rachel and I would wander about, looking at grave markers, wondering out-loud about the people who were buried there. I developed a curiosity about the part of us that is aware and alive: we are born, experience things deeply, have desires, and then poof—we die. All that is left is what we leave behind: our possessions, such as clothing, photographs and the material objects that were once so important to our existence. In the work, Guaranteed Forever, I included anonymous photos that I had purchased on eBay, photos that had once been important to somebody. Each was stamped on the back by the photofinisher with the curious phrase: “Guaranteed forever”. The irony of it spoke volumes to me.
Lately I have been thinking of the various studios that I have worked in during the past 40 years and how each one has influenced my art. An essential part of the 1970 feminist art class that Judy Chicago developed and taught at Fresno State College was the off-campus studio that we rented where we met and worked rather than at school. Judy taught us what she had learned from being an artist in Los Angeles—to customize an industrial space according to your needs, creating a space that would be conducive to your work. What I gained from that first year was how to take an idea and work very hard to develop it and complete it, no matter how difficult it was. Judy stressed the importance of studio space, that you could not do an eight-foot painting in your bedroom, not only because you couldn’t move a painting that large out, but more importantly, you wouldn’t even conceive of doing a painting on that scale in such a small space in the first place.
From 1971 to 1974, I worked in a 1-car garage in back of my rented house in Panorama City. With sheet-rock on the walls and an 8-foot-long worktable, it became my private haven. I spent many productive hours there, creating artworks such as the Button Dress, all of the Bonnets, and Leaves.
From 1974 to 1992, my studio was the attic of another rented house, this time in Los Angeles, near the intersection of Pico and La Cienega Boulevards. The space was actually a second floor that hadn’t been completed; there was a floor but visible beams everywhere. A flight of stairs led up to the space that had windows on three sides.
There was one main room with a large dormer facing south and several smaller areas where I could store work and supplies. I felt such an affinity with that space: attics generally hold secrets from the past, filled with things that are forgotten, and having an attic for a studio was completely in sync with my work. Some of the works created there were installations with life-cast figures, all of the Shattered Glass pieces, and many clothing pieces, which included dresses, shoe pieces as well as other garments. I also did some photographic works there.
My children were born in 1980 and 1986 and often were present in my studio while I worked. I learned to work efficiently in shorter blocks of time and I gave them projects to do I while I worked. I also began waking very early to work a few hours every morning before they woke up. I still love being up very early; it is quiet, still dark, and most everyone else is asleep. It is a magical time for me.
In 1992, we moved to Clovis, California, which is adjacent to Fresno, where I had begun as an artist in the early 1970s. At first I had no studio and worked on my kitchen table, creating small works; but everything had to be put away at the end of the day so we could eat dinner. Later, I began working in our living room, which was under construction, and I could create larger works. Eventually I rented a storefront in downtown Fresno and worked there until my current studio was constructed.
Construction on my current studio was completed in 2004, located in back of a house that I own. It is a dream studio, bright and airy with large worktables, a counter with a sink and a full bathroom/laundry room. A large wall of north-facing windows looks out into a lush garden that is filled mostly with perennials, such as roses, lavender and canna that I cut and use in my work. I have mature trees, pecan and American elm, as well as many redbuds, and four almond trees that create a unique personal space, a refuge, in which I feel secure and inspired.
In the mid 1960s, I began a life-long habit of acquiring evocative old stuff, other people’s cast-offs: photos, letters, vintage clothing, and odd bits from other times. I remember so well how it felt to walk into a second-hand shop: I was filled with a tingly sensation, the anticipation of finding something wonderful that would call out to me, something compelling that I just had to have.
Today I no longer go out looking for stuff, but instead use eBay where I get that same sense of excitement. I have a large collection of vintage photos; some touch me particularly deeply. I find myself looking at them as if they are long-departed friends, their faces peering out at me from the past, connecting me to a forgotten time.
Nancy Youdelman, September 8, 2013