Monday, May 05, 2008

Art Space Talk: Nall

Fred Nall Hollis, known internationally simply as "Nall," was born April 21, 1948 in Troy, Alabama. Nall was born into old wealth-- a Southern family that originally drew its wealth from a cotton plantation and later, from the oil industry and finance. In many ways, the roots of his artistic exploration are intertwined with the roots of his State of birth-- a message that Nall has taken with him throughout his travels.

Nall's travels to Mexico, Germany, India, France and other countries have helped to cultivate the message that can be discovered within the context of his art. His work often observes the injustice of the past alongside the beauty and harmony that can be found in life-- this bittersweet message is conveyed in his art --one that every individual, origin aside, can relate to on some level.
Brian Sherwin: Nall, you have stated that you inherited your artistic talent from your father. Can you tell us about the influence he had on you? What about other early influences? I assume you explored art early on...

Nall: Unfortunately, my Father did not like the fact that I had inherited artistic talent from him. He was continuously discouraging me from drawing. He insisted that I play football, baseball, basketball, etc., things he did not do. Sports were a bigger draw than art in the south and he had played in the band. In fact, he was an accomplished musician.

He once gave me and my cousin an art test and gave the best mark to my cousin-- who did not have the passion for art that I did. We were all of 14 years old at the time. I was hopelessly discouraged, but determined to do better to improve my talent and skill. Thus, it fueled my work ethic.
BS: I understand that you have long been interested in exploring symbolism within the context of your work-- and art in general. While living in Paris you studied the works of Dali, Durer, Bellmer, and J. Seraphim. Did you find direction from other sources as well-- psychology perhaps? For example, there is a book by Carl Jung titled Man and His Symbols-- has the study of psychology been an influence?

N: I studied psychology at the University of Alabama. In fact, I earned a minor in the subject of Abnormal Psychology. I was especially fond of Jung and Freud. While working at Bryce’s Mental institution as a student, I was fascinated by all of the conditions that can plague an individual. I was subconsciously looking for that 'something' that was inside of me-- that 'something' that no one knew or had the answer to. Perhaps I had simply inherited the art gene...

Yes, I was influenced by Gustave Moreau in the early 1970’s in Paris, and later on by Gustave Mossa in Nice, both symbolists from the end of the 19th or early 20th century.

BS: Nall, you studied under Salvador Dali-- he was one of your mentors. I read that Dali convinced you to live solely from your art, and told you: "Draw from life, do not be afraid, draw and go on drawing.". Can you tell us about your experiences with Dali and how he made an impact on your life?

N: It was in fact Juliane Seraphim who encouraged me to live from my art, as she was my companion. Dali was a mentor who guided me and made an impact on me, from example, to be less intimidated. Dali encouraged me to express what was in my mind and not to edit my work. He encouraged me to improve my knowledge of the classical techniques of drawing. He advised me to draw from the model. He warned me not to do forced surrealism... and made it clear that if I was to be a metaphysical artist it would be obvious.

BS: How have your travels played a part in your artistic journey? As mentioned, you have lived in Paris-- but you have also lived in several coastal areas and have spent time in the jungles of Mexico. How have those travels influenced you directly? Would your work be where it is today without having been introduced to those various cultures and traditions?

N: As a teen, I traveled to Mexico with my sister, and with my parents on banking conventions. The bug for traveling hit when I received my driving license-- I kept the road hot. It fascinated me to observe other peoples, places, and environments. Upon deciding to become an artist-- and live from my work --I wanted a classical education and to see Europe as well. First going to Germany, where my sister was living for a year, then moving on to Pairs where I enrolled in the Beaux Arts. It was there that I felt comfortable with my surroundings for the first time in my life.

Paris was the city of artists that would help rocket me out of a complex southern society that did not respect the male as an artist. Living in Paris allowed me to mingle with some of the greats in the field of art. While in Paris I learned how to draw from nature, studied portraiture, and learned line engraving techniques. It was a competitive experience-- I am thankful to have weathered the storm. Being surrounded by galleries, the Louvre, and so many other artists was good soil to plant a young artist.

The Mexican experience began when I was 16. Later on a few visits enamored me to return to work there in the 1980s. In fact, the longest period of my stay in the jungle coast town of Yelapa, near Puerto Vallarta, was a nine month stretch. I began doing eggshell mosaics, burning wood with a magnifying glass, carving, and sculpting. My sense of color became more vivid. There is a sense of aliveness that one gets from the jungle that was not present in Paris... a natural awareness that permeated my work.

India brought another dimension to my life and work-- one rooted in the spiritual. I was captivated by the sounds, colors, vibrations and energy of India. My experiences there helped me to understand the western world’s lack of spirituality. India’s enormous faith humbled me. The mirror reflections came into full focus there, in the room of the mistress of the Maharajah of Jaipur... in the Amber Palace.
BS: Nall, I read that you bought a studio space that was once owned by Jean Dubuffet. In that space you installed printing presses and began giving your own workshops. Can you tell us about that experience? Did you feel some form of connection with Dubuffet while working in his old haunt, so to speak?

N: No. I have never felt an affinity with Dubuffet, except that he was influenced by "art brut", and I collect and admire "outsider art". On the contrary, his studio was fabulous, with skylights over half of the ceilings. The glass walls facing the French Alps gave perfect light.
In my opinion, Dubuffet's best work was this studio-- 400 square meters of light, white walls, and marble floors --four levels permitted me to alter the space for myself. I had printing presses in one area, painting in another, my special framing and mosaics in another, winter living with sauna in one floor, and on another a summer bedroom and bath opening onto the garden. I had chickens and a rooster to wake me at 5am…

Having the printing presses was very convenient, as it allowed me to experiment more with etchings. I was able to do large etchings there-- I produced the largest and most successful etchings of my career in that space. I also did editions of Theo Tobias and Sylvia Braverman... when I had time for the printer to do others etching editions. I felt like I was going places, but then I tired of the business end of it. I quit doing etchings altogether when I sold the house.
BS: You eventually founded the N.A.L.L. Art Association (Nature Art & Life League) in Vence. Can you tell our readers about N.A.L.L. and why you decided to found it?

N: I had been rehabbing young artists from drug and alcohol abuse, and my new wife advised that I set up a foundation, as this sort of work should be recognized officially. This passion of helping other artists grew from having had little outside help in my career and sobering those who were going through the same thing I had. My wife wanted to move from the studio as it was primarily an artist’s workshop.

The new property of the N.A.L.L. has 11 bungalows, and as my secretary-companion lived with me, this would afford him his own house. The students could have their own houses and we would have a house of our own. In "The Cocoon", the Dubuffet house-- which was under one roof-- it became a bit crowded during that first year of marriage.

BS: Based on what I've read it seems that you observe artists as journeymen-- do you feel that every artist takes us on a journey of their experiences? That each artist creates a physical reminder-- or visual memoir --of their life and the joy and pain associated with it? Tell us about your philosophy pertaining to this...

N: I cannot speak for other artists. However, I can speak of my own path. My work is very autobiographical. It is an obvious journey of a young man growing up, and the trials that I have gone through. Each one fuels my art, and each experience is documented as if written in a scrapbook of my life. Working primarily from the model, each painting and drawing is a reminder of my life-- its highs and lows --peopled with the faces that I have personally known.
BS: Nall, one thing that I find fascinating about you is the fact that no matter how much wealth and fame that you obtain you have never forgotten your roots. For example, you were born in Alabama and as an adult you have sponsored Alabama art college students and have curated exhibits of art for other emerging artists from Alabama. Why is this connection to your past-- to your roots --important to you?

N: Ones roots , especially roots as deep and varied as mine, come from a land that has been riddled with injustice. The south has taken the brunt of America’s racism on its shoulders. In an attempt to heal our wounds it is first necessary to acknowledge ones sickness-- the social malady that plagues America, especially Alabama.

The close emotional kinship of our black, red and white brothers should be healed. The isolation that we have experienced in an area that was rurally based on the economic importance of slaves-- and the capture of land --has played out. Our karma is being paid, but not yet finished. I feel, having mixed blood, that not only am I paying back but also receiving the justice that is deserved.

As for the emerging artists in Alabama... I get a lot of satisfaction from helping other artists. On the other hand, if the artists do not continue in their path as artists they have at least gained a deeper appreciation for the craft.
BS: Allow me to ask some specific questions about your art. You have indicated that you build your drawing, four and five layers of graphite upon an etched surface, a process that you refer to as "pencil painting", and integrate these into a composition of painting with watercolor. Can you tell us more about your process and describe how it has matured through the years?

N: I wanted to be as good a draftsman as my father. This took time, as my art education in Alabama was self-taught until I reached college. At the University of Alabama I learned that I did not want to do commercial art, but wanted to create my own works. Moving on to study in Paris, Dali told me to begin at the bottom, with pencil, and to learn to draw. This took ten years.

I learned etchings, watercolor, (self-taught again) and in Mexico began with eggshell and bottle cap mosaics-- continuing toward a Byzantine sophistication. Mastering these techniques, I started mixing them together, each one isolated onto the same support or surface. Like an opera set, the natural inclusion of the frame wove itself into the composition. I tried different variations of each "mixing" and the works grew with each new technique learned.

A very strong work ethic, combined with the help of apprentices, helped me continuously develop the combinations sought. It reminds me of a chef creating a new taste or dish by trying various herbs and produce from around the world. This amalgamation of all the mixed mediums learned in different countries defines my work today.
BS: It would seem that you enjoy taking chances and pushing mediums beyond what many would view as their standard capacity. You are trained and skilled in traditional methods of artistic creation, but you make those traditions and techniques your own-- you create with an edge, so to speak. In that sense, how does your techniques and methods reflect your personality as an individual? Do you view each mark that is made as an exploration of yourself?

N: For sure, but it is also an exploration of the love for things old... using them in a new way. To create with the object, having been first created by someone or nature itself, mixes textures. A 24K gold mosaic tile placed next to a worm riddled piece of driftwood carries its own statement. The two together force an intellectual contrast. This is a language that every one can read. Each is symbolic of life, nature, and man’s state. Each is aesthetic. Each is beautiful in its own way.

I try to create beauty and harmony by mixing the materials as if they are races-- having no positive limitations. This is in contrast to the negative expression that seems to be in vogue today. There is too much lethargic painting, angry, seemingly drug induced art today. The sober, hard to master, direct, spontaneous, creative strain of art can better educate the youth in making earth a better place to live.

I am interested in the sensitive education that we receive from taste, sight, hearing and touch-- an education that emotionally equips us for the journey. I am seeking harmony, beauty, and peace. Thus, I must sometimes exorcise into my work the anger, ugliness and discontent that I find in myself.

BS: Having observed much of the world and the joy and strife that can be discovered... what are the social implications of your work? Do you seek to create a form of visual documentation about the world as you view it as well as about yourself?

N: I'm not concerned with making a biased comment. I seek to express what goes through my mind. If I feel something, I paint it-- whether a flower or a war. My own hieroglyphs define my perspective, or add that dimension to the work. This may touch the viewer in his or her gut. I may have several opinions about the subject and they may all be included.

BS: It has been said that through your travels a spiritual dimension has been captured within the context of your work. You mentioned this aspect in regards to your travels in India. What do you think about the spiritual as far as your art is concerned? Do you seek a spiritual connection?

N: Travel has taught me that all countries have their designated inherited religions. They are all valid and all speak of positive energy. Often times politics can overpower religion, making it less forceful, and ultimately, less useful. My art is spiritual... even in its negative connotations. It may speak of the positive or the negative, but both arise from the spirit.

I do seek a spiritual connection each time that I pray, look at a flower, or pet a dog. I feel the power of positive energy as I do that of negative energy. I react to each with either a smile or angst.
BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?

N: I am working on two beautiful Irises, a poppy, two pansies, an eye that is inside of a triangle inside of a circle, a large mosaic flower, a portrait of a Jewish boy with a yellow star on his pocket-- depicting the holocaust; a frame for a flat screen TV, and a project for the Orthodontist Society of America, which includes a portrait of a young girl. I'm also working on sketches for a mosaic that will go into a niche replacing a Chimabue at the St Francis of Assisi monastery in Italy, and a set of porcelain camellias... the Alabama state flower.

I will move to Italy this next week to complete a 7 foot high bronze sculpture of a Japanese Magnolia. I'm trying to paint it with realistic colors rather than burning on a patina. Also, rehearsals will begin soon for the new production by the Nice Opera to produce La Rondine by Puccini, of which I have done the costumes and sets. I hope to be working on the lighting as this is a new production in an indoor proscenium, as opposed to the first production by the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Italy, which was an amphi-theater.

There are so many projects to finish and no time-- it seems --to complete even one of them! Each subject and project is in itself absorbing in its content-- like a playground for a child, or a candy store full of delights. I am working with several apprentices, teaching them techniques, and about to have a show of Violata Pax, at the Museum of the Citadel in Villefranche sur Mer, on the cote d’Azur, French Riviera.

BS: Where will your journey take you next?

N: Physically to Italy, to work on the sculpture of the Japanese Magnoiia-- as I have mentioned. I will also travel to Tunisia to work on a set of dinnerware with the Tunisian Porcelain Company. Then back to Alabama to finish a project for a public fountain.

In my works and subject matter I have no fixed idea. I would like to work more in the spiritual sphere and concern myself with this other world which is so distant from the material. I'm passionate to grow in a spiritual vein, but still hungry for sunsets, beautiful faces, landscapes with their changing colors, colorful ethnic cultures that are an experience and joy to see... there are so many choices to explore! However, at age 60, less time remains to travel and paint.

I would like to hermit myself in my studio so that I can work out the constructions and finishing of so many projects. I hope to finish what I have set out to do and to begin new works with the same passion and force that has been a gift to enjoy so far.
BS: As you know, the journey can be one of both pleasure and pain-- one could say that about life in general. Do you have any advice for emerging artists as they prepare for their artistic journey?

N: Yes... as Dali suggested to me, emerging artists need to throw themselves into their passions and paint what they feel-- they should not edit themselves! Emerging artists should listen to all the advice that is offered to them and surround themselves with muses. At that point they can live the greatest gift they have been given in life... a work that is all consuming.

BS: Finally, when all is said and done... what is the message that you want to leave with your art? What do you hope viewers obtain from observing your collective body of work? Do you strive to leave behind a legacy-- or would you say that is up to viewers to decide?
N: Having no children... my legacy is my art and the seeds that I have planted in the minds of apprentices over the last 30 years. The artwork reveals the message... a strong work ethic, a concentration on the trials of humanity, of its beauty in every living thing. A temperate philosophy that encompasses everyone and everything, the complete cycle of life and death, and back again. The artist has been treated to the prism of life and is lucky to have this moral obligation to work in a wonderful craft.
You can learn more about Nall by visiting the following website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


BhathiyaS said...

Alabama has created great people. It seems interesting to read about them, and come to know about what they have done.


Bhathiya Senanayake

Addiction Recovery Alabama

Beverly Kaye said...

This is an absolutely fascinating interview, and the art is superb. I hope someday to have the opportunity to see these collages in person.