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In Conversation with Nancy Wolfe


Nancy Wolfe considers her practice a form of journaling and “visual poetry.” The Ann Arbor-based artist’s paintings were recently featured in Minor Key, a music-influenced exhibition at Kerrytown Concert House in her hometown. Her solo exhibition, Nancy Wolfe: Painting Poetry, is currently on display at Josef Glimer Gallery in River North, and opened, appropriately, with live music and poetry readings.

Wolfe hasn’t always labeled herself an artist. She pursued an education degree and taught nursery school for years before assisting her husband when he opened a photography studio in the 1980s. It was there that Wolfe developed a compositional eye and began interacting with local artists who brought in their work to make slides. Wolfe was around 40 years old when she decided to try her hand at drawing and was soon pursuing an MFA in painting from Eastern Michigan University (a natural expressionist, she was relieved to study at a school that didn’t demand realism). She has since exhibited throughout the region and taught art classes at multiple schools including Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College. “It brought a lot of meaning to my life,” says Wolfe of her fresh start.

At the far end of Josef Glimer Gallery, the large-scale painting Jazz showcases Wolfe’s abstraction at its most eye-catching. Angular bright crimson geometry leaps forward before fading into spontaneous grey glazes and loose linework, eventually revealing hints of familiarity — feet, a human figure and eventually a trumpet. Wolfe exhibited this and other work at Kerrytown, Michigan’s Jazz Festival in 2012. The piece is dedicated to Sheldon Iden, a painter, professor, and mentor to Wolfe. “He reminded me of an image of a jazzman,” she says. “Cigarette in hand, a loner, cynical.”

Nancy Wolfe, “I can’t finish this painting, Mother Dearest. Blame Aphrodite,” Sappho’s Song, 2013. Oil on canvas, 55″x60″. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Nearby, the similarly grand “I can’t finish this painting, Mother Dearest. Blame Aphrodite,” Sappho’s Song is inhabited by one of Wolfe’s favorite motifs: vessels. A scattering of earthen jars, some translucent and some opaque, fade into into rich blocks of green, gold, blue, and white. Wolfe notes the artist Constance McMillan, who produced charcoal contour drawings of pottery, as one possible reason for her fascination with such a utilitarian symbol. She also recalls watching a painter on PBS who sat at an easel and painted jars without any live or photographic reference. His vessels were “simple, yet complicated because they were his own,” Wolfe reflects. “I think that it’s such a mythological thing for me,” Wolfe says of the timeless tool. “They’re so ancient.”

In her smaller-scale Evolution series, hanging along a corner of the gallery, Wolfe extends this theme to human anatomy. She once photographed a pregnant friend and became enamored with the idea of the body as a vessel all its own. “[During pregnancy] your body is turning into this round container—of memories, your own personal stories—an ancient mold,” she explains. “Your body becomes a container of life and rebirth.”

On an opposing wall, the elongated Whisper seems to explore a different kind of duality. Oil washes over acrylic form dreamy architecture which drifts above two simplified figures. Viewed horizontally, one crouches behind another as if to share a secret; viewed vertically, the less solid figure drifts overhead as if from a different dimension, or the spiritual counterpart of an out-of-body experience.

Though steeped in introspection, Wolfe’s work often mirrors her outer surroundings. “[Landscape] always gets into my paintings, even though I don’t think of myself as a landscape painter,” she explains. Wolfe incorporates earth quite literally into a few of the works in the exhibit. On Earth, a hazily dripped composition of cobalt blue and red, is overlaid with a three-dimensional spinal pattern of glued-on gravel, collected from Penland, North Carolina where Wolfe spent a creative retreat. The result feels primordial, and another of Wolfe’s gravel-embellished pieces is aptly named Hunters, Gatherers. In it, organic shapes and a blood-red sun float between a horizon separating land and sky. Areas eroded by paths of paint medium form channels that connect the two.

Nancy Wolfe, 4th Ring Road, 2013. Oil on canvas, 36″x40″. (Image courtesy of the artist)

4th Ring Road, flush with blue and white fog, reflects the mystery of unfamiliar landscapes. Invented hieroglyphics float in and out of the foreground, and the outline of a small figure drifts near the center. Wolfe began the painting after a stint in Beijing, where her husband Michael was employed for a special ironworking project. The piece reflects another prominent keynote in her work: solitude. “I think the beauty of being in Beijing for me was that I didn’t have language,” she recalls of the experience. “I have a similar response when I get in the car and travel down the road where I’m not familiar with the scene. I always say, ‘Let’s get in the car and go.’”

Finding balance on the tightrope between portrayal and ambiguity is at times a taxing task for Wolfe. “I start very abstract, but somewhere along the line, I want to form something,” she explains, pondering whether it’s “ever enough” to sit solely in abstraction. “Artists do want to communicate.” She recalls a series she created by dripping ink and walking over the compositions, inspired by a trip to the Black Hills region of South Dakota, where she was struck by the mountainous terrain and the displaced Native American population. Despite the works’ seemingly non-objective nature, viewers soon began identifying trees among the marks. She admits that many of her friends are landscape artists and laughs, “Maybe I’m trying to fit in.” Though Wolfe’s imagery may be ambiguous, the underlying messages of her spontaneous strokes—the interconnectivity of nature and quiet yet impassioned contemplation—are crystal clear.

Nancy Wolfe: Painting Poetry has been extended and will be on display through November 15 at Josef Glimer Gallery, 207 W. Superior, Suite 200. For more information, visit

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