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Nancy Marion Elwell: A Life’s Travels
October 11, 2023 - November 17, 2023
Nancy Marion Elwell was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, into a family descended from some of the town’s earliest English settlers, including several descended from Mayflower passengers William Brewster, Stephen Hopkins, Richard Warren, and John Howland. An island in the nearby Connecticut River is named after her family.
But in addition to Puritans (and their spiritual descendant, mayor Calvin Coolidge), Northampton and its surrounding environs, known as the Pioneer Valley, has always nurtured “alternative lifestyles,” starting with the Puritans themselves. In Elwell’s lifetime, the Valley has incubated numerous vibrant communities of alternative lifestyles, including painters, photographers, musicians, dancers, and writers.
Elwell has studied fine arts, painting, drawing, photography and fashion design at the Art Institute of Boston, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass), where she studied with Nelson Stevens and Femi Richards, and the Paris American Academy in Paris, France.
In addition to her art studies, she has taken a lifelong interest in anthropology and Native American history. She has lived in Merida, Yucatan, where she taught English as a second language, and returns there regularly.
Elwell descends artistically from the American movements of late Abstract Expressionism, with its regard of the physical act of applying paint to canvas as heroic. “I was a Willem de Kooning addict for a while,” Elwell says, and her earlier work shows an affinity for his ability to cling to the barest details of representational painting even while improvising.
But even while focusing on abstraction, Elwell integrated her love of jazz, funk, punk, and dance music into her work, and it has remained an integral part of her life and art practice.
The Pioneer Valley has been home to prominent jazz musicians such as Marion Brown, Archie Shepp and Max Roach, who taught at UMass, and their students, including Elwell’s good friend Sulaiman Hakim. Her major project at UMass, in fact, was painting to music by Shepp, Ornette Colman, and Pharaoh Sanders. “It took me a long way from De Kooning,” she says. “I found that I reached a state of mind somewhere close to unconsciousness,” she says, “that I did my best work in that frame of mind.”
Elwell also found sources of creative energy in Pop Art, the ironic celebration of American culture that arose in response Abstract Expressionism, especially as Pop evolved into the king of graffiti art she saw on Paris walls and in the Metro, and the “DIY” iconoclasm of punk.
Her later work can echo that of one of the great synthesizers of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Robert Rauschenberg. However, Elwell’s collage work derives not from Rauschenberg but from that of his predecessor in collage, Lee Krasner, now recognized as a key transitional figure in American abstract painting as well as being married to Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock.
Krasner, Elwell recalls, would sometimes rip apart her larger paintings and recompose the fragments into collages, a practice that she found much to her liking, and which served her when she had to bring some of her large works home from Paris. “I cut them up and remade them as collages – not only did they fit on the plane, they turned out really well.”
As this exhibition shows, travel is integral to Elwell’s vision in her collages. “I’ve blown up photos from Yucatan and Paris, using bits and pieces of the people and places I’ve found so interesting. For example, Pink Thang reminds me of seeing so many women’s legs running for the Paris bus!”
As she has all her artistic life, Elwell aims to work from that state of mind in which creation takes place almost independent of the artist. “I’ve learned that I never want to be totally aware of what I’m doing, even now with my collages. I want my energy raw and the work, too.”