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Paul Smart
 
 
The Woodstock Times
 
 

Thursday, October 20, 2005

 
 
The Spirit in the Wood
 
 
Sculptor Nancy Azara speaks at Dorsky Museum at SUNY - New Paltz

 

The view in Nancy Azara's Ohayo Mountain barn studio just outside Woodstock is inspiring. Her workspace is a white-walled portion of an open-to-the-roof expanse. The barn doors are open to the air, and when one steps back, one can see all the old beams holding this grand structure up, stretching one after another in a cathedra-like manner. And yet it's rough and functional, this space. It is a barn, with bat droppings and old feeding troughs converted for artistic use.

 

Azara's powerful work – some in-progress and several older pieces silently offering inspiration – lines the white walls in the finished portion of the barn/studio. It represents a singular vision: naturalistic in its of crudely carved wood and simple iconic shapes, yet adorned with blood-red pigments that the artist mixes herself, along with a liberal use of soul-brightening gold leaf, lending everything a mystical almost Catholic air.

 
 
Hickory with Hands
Hickory with Hands

 
 

We're looking at work in early October, as Azara prepares to close down her upstate workspace and move operations back down to the loft that she kept Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood for decades. I'm asking Nancy about the steps that she's taken to get her current place in the art world – a lofty position that she's occupied for almost three decades now.

 
 

Azara got her start studying with an old Art Student's League painting teacher, Edwin Dickinson, who'd himself studied with the great 19th century painter William Merrit Chase. But then she found herself drawn to sculpture department in the basement where, after several years of experimenting with clay and other media, she discovered how much she loved carving wood.

 
 

She shows off some of her tools, with well-burnished handles and a soft caressing carrying case. They've done her well, and she knows this. “I had this vision of myself as a sculptor.” Azara remembers of that first trip into the basement art.”I liked wood because the other materials didn't give enough back.”

 
 

When she started showing in the early 1970s, Nancy Azara was something of an anomaly. There weren't many artists working in wood at the time, especially women. She became known as an early feminist artist. She was the founder of the New York Feminist Art Institute. She started getting invited to lectures, to take residencies in various institutions around the world.

 
 

At the time, Azara says, her work was freestanding, as we expect sculpture to be. But then, as she says with a charming laugh, “It started to go up against the wall. And I really wanted to explore color. I found that if I worked in smaller squares, not freestanding, I could do a lot more.”

 
 

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s the artist found herself shifting between freestanding and wall-hugging works. But her work gained a very singular aesthetic, a look that is hers alone: powerful, ancient and yet thoroughly modern, intuitively feminine, mystical in its spiritual graspings.

 
 

In the early 19902 she found herself leaving the freestanding work behind. A giant 12-foot-by-12-foot (and six feet deep) Goddess Wall set it all in stupendous motion. The piece seemed roughhewn, alive in its raw, woody aspects. The images were ritualistic: carved circles with dots; branch forms and a central leaf, painted red in a bloodlike vermilion that Azara mixed and applied by hand; a row of hand imprints, carved deep into the upper reaches of the piece; and a rough divide halfway up the wall – the lower portion in shiny earth tones, the top in rich, heavenly gold leaf.

 
 

The themes have stayed with her work ever since. The carved shapes individual pieces include spirals and circles, hands and branch parts, leaves and tendril-like vines, heart and houses. The colors tend to focus around bloodlike reds and gold leaf, with an occasional blue, purple or silver leaf thrown in.

 
 

Azara's most recent work is a paneled: a wall of 28, say 44, or 12 or even four carved pieces arranged in seemingly random order. And yet they feel hieroglyphic, as if speaking in deep language that we can grasp in the heart and gut, if not always the mind.

 
 
Changes 2005
Changes 2005

 
 

She's got a piece in the fantastic new Encaustics exhibit at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz that dominates the wall across where one enters. The use of wax medium is subtle – part complex whole with which Azara works. Her pieces also show up at Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild's Kleinert Arts Center, as well as museum and gallery spaces in New York and elsewhere.

 
 

“For as long as I remember, I have been looking for a way to give shape and form to spirit a way to touch the nature of the divine,” she has written of her work (Azara is the author of a well-respected art book, Spirit Taking Form: Art Making as a Spiritual Practice (2002). “As a child, I would spend many silent hours in my grandfather's garden lying on the earth and looking at the flowers and plants. I would watch the shadows of the trees move and change on the lawn, observe a baby bird learn to fly and sometimes I thought I could see a flower open, in those moments I began to confirm my suspicion that there was something beyond that which I could see; and although invisible and intangible, I could sense that unseen presence, know somehow that it was connected to the place of spirit and the divine in me.”

 
 

In her barn studio, Azara speaks about her Brooklyn upbringing within a southern Italian community, trips she's made to various parts of India and Italy have inspired her work, and the constancy of work that has fed her rich life. “My sculpture is made of wood carved from trees. The carved wood is found on the streets if New York City, the beaches of Dominican Republic, the shores of northern Minnesota and other places, “she has written in another place. “It is often assembled, several pieces put together to make the whole. It is painted, colored, often with handmade paint and gold leaf, which dresses and clothes and clothes the wood, so to speak, so that the actual forms begin to develop the presence of being and of garments.”

 
 

Most recently, her working life has become filled with commissions: from friends and acquaintances; a long wait for a hospital in New Jersey. And she's begun to gain a stream of awards and accolades for her years of sticking with the art, with the fruits of her own vision.

 
 

On a more personal level, she's got a new grandchild. And her partner of many years, Darla Bork is starting to grow her own fine paintings in rewarding ways. “Sometimes I ask myself when it's going to stop.” She says of the use of gold leaf in her work. “I'm also starting to wish I could get back off the wall with it all.”

 
 

We step back and look up from her worktable, surrounded with wood chips and graceful carving scraps, and light streams across the ceiling of her barn. It's a magnificent sight, like the soul flying heavenwards. “I do so want to figure out how to work here year-round,” she says “I do so love what I do.”

 
 

Nancy Azara will be speaking with fellow artists Valerie Hammond, Laura Moriarty and Fawn Potash in a program titled Conversation at the Dorsky this Sunday, October 23 at 2p.m. in the museum East Wing Galleries. The event is free and open to the public. For more information call (845) 257-3844. To see more of Azara's work, visit her website at www.nancyazara.com.

 
     
 
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All images ©Nancy Azara 2011