Gladys M. Nilsson is a Chicago-based painter known for a style that borders on surrealism and pop, fantasy and cartoon. Nilsson was one of the original members of the Hairy Who, a group in the 1960s who turned to representational art and whose members are associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her artwork has been featured in over fifty solo exhibitions and collections of major museums including the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), from which she also graduated.
Nelson: When did you first become interested in pursuing art as a career, and how did your experiences studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago impact your commitment to painting?
Nilsson: I always wanted to be an artist, even though growing up, I probably had no idea about what exactly that entailed. I majored in art in high school, had an encouraging art teacher, and planned on attending SAIC. The importance of having a museum attached to the school meant so much; this fact has become more evident as years have gone by. At that time, some classes were held in the museum, so that meant walking through the building every day. One can absorb a lot by walking past art and seeing it out of the corner of one’s eye on a daily basis. I often think back to that.
Nelson: In 1973, you became one of the first women to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Please comment on what this meant for you as a professional and woman.
Nilsson: I wasn’t aware of that importance at that point in time. It was an exhibition in a major museum, and I was thrilled at that, not realizing how rarified that fact might have been.
Nelson: Early on in your career, you used oil paints, but then switched to watercolors. What led you to change mediums and what are the advantages of watercolors in such paintings as “Blue Glass”?
Nilsson: I was pregnant and wanted to utilize a less harsh material. I discovered it was my medium and began to use it as my main method of expression. I did use acrylic a bit when it became a more popular and accessible material. I’ve used pen and ink and collage, but I’ve always returned to watercolors on paper. I love paper, and the feel of it, how it takes and reacts to the various things one can do to it. I love the restrictions and freedoms of watercolor and have embraced it for what it does and does not allow one to do with it. That being said, I’ve been on a somewhat long hiatus from watercolors, doing acrylic on canvas works. Recently though, during the stay at home, I ran out of canvases, so I turned to using some of my paper blocks and did works with acrylic. At the moment, I’m doing collage drawing. I will return to watercolors in the future, when I get bigger canvases out of my system.
Nelson: In 1990, you started teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How does teaching inform your practice and how do you balance creating artwork with teaching?
Nilsson: I’ve really enjoyed the interaction with students over the years. I’m going to continue it for a while—it’s only one drawing class. I do like seeing the solving of various materials used, ideas, and what the student might pull together to try. I also will spend my lunch hour going through the museum to see what might have changed from the prior week. Both the watching, gallery, and classroom do spur me on in my studio. The next day, I approach my own work with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
Nelson: At the age of 79, you started painting large works of art such as “Gleefully Askew.” What led you to embark on creating such large works—one as big as 84 inches—and what are the techniques, challenges and joys of creating this scale of work?
Nilsson: Every time I walked past some overly large painting in some museum, I’d always say to myself that I got to do a really big painting. But it never got done: No room, no energy, too lazy?—the list goes on. Anyway, when my husband got a studio out of the house some years back, I moved up to a large space on the third floor. I didn’t do anything except watercolors some of them on oversized paper, but it’s a different mindset from doing canvas work. Finally, when mucking about with several small pieces on boards, I told myself it was now or never for big pieces. I’m no longer able to actually stretch my own, so I had them built. I decided I needed to do really big: the size is determined by what can make it up the narrow stairs to the third floor. I did a diptych because of this—I couldn’t possibly get a single canvas upstairs, and no room to stretch one up here anyway.
I used a ladder for the upper regions and had a rolling chair for the bottom ones. It was really taxing physically, and scary for the ladder part. I almost missed my footing several times, thinking all the while, I’m too old to do this. But I figure I’ve got a few more big ones left in me. I’ve just got to get the canvases. Goodness knows, I’ve had enough rest during this virus time.
Nelson: Your art has evolved over the past 50 years, but you often depict people in your paintings. Please comment on why you’ve focused on people, and not deviated to other subjects.
Nilsson: That’s always a good question—and not really answerable. I have never gravitated toward abstraction, either in viewing or my work. There are things I do like, for instance Rothko, or Mondrian, but my preference is late Guston figurative work, rather than early abstract Guston. For my own stuff, I’ve always been involved with the figure. There were three paintings I did last year: one a landscape, one a still life, and the third a combination of the two formats. It was just to see if I could.
A development of those ideas didn’t happen. The figure re-emerges every time I approach a blank support. Who knows why? I do like the various exchanges one has during the day—and I’m always moved to celebrate them in some way.
Nelson: Since 2014, you’ve worked increasingly on collages. Please comment on your interest in this medium, as well as the process of creating such pieces as “Rapt.”
Nilsson: I mentioned earlier that I am working on them now. I have gotten into the habit of doing things other than my usual during the summer because of the heat and need for rest. I’ve always been interested in what new adventures one can have by moving about pieces of paper with various things already on them, making new juxtapositions and relationships, and combining them with my drawing. I’m in heaven.
I’ve ended up using small bits of paste work in the canvases as well. You’re bringing up Rapt is a good example. It’s just fun and pleases me a great deal.
Nelson: Which artists and art movements have inspired you, and how has being married to a fellow artist influenced your artwork?
Nilsson: I’ve always gravitated back in art history, as is evident with the collage materials I use, cutting up all kinds of books from various ages and times. I do usually find it difficult to pinpoint any specific artists. I do like the Germans, like Grosz or Beckmann. I mentioned Mondrian, I’m fascinated by his transitioning from the earlier pieces into what he’s more known for–especially the flower drawings. Yum.
Giotto, Van Eyck, Pontormo, Sargent, Burchfield, Homer, Bonnard, Nolde, Klee, Westerman, and Ito. The longer I sit here, the longer I can make the list. But the earlier artists inform my work a lot.
Being married to another artist is both good and bad. I say bad because that means that both of you are living with the same precarious income, rather than having a spouse in another vocation which brings in a steady income. And good because another artist knows exactly what deadlines you have, and what pressures you’re facing to meet them. It’s been good, and happily we both like each other’s work.
-Jennifer Nelson, WTP Guest Writer