There aren’t many illustrators who can boast successful careers spanning five decades, and fewer still who have made the transition from fashion designer, illustrator, to digital pioneer, educator and administrator, full circle to fine artist. Barbara Nessim is all those things and to her many friends, colleagues and collaborators, she is much more: a generous mentor, patron of the arts, a woman with a keen interest in her own history and the best of the culture that she so often has been at the vanguard of with influence and impact.
She put herself through college at Pratt Institute as a freelance illustrator in the Garment Center. Inspired by the example of her mother, a clothing designer, Nessim had no doubt that she could make a career for herself, a gutsy attitude for the 1950s. Her unique illustrations with a surreal twist quickly drew attention and freelance clients. In the early 1970s she was asked to create a shoe line by the president of Carber, who had seen some shoe sketches she created as a magazine cover. She designed clothes and textiles as well while still concentrating on painting and drawing.
Barbara Nessim holding a drawing that is protected by archival plastic.
Using the sketchbooks she has meticulously kept for decades (she is currently working on number 93) adding fluid line drawings every day, drawings that she does not edit but simply creates as the basis for all her art, she has produced thousands of pieces.
She has had innumerable exhibitions throughout the US and abroad and her work is in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Szépm_vészeti Múzeum in Budapest and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and shown in the Louvre in Paris, and the Kunst Museum in Düsseldorf. Nessim’s illustrations have appeared on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone among many others.
She was the chairperson of Illustration at Parsons The New School for Design from 1992-2004, and before that was a professor in the MFA Computer Art department at the School of Visual Arts. During her tenure at Parsons, she brought the school into the digital age.
Nessim was recently appointed the first Artist Laureate by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where her work is also part of the permanent collection. Her enthusiasm and passion for art and culture have not been diminished by time, but rather seem to extend to every facet of her life. She surrounds herself with beauty and spends her days creating art—that increasingly has a wider audience.
CA: Are there certain strategies or exercises you do to generate creative ideas?
Nessim: I’ve long been an advocate of keeping sketchbooks. For me they are a place to store my subconscious [thoughts] and make them visible. My theory is when I work in them I don’t want to think—I just want my ideas to flow. Curiously, when I browse through the books it is as if someone else created them. When I get an assignment I go to the sketchbooks and read the stories created. Many times they relate to the assignment and I can see how I can stitch together perhaps a couple or three images to create another. I also think about the assignment or read the script before I go to bed and when I wake up in the morning I usually have an idea and sketch it out while still in bed with the pad and pencil I always have there.
The fine art and commercial drawers and the sketchbooks are clearly labeled.
CA: What are the best life lessons you’ve learned that you apply to your art?
Nessim: Not to worry if I don’t have an idea for an assignment. If for some reason I feel “stuck” and nothing is coming to mind or revealing itself in my sketchbooks, I change gears. Get up—move around and do something completely different: It could be a small organizational job like making a drawer neater or going to the gym or out for a walk, reading a book. I’ll do anything that needs to be done and use my time in a constructive way so I don’t feel like I am procrastinating.
I also like to try a different thing, to learn something new, to put myself in an unfamiliar place—that always gets my ideas going. I’ve been creating work for five decades and I’m still up for learning something new that will challenge my status quo. For example, during the early ’60s I was doing etching for a majority of my illustrations for about five years. It was time consuming, but I enjoyed the process and the camaraderie in the workshop. Slowly the work migrated to pen and ink when I discovered Dr. Martin’s brightly colored dyes. At this same time I was also using acrylics for my personal paintings on canvas and then switched to oil paint. Tucked into the ’60s timeline I created a line of clothing for Lady Van Heusen I called Lady Van Tastic. I continued using pen and ink and switched to watercolor, which were less fugitive than the dyes. Throughout the ’70s for my personal work I added soft pastels creating life-sized heads titled Genetic Synthesis—I snuck in a large metal sculpture commissioned for the World Trade Center and some ceramic polychrome shoes based on fantasy shoe drawings done over the years that led to designing a line of shoes for a company called Carber in 1973.
I have not even touched on the ’80s during which I taught myself how to use computers and was aware of its importance early on where most dubbed it as a “fad”—some fad! I’m not going to elaborate on the next three decades which brought me to now, 2011, where I’m doing large-scale installation work, utilizing collage over photographs I’ve taken, for interior walls in buildings. My point is, being in constant motion always brings one to discovering new paths so your work stays fresh and interesting to you and, I hope, to others.