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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.

CA: You’ve worked in many creative media. What guidelines would you suggest to someone who has tired of one art medium, and wants to explore a new one?

Nessim: Make an effort to always be trying something new. Go to a class where they emphasize exploration in different mediums. Use social time with artist friends to work together doing something interesting work-wise. When you are in an art supply store pick up a small set of something completely different to try like woodcutting tools that you can use on linoleum blocks. It is so physically different than painting, drawing or working on the computer that you are sure to be engaged. It may feel uncomfortable at first, which is a good thing, but you will be challenged even if you have done it before in your younger years. It will feel different this time around and perhaps change, even in a small way, the direction you’ve been working in for years. Explore other digital options if you are “comfortable” in one area. Wander through others artists’ work on Facebook that have friend[ed] you. I have come across such interesting work by artists I don’t know and always write a message to that artist about it. Something I would like to try is video. I have no idea of how I will be using it, but, with all the “ease of use” cameras around, it will stimulate, inspire and stretch my imagination. I have been thinking about it for a while now. The best part is there are so many web uses for video that  I’m sure I will find my way to use it in an artwork or in a commercial venue.

CA: What advice would you give a beginning illustrator, in terms of archiving their work?

Nessim: Any artist/illustrator working today is lucky to have the digital tools available to catalog their work from the very beginning of their career. Archiving is such a big subject and artists are all so individual that there isn’t one “right” way of archiving or keeping track of your work. So consider this answer/suggestion a little snapshot of how I see this subject after 50 years of creating art. I’m fairly organized now but I was not always orderly. One day I realized after fifteen years of creating and making piles of work, books and magazines, also stuff I couldn’t bear to throw away, I was going to “drown” in my own mess. The funny thing is that I always thought I was “organized.” I even created a work in 1967 titled Disorganized Organization Organized, a 40" × 40" silk-screen on stretched canvas sold at one of the first NYC design stores, Scarabeaus, owned by George Beylerian.

Labels organized by image and size.

It may be hard to imagine that you will want to see the particular work you are creating at the moment ten years from now but, trust me, you will—especially if you like it. And if it is something that is not to your liking then you have to decide if it will go in the trash. There are times when you don’t like a piece you are working on and you put it aside and somehow stumble upon it a year later; you may look at it and suddenly like it and wonder why you felt so negative about it. I call these my transition pieces, where it brings me to another point of view of creating. Each transition is different and in a way, an artwork all to itself. Every artist will devise his or her own way of keeping track of his or her work and it has to be a conscious decision to do so.

CA: How did you arrive at the system that you use to archive and store your work?

Nessim: There are several things to consider when embarking on the lifelong task of archiving your work. I say “task” because you have to view it as a necessary undertaking. First you have to arrive at a system. For example: My first attempt at organizing in the ’70s was to buy two good secondhand filing cabinets, and file folders that were different colors. Blue files were for illustration jobs, green for speaking, yellow for writing, purple for fine art shows, beige for friends and red for taxes. I have since transferred this color system to my computer. I have folding sawhorses that I bought at Ikea years ago and put half-inch Gatorboard foam tops on them to make impromptu tables. I also have oak and white metal flat files, which are the most important furniture I own besides my drawing table. I bought oak years ago but now would only consider metal. Every flat file in my studio sits on a specially constructed wooden frame with heavy-duty rubber wheels. One group is stacked with five files each with five drawers. There are four flat files, two side-by-side I use as a high table with a white Formica top. The flat files are labeled according to the years the artworks in them were created. Each artwork has been scanned at 300 DPI and stored in folders on the computer according to the year and drawer they are in. The artworks are labeled according to the year, are given a number and coded as to whether it is fine art or illustration art. The penciled identifying code in the back of each work may look like this: FA-1977-34. They are stored, in groups, in archival plastic bags and taped shut. If you ever have a flood, which I did, they have a better chance of being protected and surviving.

Tables made with collapsible sawhorses and Gatorfoam allow for mobility in a changing workplace—to get the most from where you are working.

If I were starting out today I would investigate software available that utilizes other universal systems that museums use. The more universal the system the easier it will be for museums like the Norman Rockwell Museum to receive your work for inclusion in their collection. The NRM has recently opened The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies in Stockbridge, the nation’s first research institute devoted to the art of illustration. It states, “Visual Culture Studies is the vibrant area of emerging scholarship that explores the impact of imagery in shaping societal conceptions and aspirations across broad cultural categories.” Explore the site to find out more about this important addition to the field of illustration. If you have any questions about archiving, please e-mail me at barbaranessim@gmail.com and I will be happy to help with whatever I know. There is so much more to say. I could write a book on this subject. ca
After fourteen years as the founding managing editor of Communication Arts, Anne Telford moved to the position of editor-at-large when she relocated to her hometown, La Jolla, CA. An avid traveler, she expanded CA’s international coverage and developed the magazine’s Fresh section. Anne received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin where she indulged her taste for Tex-Mex food, independent film and the blues. Her first job in journalism was as an assistant editor at Texas Monthly. Anne was a founding board member of the Illustration Conference and is a current board member of Watershed Media, an organization that produces action-oriented, visually dynamic communication projects to influence the transition to a green society. Anne is a published poet and photographer with credits ranging from Émigré, Blur and Step Inside Design magazines, to the Portland Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Allworth Press and Chronicle Books, among others.

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