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Hear What Nancy Staub Laughlin Says About Working In Pastel.

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Quote: "This business is like interviewing for a new job every day. You have to sell yourself and deal with an enormous amount of rejection."

New Jersey artist Nancy Laughlin received a BFA from Moore College of Art. Her work is included in many prestigious collections, including the New Jersey State Museum. Among her recent accomplishments is an exhibit at the Noyes Museum, New Jersey, and at Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters in New Brunswick where she also was a guest lecturer.

This interview took place in late 2014

JC: To begin, can you tell me a little about your personal life...what constitutes your family?

NSL: I have a husband and two children; two boys aged 34 and 27. I've been married for 36 years and I just became a grandmother for the first time.

JC: Mazel Tov! The stability in your marriage is impressive, and not very common these days. How do you do it? Is your husband a strong supporter of your work?

NSL: Very much so. And he's not an artist; I don't think I could be married to another artist.

JC: Tell me a little about your background...your schooling, and how you got to be doing what you're doing today.

NSL: I've known since 7th or 8th grade that this is what I wanted to do. I went to a small boarding school that had an amazing art program. I was encouraged by and became very close to the art teacher there who actually became my mentor. She was incredibly talented herself and the relationship gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my work.

I went to California College of Arts and Crafts for one year, and I loved it. But I had to return to the East Coast, so I transferred to Moore College of Art and graduated from there.

Art school was hard for me, because I didn't quite fit into the norm of being told what to do all the time. You have to pay your dues in art school, the nudes, the still lifes, there's this whole formula. Every time we would do a drawing or a painting, everyone's work looked the same, but mine was different. I remember one of the teachers telling me that I was ahead of my time and that I did not fit in there. In my sophomore year the school actually put me on probation because I was not doing what everyone else was doing. When I came back for my junior year, the school had a competition. They chose two students from the junior class to go on a fellowship. They sent them to Europe for three months, and paid for everything. When I heard about this competition I decided that I would show them, because I was going to win! And I did! They saw the talent, even though I wasn't doing what everyone else was doing.

I was a sculpture major, with a painting and printmaking minor, so I had a lot of work to do because there were separate requirements for each of those three departments. My sculpture teacher, Thomas Chimes, was another mentor for me, again instilling confidence and recognizing my talent.

JC: When you said earlier that your work was different from everyone else's, was color part of that? Were you working in a different palette from everyone else, the same color palette that you work in now?

NSL: Yes. I see color in everything. To me there's no such thing as something that is all brown or all blue, because there are many colors being absorbed from the surroundings.

JC: Do you think that you have an ability to see differently from other people? And do you think that unique ability is what has catapulted your career?

NSL: Yes I do.

JC: When did you first realize that you had this vision?

NSL: I don't know. I just think it's always been there.

JC: With all the mediums available to you, what drew you to use pastels?

NSL: I used oils and other mediums in college. But I had been a sculpture major, and when I graduated I got a job working for Seward Johnson at the Johnson Atelier Institute of Technical Sculpture. I worked in all the departments, but specialized in plastic casting using polyester resins.I wore a mask and a protective suit, but every day when I came home I smelled like a plastics factory. My sense of smell became so sensitive that I couldn't smell any chemical type odor such as oil paint or turpentine. Pastels were the perfect solution for me. They don't have a strong discernible odor, and I developed a way of blending them so the colors didn't become muddy even though I was applying layers upon layers.

JC: Do you make your own pastels or is there a particular brand that you prefer to use?

NSL: I have used every different kind you can imagine. I have commercial ones, and I use some that are handmade because I couldn't find those colors anywhere else. It's not just the color that distinguishes the different types I use; the degree of hardness is an important factor.

JC: Is Larry Horowitz the person that makes your pastels? He's an artist and he used to make pastels for Wolf Kahn, big chunky ones.

NSL: The pastel maker is Paul deMerrais. I don't use these pastels solely. I also use Rembrandt , Schmincke and Senelier. For necessary hard edges in the drawing I use Nupastels. All of these named pastels have different hardness/softness for the layering effect that I use.

JC: When did you begin to add photographs in your work?

NSL: I have always worked with photography. For my simulated still lifes, I start by taking a photograph, which I then use as a reference for the pastel drawing. Over time, people have encouraged me to show the photographs as well. So I began to do that with selected photographs. Ingrid Fox, the former curator at Pfizer, who also became a mentor to me, was actually the person who suggested that I consider incorporating the photographs-- or parts of the photographs-- into the pastel drawings. It was a way to add a hard edge, and a three-dimensional aspect because the photographs are mounted on foam core.

JC: What are some examples of that?

NSL: Works that incorporate photographs include The Equation of Sparkle and Snowfall of the Gems

The Equation of Sparkle Snowfall of the Gems

The photograph that is included is completely different from the one that I use to make the drawing. It's actually a detail, or a close up of a detail that might mimic a part of the drawing. It could be a photograph of the ocean with raindrops, or glitter catching the light just right. They are more abstract.

The photograph is physically being added to the pastel on paper creating a trompe l'oeil effect. They might be described as assemblages. The shadows play an important role , adding dimension and provides the opportunity for the viewer to "enter" my world from a different perspective. When the work is installed in an exhibition, the lights on the work add another bonus shadow that mimics the shadow that I've drawn.

JC: Do you ever cut out parts of the photograph, for example specific objects in the photograph, and then add those to the piece? In Glowing Fall of the Zinnias it looks as though the flowers are jumping out at you and I wondered if those were photographs, and if you used photographs in that way.

NSL: No, actually it's the strong shadows that I draw under the objects that create that dimensional aspect.

JC: So when you begin work on a new piece, how do you suspend all the objects to make everything come together?

NSL: I cut out photographs and lay them out on thick glass pinions and I lay the objects (flowers, sequins, etc.) on top. Then I photograph that and start another layer on top of that photograph and repeat the process. In fact, a finished piece represents several generations of collage and photograph because I keep adding. I can create on my iPad with a program called SketchBook Pro so when I am away from my studio and all my props and baubles that I have there, I can explore ideas. The iPad creations really are for the ideas; I still need to simulate the "set up" and photograph it.

JC: Are there photographs in Water Lines are One?

NSL: There was a photograph in the original "still", but not an actual one in this particular drawing. For the set up, I used a photograph with a necklace draped in the corner that was leaning against the image of the ocean. To capture the ocean imagery I used an inexpensive underwater camera to photograph the waves coming at me.

Water Lines are One

JC: When did begin to incorporate water--physical water--in your work?

NSL: Water has been a common denominator for more than 30 years. Water has sparkle; it has the best reflective ability of anything. I used to float things in tanks of water, but I moved on to other fascinations still incorporating water in a different way.

JC: You've basically worked in the same way for your entire career. Are there any new developments that you might be planning for the future?

NSL: I'm always looking for new inspiration, but if I have to hesitate, then I know it's not going to work. Incorporating the photograph into the drawing has opened up a whole new world. It is another tool for showing the epitome of sparkle and glow.

When I become obsessed, then I know there's something there, and it's usually things that are made of glass, like these Vaseline Marbles and Swarovski crystals. They have this ability to absorb and reflect light. I've been working on ways of incorporating light, like a light is on and glowing. It can't be a literal interpretation of light, it has to be abstract. If there's a new aspect that I am exploring, it's that.

Vaseline Marble Swarovski crystals

JC: Do you think you would ever get to the point where you would not use any objects and just use reflected light in abstractions?

NSL: That's a good question. I don't know, but besides the idea of light, I am also concerned with shadow and dimension. These paintings are like my little worlds, like looking inside a snow globe.

JC: How large can you work in pastels?

NSL: The paper I use is Stonehenge etching paper. We used that paper for printmaking when I was at Moore College. It really absorbs water and I have found that I can put layer upon layer of pastels without losing the color, which is a crucial element in creating the glow that is so important in my work. It comes in rolls. Probably the largest I can do is 40 x 52 inches. But triptychs are one way to make larger works.

JC: What do you use to blend pastels? Is there a special tool that you use?

NSL: I use my fingers. You need the oils on your fingers to blend. Nothing else works like your fingers. The material is not toxic, and I have found that I have the best control when I can feel the pastel. You have to be constantly blowing away the dust, so I set up my workspace so that I am always working with my nose above the area I am working on. I have a trough with water below to catch the dust.

JC: What would you consider your greatest success?

NSL: I feel like I've had a lot of success. Every time I have an exhibit I think that is a success. Not getting discouraged is a success. This business is like interviewing for a new job every day. You have to sell yourself and deal with an enormous amount of rejection. There are a lot of artists out there and very few places to exhibit.

JC: Sam Hunter is one of the most well respected curators and historians. He wrote an essay about your work. How did that come about?

NSL: I sent him a letter. I knew that he lived in Princeton, and mutual friends encouraged him to read my letter, which he did. He said that he found it very interesting and ultimately came to my studio numerous times. That was a huge success.

Sam Hunter essay

JC: Where do you want to be in your career five years from now?

NSL: I would like to be recognized and respected as one of the top women artists. It's not about fame. I just want to be constantly showing my work.

JC: What advice would you give to young artists just starting out?

NSL: Don't listen to anyone else; don't change your work because someone else tells you to. Your work has to come from your heart. Second ,would be the importance of being organized about promoting yourself and your work: knowing how to write a good letter; knowing when and how to follow up; being gracious, and being able to take rejection.

JC: What are the biggest mistakes artists make about approaching a gallery?

NSL: Not doing your homework. You need to know why you are approaching that gallery. Will your work fit in with the other artists the gallery shows? You need to try and build a rapport with the gallerist without crossing a line. You can't be promoting your own work at someone else's opening for example.

I was chosen to exhibit at the State House of New Jersey. Prior to the show, I had a meeting with the Secretary of State to show her my work to see if I would be chosen for the exhibition. Before the meeting, I did a lot of research about her and I read an article where she was quoted about something that I really agreed with. On the day of the meeting, when I was introduced to her I said, "I am so glad to meet you. The line you said to that reporter was the best line I have ever read and I knew I liked you the second I read it." She took me into her office and we spent over an hour together. The receptionist later told me she had never seen her do anything like that before.

JC: How would you finish this sentence: Art is....

NSL: Art is necessary.


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