An Inner Astronomy
The Art of Catherine Nash
Counting Moons by Catherine Nash
“This is love: fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.”
Tucson artist Catherine Nash speaks about her connection to Rumi’s “secret sky”, saying, “I can spend hours staring into the sky, mesmerized by the expansiveness as I ponder our place in the universe. The vastness of space is an ultimate touchstone for me. The sky is a window to the galaxy.”
Born and raised in Connecticut, Nash grew up in a family of more than four generations of sailors. Small wonder that the sky has held lifelong meaning and fascination for her. Water and sky have formed an interconnected navigational language for sailors across continents and time.
As an artist, Nash creates mixed-media works combining materials like found objects, handmade papers and encaustic with the familiar tools of paints and drawing materials. Her current exhibit is an installation of a “vintage-inspired, imaginary artist/astronomer’s lab”. The exhibit includes painted maps, sculptural assemblage works, monotypes and a desk covered with artist-made objects. Walking into the installation, the viewer feels a sense of the inward-turning awe the artist/astronomer experiences while contemplating the galaxies both beyond and within us.
What brought you to the visual art path initially and what brings you back after an absence of nearly a decade?
I was raised by an artist/scientist mother and my father, who was one of the original New York City “Mad Men”. My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and an uncle all worked on Madison Avenue in the advertising field. My great-grandfather was also a devoted watercolorist. My mother, a ‘50s housewife, was both an artist and a craftswoman. I have an indelible memory of lying on the wood floor beneath her easel as she worked on an oil painting. I can still see the light streaming through the window and recall the smell of her paints and solvents. I declared then and there that I would be an artist when I grew up.
I also had the great fortune of supportive teachers. One of my babysitters was a member of the National Watercolor Society. She started teaching me to paint when I was 9. My junior high and high school art teachers were excellent and gave me my foundation in visual art. At UNH, I worked with artist Sigmund Abeles. As my mentor, he coached and cheered me on for decades and remains a dear friend.
Ten years ago, my life and studio practice shifted when I moved my mother from Baltimore to Tucson. She was living with Parkinson’s disease, which meant my involvement in her care increased over time as the disease slowly diminished her capacity to move. This current exhibit has evolved over her final three or four years and is my first showing solo exhibition since her passing.
Of course your focus shifted during those years. In addition to your mother’s early influence, your life and work have been profoundly influenced by world travels—especially time spent in Japan. Will you explain a little about the concepts of “wabi” and “sabi” in Japanese culture and how these ideas inform your creative practice?
While I don’t refer directly to these two concepts intentionally, my work has undergone an aesthetic evolution over the years which includes influence from both concepts. “Wabi” is an old Japanese concept that refers to solitude and simplicity. Originally, wabi was directly related to the humility of Japanese monks or hermits who chose to live a life of poverty engendering a detachment from material possessions. Today, wabi refers to a state of quietude and contemplation derived from living with simplicity in nature.
The term “sabi” refers to the impermanence of life and the weathering of things over time. Together, wabi and sabi are an aesthetic experience pointing viewers to the spiritual reality underlying all matter.
My own work incorporates vintage elements and expresses a sense of an earlier era. My focus has always been about creating objects and installations of quietude. I aim to slow people down so we can experience nature’s time as opposed to the hustle-bustle of our temporal world ruled by the clock.
Viewing the wealth of images of your artwork created over the years, I was struck by the recurrence of certain symbols. Can you talk a bit about your personal vocabulary and how these symbols speak through juxtaposition?
I think of my art work as visual poetry. By assembling images as symbols that are normally viewed separately from each other, the juxtapositions give rise to a third meaning, just as poetry does. It’s a language of association and feeling.
As a lifelong artist, I have worked long enough now that I am able to honor The Muse without question when that nonverbal conversation between images and objects occurs in my studio. I don’t generally know what the juxtapositions mean or refer to until after the work is completed. This aspect of creative process is where the magic happens. I am aware of an unspoken source as the imagery comes together as if on its own.
The current exhibit at the Triangle Ranch is called “An Inner Astronomy”. Can you tell readers something about the gestation and evolution of this extensive mixed-media installation?
The process for this work was a long one. I have been interested in archeo-astronomy for many years. People around the world and across time have looked to the heavens to try to address the question of “Why are we here?” It is an eternal question. My studies in this area included two very pivotal experiences.
I lived in Florence for some weeks over each of six summers from 1996 to 2002. In the Science Museum, one room was devoted to an exhibit of Renaissance era astronomical “tools” beautifully made of wood and metal. These tools were designed to impress but were in fact, only for show and measured nothing. That really struck me.
The other pivotal experience happened in 2006, when I travelled to Jantar Mantar in Delhi, India. This is the site of an extensive observatory built in the 1700s. It contains huge architectural structure designed as intricate astronomical tools for reading the skies. The sense of scale and mysteriousness to my untrained eye truly affected me. These two experiences planted some deeply creative seeds, indeed. “An Inner Astronomy” is the creation of an imaginary artist/astronomer’s lab replete with star maps, books and sculptures. The work hearkens back to a time before philosophy, spirituality and art were divorced from science and transports one to a world where inner and outer are one.
So, the concepts evolved through research over a lengthy period. What about the actual creation of the work itself?
In 2016, I had the privilege of working, for the second time, as artist-in-residence in the studio of artist Morris Graves, who died in 2001. This residency is a retreat setting. Resident artists are there to work almost like the hermit-monks of Japanese tradition. The rule is absolute solitude and no technology. No computer, no cell phone, no camera, no internet access for three intensive weeks. I brought photo copies of my research and was able to create 36 scroll paintings during the three-week stay. It was an amazing experience.
So much of my creativity had been on the back burner while caring for my mother that the work just poured out of me, as I worked in a state of reverie and intense concentration. The other works in this installation, which include assemblages, monotypes and mixed-media objects, were created more slowly in my studio over time.
How has the path of studio practice served for your personal healing and how does your work provide healing for others?
Studio practice is my sanctuary. It is a place and a way to experience the gifts of quietude. The studio is a contemplative space to explore and connect with inner worlds where the Sacred and meaning are experienced. For the community, my work offers a moment for reflection and quietude. Our lives have become so noisy. We are constantly bombarded by the voices, thoughts and images of others through the widespread use of technology. I believe that we need both beauty and quiet in order to perceive and receive the gifts of life and healing.
Viewers are invited to visit Catherine’s exhibit, “An Inner Astronomy”, now through March 20, at Adobe Barn Gallery, The Triangle L Ranch, 2805 N. Triangle L Ranch, in Oracle. The artist will speak at the closing reception, from 5 to 8 p.m., March 18. Connect at CatherineNash.com.
Carolyn King, M.A. in Arts & Consciousness, is a local practicing artist who has worked with communities as a teaching-artist for over 30 years, both in the U.S. and Mexico. Earlier this year, she founded Heart to Hand Studio, where she offers visual arts experiences for Tucson residents and beyond. Connect at CKing72@cox.net.