Nemec shares a ‘lifetime of experiences’ in her art
Vernita Nemec lives and works in her studio in New York City.
Vernita Nemec has saved the roses she’s been given over the years, drying them, and keeping them in her art space. Unwilling to use “dangerous substances like resin,” said Nemec, “so they’re a little fragile. But that’s okay. Because we’re a little fragile, too.”
Nemec, originally from Painesville, Ohio, earned her BFA at Ohio University before moving to New York, in 1965. She’s been there ever since, living the artist’s life. She is a performance artist, fine artist, curator, sculptor, photographer, installation artist, and activist. She is passionate about feminism and the environment, and both show up consistently and heavily in her work.
Working with one of two art spaces to feature exclusively female artists was important at that time, Nemec told junior and senior art students Tuesday. “It was when all the museums had no women in their collections, except maybe a few, way back in history.” Nemec said that she participated in demonstrations outside the Guggenheim museum, demanding equal representation for women in art. It was no surprise, then, for her to get involved with a feminist gallery. Nemec’s second installation piece – installation art is a form that literally makes the art being shown a part of the environment in which it’s being shown – was at the SOHO 20 gallery in Manhattan. The artist-run gallery has worked since its inception to ensure representation not just for women, but for queer, trans, and otherwise marginalized artists. Vernita’s piece there, she said, involved painting the walls of the gallery Humorette orange before covering it with drawings made from old family photos. “It was at a time when I was dealing with the idea of being a woman, and all the issues and memories and experiences that occurred to me, and in particular, my relationship with my father,” Nemec said of the 1975 show. The drawings, of photos her father had taken of the family, which covered the gallery’s 50 foot walls and became the backdrop for her performance piece there.
Asked by AP art student Olivia Steck how she deals with people who don’t believe in her ideals as an activist or her vision as an artist, Nemec said that “it depends on how angry I am.” Her demonstrations in front of the Guggenheim, she said, represent one end of her reaction to negative feedback. “I guess you try to find the people who believe what you believe, and you try to figure out ways to either convince the others or share your belief with others in a nonviolent way. With signs. With art. I even made up a song once,” Nemec said of her demonstration days.
And, said Nemec, as many artists do, she has found her way full circle in the art industry as a gallery director. She took over the directorship of the artist-owned gallery Viridian Artists in Chelsea in 1999. She came to the gallery, she said, as most gallery staff do – as an artist looking for part time work. Eventually, she said, she went from proctoring to taking over the directorship from the gallery’s then-director.
“I think that part of what’s special about being an artist who’s running a gallery is that you really kind of understand the problems and issues of being an artist and having an exhibition,” said Nemec. “Being an artist enables me to see both sides, and it’s curious to see when people come into the gallery,” she said. Some guests will speed through the whole gallery in fifteen minutes. Others, she said, will spend thirty minutes taking in one piece. “It gives you an insight into how other people are looking at art in a way that you as the artist maybe don’t see. By sitting there and witnessing others in such close proximity to art, you get a sense,” said Nemec, of art’s place in the current social environment.
Most important, Nemec said to district art students, with varying degrees of interest in pursuing art as a career, from planning to get degrees in art to simply really loving being in art instruction at school, “It’s all about experimenting and pushing the boundaries, and using the things you love and pushing it in new ways if you can,” said Nemec. That, she said, and remembering that feedback is important, but should never be crushing. “I can’t plan (my performance pieces) at all, because I don’t know how people are going to react. Because if they hate it, I gotta deal with that too. I try to incorporate (audience response and participation) into the work, and if they love it, that’s great.”
Janelle Turk, art educator at Bradford Area High School and a member of the Crary board of directors, was excited to have an opportunity to get students some face time with a working artist. “I always strive to get them out into the real world to investigate what is happening and when an opportunity like this was made available, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Turk. “To be able to meet a working artist, see their work up close, and talk to them directly about their processes and intentions, it is a priceless experience for learners that you just can’t replicate within the boundaries of a classroom.”
Student reactions to Nemec’s presentation were positive, citing her use of mixed media, the interesting qualities of her performance piece, and the way that Nemec incorporates personal experience into art. “The scroll is similar to a journal,” said Steck. “Even the performance is like a lifetime of experiences.”
Sydney Emerson said that she “enjoyed seeing non-traditional artwork in the gallery.”
For Max Barret, “the installation is like a wonderland that you can walk into.”
Nemec’s installation piece “The Endless Junkmail Scroll” will be on display at the Crary Art Gallery until March 3. Pieces of the piece may be purchased for $100 per linear foot, or $10 per linear inch. It is on display alongside local painter Belinda Brohn’s gouche landscape collection, “Sashaying With Nature.” Exhibition hours are Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m., Fridays from noon to 8 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. The gallery is located at 511 Market Street.