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creation story: Nancy Witt Painter

I get very excited starting a new painting. It's much more fun than finishing one.


How she describes her work: Though Witt is a realist painter — that is, she paints objects as they appear in real life — most of her paintings do not depict a realistic scene or situation. Instead, they reference dreams, the subconscious, an alternate reality. Her work is highly symbolic — water, windows, flowers, fruit, vegetables and banners all figure prominently in her paintings. As a result, people often refer to Witt's work as "surrealist," but she bristles at this term.

"I prefer another term called metarealism," she says. "To me, the difference is that surrealists were really iconoclasts and didn't believe in anything. Metarealism is a more spiritual approach to things. You may not know what you believe in, but you know you believe in something that's bigger than you are."

Witt first encountered the term metarealism while reading a novel by Laurence Durrell. "He wasn't talking about art," she says, "But I read it and immediately said, "That's it!"

Why she paints realistically: When Witt first began her art career she painted abstractly, then turned to sculpture as a form of self-expression. In the late '60s, one of her sons and a friend claimed they saw a flying saucer, and Witt became fascinated by the topic. She began to make abstract sculptures of canvas stretched over welded frames that were suggestive of flying saucers. One day she painted her shadow onto a canvas and thought, "If my shadow is there, my accouterments ought to be there, too." She painted in her paintbrushes and stool, and found she loved painting realistically and that she was good at it. Since that painting, which hangs in a place of honor in her studio, Witt has committed herself to realism.

What her work is about: Witt dislikes when people ask, "What does it mean?" It's another of the reasons she started painting realistically. When people persist in asking her to explain her work, Witt turns the tables and asks, "What does it mean to you?"

"It is amazing what some people see," she says. "I like to talk about [my work], but I don't like that [people] need words to explain its existence."

What inspires her: "I fall in love," she says. "It's usually light hitting something and then the shadows. And it builds on that."

Witt is also inspired by her dreams, although she does not paint images from her dreams. Rather, she is inspired by the act of dreaming itself. "What I like to think I can do is get in the same place in my head in the studio that I am in when I'm dreaming," she says. "If I can do that, then the images just flow. I don't know where [a painting] is going when I start. If all goes well, the painting and I set up a dialogue and I try to listen to it. I let the painting govern the conversation. For me, that's the creative process. I get very excited starting a new painting. It's much more fun than finishing one."

How she paints: Surprisingly, Witt rarely paints from a still life in her studio. The light is rarely good on both the objects and her canvas, and it takes her so long to make a painting that often flowers will die or fruit will rot. Instead, she photographs the objects she wants to paint in the ideal light, then projects the images onto rear-projection screens she has set up on either side of her canvas.

How long it takes her to make a painting: This, she says, is what everyone always wants to know. "If someone asks, I say 71 years, because that's how old I am," she quips. She is sitting in her studio in an ancient barber's chair with a small mountain of cigarette ashes at her feet. "I do 12 to 18 paintings a year and I'm up here full-time," she says. "Some come quicker or easier. And some never make it out of the studio."

How she knows when she's finished a painting: "When it ain't wrong," she says, laughing. "That's truer than anything I know to say." — Jessica Ronky Haddad

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