Krannert Art Museum hosts photographer, book artist Bea Nettles for exhibition and artist events

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Krannert Art Museum hosts photographer, book artist Bea Nettles for exhibition and artist events
Bea Nettles, Golden Evenin, 1975. Cyanotype with applied color. George Eastman Museum, gift of the artist. © Bea Nettles.

CHAMPAIGN, IL .- For 50 years, artist Bea Nettles has made innovative use of alternative photographic processes, incorporating handmade details and a range of techniques in her work. The first large-scale retrospective of her career explores the artist’s experimental approaches to art-making across recurring themes of motherhood, nature and mythology.

“Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory” at Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is on view through March 6.

Nettles will give virtual artist talk on Jan. 28 at 4 p.m. in the gallery, where she will be in conversation with KAM Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Amy L. Powell. The talk and conversation will be broadcast via zoom.

On Feb. 25 at 4 p.m., Nettles will be in conversation with Mary Statzer, PhD, Curator of Prints and Photographs at the New Mexico Art Museum. This virtual discussion is organized by the McKinley Foundation.

Nettles is a professor emerita in the School of Art and Design, where she taught for 24 years (1984-2008), and she also is an alumna. While she was still a graduate student, Nettles’ work appeared at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the major exhibition “Photography Into Sculpture,” highlighting groundbreaking artists who were moving photography away from the two-dimensional and into craft and sculpture.

Over her decadeslong career, Nettles has continued to exhibit and publish widely. Her work resides in major photography and special book and manuscript collections throughout North America, including MoMA; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York; the George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, N.Y.; and many others. At Illinois, both KAM and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library hold Nettles’ photographs and art books in their collections.

“Harvest of Memory” will be the first exhibition to be held in KAM’s newly renovated East Gallery. The exhibition was originally organized by the George Eastman Museum and Sheldon Art Galleries, in St.Louis, where it was co-curated by Jamie M. Allen and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales. At KAM, it is curated by Powell, who oversaw its installation in its current form.

“It’s satisfying to be able to examine an artist’s work in depth that has had such great significance nationally in the history of photography but also at the University of Illinois and in our collection,” Powell said. “Bea Nettles is a photographer, a printmaker and a bookmaker. Throughout her career, she really has defied the disciplines of art-making while exploring what happens when you combine them, all with great attention to storytelling and to the realities, emotions and fantasies of everyday life.”

One of Nettles’ significant early works, “The Skirted Garden”(1969), on view in the exhibition, touches on landscape painting, sculpture and craft. To create it, Nettles quilted canvas together in the image of a landscape, then added a length of her skirt to the painted canvas. It shows her experimentation with materials and also her sense of humor.

“People would lift the skirt and look under it. They couldn’t help it,” Nettles said, and so she added a taffeta slip with lace under the skirt, signaling to viewers she knew what they were up to.

Nettles said part of the pleasure of making that piece and other mixed-media works was the tactile quality of the fabric, as well as working with her hands in quilting and sewing.

“I felt no compunction about mixing media. After making a few paintings that way, I got the idea it would really be interesting to have photos on fabric, but there was no way to do it. My grandmother used to stitch pieces of paper together and make little booklets for me. I stitched photo paper together to make collages,” Nettles said.

She figured out how to print photographic images on cloth by painting a light-sensitive emulsion onto cotton and then projecting negatives onto it. She used other photographic processes that involve applying a photosensitive solution to a surface and then exposing it to ultraviolet light through a negative.

Nettles was a pioneer in using Kwik Print, a commercial bichromate process that used a vinyl sheet coated with light-sensitive dyes. She experimented with exposing the vinyl in layers to produce a multicolored image, and she even mixed her own colors.

“She was really working as a painter” in her use of color and collaging of images, Allen said. “Technically, her skills are amazing.”

Nettles wrote an instructional book about experimental photographic techniques, “Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook,” and she taught workshops on Kwik Print, bookmaking and many other processes.

“Harvest of Memory” is structured around three themes Nettles used frequently in her work: nature and landscape; family and motherhood; and self-portraiture and mythology.

Throughout her artistic life, Nettles has engaged with nature. She is an avid gardener, an activity that she compares to etching and other processes in her work. She often uses imagery from her native Florida, alongside Midwestern landscapes.

Nettles has long incorporated experiences of motherhood into her work, as well as perspectives on being a woman, coming of age, finding her place in the world and, more recently, her experiences with cancer and aging. She has made books pairing her mother’s poetry and her own photography; reproduced images of her sisters from old negatives; photographed her children; and collaged or stitched layers of images from many ages and stages of life into a single work of art.

One work of art, “Sister in the Garden with Birdbath,” shows a backyard scene printed on fabric. A photo of Nettles’ sister as a child is attached using both stitching and applied color.

“It connects to family and a landscape she loves. The photographic object is technically very skilled and obviously handmade. You can see all the hand-stitching and hand-coloring,” Powell said.

Nettles often uses mythological and celestial images that feature iconic portraits of herself and others. The self-portrait “Star Lady” (1970) became a basis of one of her most well-known projects: “Mountain Dream Tarot,” the first photographic deck of tarot cards, featuring Nettles as the Queen of Pentacles. In the photograph, she is wearing a dress covered with stars. Photos of her in the dress, taken on the Fourth of July 1970, appear throughout her work.

This tendency to revisit, reuse and reinterpret images and their meaning over time speaks to the idea of memory in the exhibition’s title, Powell said.

Allen and Lahs-Gonzales co-edited a book of Nettles’ images to accompany the exhibition, and, along with Powell, contributed essays. “Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory” is published by the University of Texas Press. Powell and Nettles will discuss the exhibition Jan. 28 at 4 p.m. at KAM.

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