On Her Life and Art

© Nina Bohlen

Note: This publication accompanied the 1987 exhibition Nina Bohlen: A Retrospective of Works on Paper at The Boston Public Library.

on-her-life-and-art-coverI WAS BORN IN BOSTON in 1931. Two events in my early childhood saved me from the rigid conventions of a Brahmin upbringing. When I was three, my mother and father were separated, and my older brother and I went to live with my aunt and uncle on a farm in Dover, Massachusetts. I became fascinated with the animals and the countryside. While I grew to love the beauty of all the animals on the farm, and was always extremely sad when they were killed, I developed the eye of a biologist. I learned to study these animals after death in a way I might not have otherwise.

Then when I was five, my mother married a man from Eastern Maine. Although we lived in Boston in the winter, we spent our summers in Maine. My stepfather’s relatives were botanists, ornithologists, farmers, fishermen and hunters, so once again I was in close contact with nature. During the shooting season there was always an ample supply of dead birds to draw. These two situations gave me a special approach to nature which has influenced me all my life. Recently, I came across a quote about the writer Rachel Carson which seemed to sum up that approach. It said: “Her attitude toward nature combined a spiritual feel with scientific observation.”

As a child, I read books about animals, books that had beautiful illustrations. I made many copies of these illustrations. My aunt, an amateur artist, encouraged me. During these younger years, two pictures inspired me particularly. One was a small painting of a dog done by my aunt. The fact that the dog’s eyes followed me wherever I went amazed me. The other was Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Oh, to paint satin like that!

My real life as an artist, however, began when I was a junior at Radcliffe. That was when I met Hyman Bloom and became his student. He was teaching drawing at the Fogg Museum, a method of composing a picture from the imagination taught to him by Harold Zimmerman. We used an H.B. pencil and a kneaded eraser on smooth Bristol paper. I took the course for credit for two years. During my senior year I also studied painting with Hyman two nights a week at his studio on Huntington Avenue. Also studying with him then was the painter Ellen Sinclair. At the time he was doing large cadaver drawings in conte crayon, and I had glimpses of these phenomenal pictures when I came into his studio. Hyman taught us to paint with a limited palette, based on the Denman Ross palette system. After the class, we would have tea in tall glasses and would look at books on art and talk about the old masters. Hyman would also encourage us to study the old masters, but it was his skill as an artist which inspired me most of all, and I admired the religious dedication he brought to his work. These were wonderful evenings.

After graduating from Radcliffe, I continued studying with Hyman, doing large charcoal drawings, learning to compose from my imagination in light and shade.  Hyman also introduced me to the world of Newbury Street and its art galleries, in particular, the Swetzoff Gallery, run by Hyman Swetzoff. There you could drop in and meet friends, see avant-garde art in the main gallery and old master drawings in the back room.

The first piece of work I ever exhibited was a large charcoal drawing of the interior of a stable. It was in a group show at the Swetzoff Gallery. The drawing was bought by Jerry Goldberg, an avid collector of Boston artists. My first solo exhibition on Newbury Street was at the Siembab Gallery in 1959.

During the fifties, I studied sculpture with both Frank Tock and Harold Tovish. Frank had a fascinating way of building his small sculptures out of many cone-shaped pieces of plasteline. He had a small foundry in his basement, and we cast several pieces in lead. My works from this period are very much in the style of Frank Tock. With Tovish, I worked in clay, modeling a series of falling horses, casting them in plaster and ultimately in bronze. I also studied painting for a brief period of time with Morton Sacks. In 1965 I had a drawing show at the Shore Gallery, a show of paintings at the Tragos Gallery in 1968, and in 1971, the first of several exhibitions at the Boston Athenaeum organized by Donald Kelley.

In 1968, the sculptress Susan Smyly moved to Boston. At the time, she was doing large sculptures of fat women. The boldness of her imagery was very liberating to me. She also taught me a method of drawing from life, a method taught her by Sandy Kincannon at the Memphis Academy of Art. Until this time I had worked only from my imagination. These small drawings on gesso required close observation of the object being drawn. I think the most important thing I retained from this method, aside from the ability to draw what was in front of me with accuracy, was a way of using the eraser up against the edge of a card, producing a very crisp edge.

My drawings from the imagination at this time were sometimes a mixture of a tone of etching ink, rolled onto the paper and then worked on with one color of prismacolor pencil, or colored pencil on a commercially toned paper, or directly onto white paper. Among other things which I did at that time was a series of freaks, both animal and human. The first freak of nature I had ever seen was a two-headed calf, when I was a child. I suppose I see freaks as something very much part of nature, but a part which has gone wrong. These drawings were done with a spruce green pencil made by Colorama which looks like blue on paper. From there it was a natural progression to more than one color. My first multicolored pencil drawings were of feathers and large exotic birds. I had a number of friends who kept tropical birds, and they would give me their feathers as the birds molted. These made wonderfully colored bouquets.

In the summer of 1969, Hyman, Susan, and I were in Lubec, Maine. The painter Frank Parker had lent me a small nineteenth-century French etching press, so we began doing monotypes. Until then lithography was the only printing method I had experimented with, but Susan had done monotypes before. My first monotypes were of fishheads. Later, Hyman, seeing me try to carry my etching press through the woods in a basket, decided to design one which could be attached to a back pack. It was built by Peter Lindenmuth, of Nexus Design, and weighs only thirty pounds, truly a wonderful invention. In the autumn of 1972, I stayed in Lubec through the shooting season, and that’s when I did the monotypes of dead birds.

Most of my monotypes are from life, and I like to use monotypes as a way of making studies. Because one is forced to work fairly rapidly, monotypes are liberating. The beauty of a monotype is in its spontaneity. The less you alter the finished print, the better. Many of my monotypes were in group shows in the early seventies in both Boston and New York. In 1979, I had a one-woman show of drawings and monotypes at the Far Gallery in New York. It was at this time that Sinclair Hitchings bought three monotypes that are now in the collection of the Boston Public Library. In 1984, I gave a ten-day monotype workshop in Lubec, and many of the works we did were shown recently at the Helen Bumpus Gallery in Duxbury.

I began working with puppets in 1977 when my younger brother, who lives in Thailand, gave me an antique Burmese puppet for Christmas. I had never seen anything like this extraordinary female with wooden breasts and a brightly painted crotch. My first puppet drawings were of this single female. One of them now is in the permanent drawing collection at the Fogg Art Museum. Several years later, my brother brought me another puppet, this time a male puppet from India. Using both the male and female puppet as a metaphor for human couples, I began a series of colored-pencil and water-color pencil drawings. Since then my brother has returned home with more puppets, Chinese, Indonesian, and Burmese, and they continue to fascinate me.

In 1979, my sister invited me to go to Kenya in East Africa. She had written a true children’s story about a troop of Olive baboons who lived on the Kekopey Ranch, and she wanted me to illustrate the book. It was a fantastic experience. We lived in a little house atop a cliff, and every morning very early we would walk down into the valley and look for baboons. Sometimes they were hard to see because they looked like large rocks when they were sleeping. The baboons were used to people so we would walk with them all day long and watch them eating, scratching, arguing, and playing, leading a regular baboon life. The original drawings for the book were exhibited in 1982 at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. The book itself, entitled Baboon Orphan, was published by E. P. Dutton in 1981.

When I won an art award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, in 1977, Hyman Bloom wrote the citation:

To Nina Bohlen, born in Boston in 1931. An individualist, she has created a mythology of which animals play a mythic role. Her work is sensitive and poetic and runs counter to the cynicism of current art fashion.

Anthony Burgess once said something which I found important. He said: “Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered.” A work of art should be a pleasure to look at. What makes it a pleasure, apart from its content, is a sense of dexterity and skill, like that which is involved in making a beautiful watch or a fine violin. To some degree, I feel that my work as an artist is an effort to pay homage to skill in art as an enduring value. The influence of Hyman Bloom, whose works I feel combine this love of craft with a contemporary psychological point of view, has been a lasting one in that regard. To me, Hyman is not only a great artist, but a great teacher as well. Once he said that learning to compose from the imagination was the greatest contribution that Zimmerman had made to his education. I feel that learning to compose from the imagination was the greatest contribution Hyman has made to my education.

-NINA BOHLEN Newton, MA.  May 1987