It is a thrill to have had the opportunity to interview one of my favorite charcoal artists, Emily Nelligan.
It all began in September 2014 with a Facebook post of a selection of Ms. Nelligan’s charcoal drawings by artist John David Wissler. I was smitten by her hauntingly beautiful images and began researching the availability of a book or gallery catalog of her works to share with my art students.
In the meantime, my assistant Miss Jessica Sanders graciously helped me research background information on Emily Nelligan. Through AskArt.com, June Fitzpatrick Gallery and PaintersTable.com, we learned that Emily Nelligan was born in New York City in 1924, attended Cooper Union School of Art and currently resides in Winsted, Connecticut. Ms. Nelligan has been creating her charcoal drawings since 1944. She spends summer and sometimes fall on the Great Cranberry Island. Her winters are spent in northern Connecticut, which she chooses not to feature in her work (“not enough sky”). According to the artist, she prefers the island landscape with its sea, mists, and sky, and changing light and tide.
Through Facebook correspondence with fellow fans of Ms. Nelligan, I was ecstatic to locate and purchase a book of her work through Alexandre Gallery. It arrived in December 2014. The first thing that hit me was her charcoal “palette”. So many blacks, grays, and off-whites, so many different densities of light and shade! The drawings do not include images of figures or dwellings or other signs of a human presence, allowing the atmosphere of the place to come through. Velvety shapes indicate sky, clouds, the curve of the shore, the reflection on the water, the dark mass of woods. She is a master of light and shadow.
Viewing the book left me wanting to learn more about the artist. I reached out to the Alexandre Gallery via Facebook asking if they might consider arranging an interview with the artist for my school’s blog. They advised that Ms. Nelligan is a very private person in her 80s who does not own a computer; therefore they could not accommodate my request.
Determined to interview Ms. Nelligan, I posted on Facebook to fellow Nelligan fans, advising I wanted to interview Emily Nelligan for my school’s blog and asked for help in reaching out to her. Thankfully, a friend of hers, artist Robert Dente, graciously responded. He recommended I mail her a handwritten letter requesting a telephone interview. To quote Mr. Dente, “She is old school and somewhat formal—but a delight to speak with.”He graciously forwarded me the mailing address and I got to work on the letter.
To spare Ms. Nelligan of my terrible handwriting, I opted to print out a legible letter on Microsoft Word using the closest font to a typewriter, Courier 16 point. Per Mr. Dente’s advice, I included his name as an introduction. I mailed the letter with some trepidation. Between the cold winter storms back east and the chance the letter might just get lost in the mail, I was concerned the letter would never reach her.
My concerns were alleviated when, out of the blue on February 12, 2015, the phone rang. It was Emily Nelligan, responding to my telephone interview! I was so excited and nervous, grabbing a pencil and paper to take notes. I thanked her profusely and proceeded to read her my standard interview questions, which she graciously answered. She was delighted to learn that the purpose of the interview was to introduce my students to living artists and to inspire them to keep up their hard work and passion for art regardless of any obstacles. At the end of the interview, I felt like I had made a good friend.
Before I published the blog, it occurred to me that I should have asked her for her photograph. Rummaging through my notes, I was thankful to have kept her phone number which I had asked for during the interview. She graciously agreed to look through her photos and send me one but advised it might take a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait to be able to include her image with the article.
Without further delay, here is the interview with Ms. Emily Nelligan.
Q1. What is your style of charcoal painting referred to? For my art students, would you please describe what this style means or represents?
A1. I don’t have one.
Q2. Much of your artwork features landscapes and seascapes. What is the story or inspiration behind your choice of subject matter?
A2. Cranberry Island, Maine. I’ve been renting here for 50 years.
Q3. My students are interested in the latest tools of the trade. May I please inquire your preference for charcoal? What type of paper do you use? What brands work best for you?
A3. Brands change their formula. Some are grayer than others. I prefer the blackest and softest charcoal available. For paper, I purchased a large quantity of Crane® writing paper a long time ago and cut it to size, usually 7-3/4” x 10-1/2”.
Q4. At what age did you realize you were an art spirit?
A4. I have always been an artist as a child. Did art most of the time.
Q5. Did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as an artist? If so, how did you handle it?
A5. No. No one talked me out of it. My father did watercolors. He died when I was 6.
Q6. How did Alexandre Gallery and you become acquainted? Did you seek them out or did they find you?
A6. The Alexander Gallery is located in New York. They were in Maine visiting local exhibits, saw my husband’s and my work and got in touch with us. We never sought it out– it came to us, but we had to wait until we were in our 80s!
Q7. You mentioned your husband was also an artist. What was he known for?
Q8. Do you have new charcoal paintings in the works?
A8. Nothing definite.
In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?
“The point is to work and everything will come.”
I normally end a blog interview with the artist’s website and a Facebook link. However, Emily Nelligan has neither. To view her work, may I please recommend contacting Alexandre Gallery directly. Thank you for your interest.
**Emily Nelligan just telephoned to remind me of her current exhibition at Alexandre Gallery, April 9 through May 9. Sixteen of her drawings and fifteen of her husband, Marvin Bileck’s prints and related drawings are on display. There will be a closing reception for Ms. Nelligan on Saturday, May 9, from 1-3 pm.
**A second phone call with Emily Nelligan revealed that her husband’s book, By Trolley Past Thimbledon Bridge has just been published. The back story on this is that Marvin Bileck had originally been hired to illustrate Virginia Woolf‘s only book written for children. Unfortunately, his illustrations were not finished by the deadline and as a result, were rejected by Woolf’s publisher. Since some of the text had already been written into his illustrations, Bileck partnered with his friend, award-winning children’s book author and illustrator, Ashley Bryan to complete the book. Ms. Nelligan hopes the book will arrive at the Alexandre Gallery before the closing reception.
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