Translations of Time

"What we say and do matters. We have to think like activists. It is not enough to just make art. We are needed on all fronts and in many ways, and to stay silent in times like these is unacceptable for me"

Jennifer Nagle Myers, whose illustrations are featured in issue #56, is a visual artist and director born in New York City and now based in Pittsburgh, where she has taught art at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Mattress Factory Art Museum.

Her art has been shown, most recently, in exhibitions for the Space Gallery in Pittsburgh; the Institute of New Feelings in Cleveland; and Jay Street Studios in Brooklyn. This year, she received the Professional Artist Residency Grant with Pittsburgh Filmmakers from the Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments. 

Nagel’s work locates itself at the intersection of video, performance, drawing, photography, and sculptue.

CNF: From where did you draw inspiration for the illustrations for the Waiting issue?

From the essays. I read each one and discovered what the essential core of the story was for me, either as a single phrase, or an image, or a repeated idea, or a section of the story, or some sort of meaning that I took from it. Then I let myself begin to draw these ideas, images, thoughts out in a quick and gestural way with ink. I let it be loose, open, interpretative at first because it was a search. My task and desire was to find an essential image that related nicely to the original inspiration.

CNF: Did any of the essays stand out to you?

MYERS: They all had resonance and power, and I enjoyed each one. In all of them I discovered something, was surprised and engaged, and found inspiration.

CNF: Some of the illustrations, such as the one on the front cover, feature clock-like drawings, while others are more abstract. What made you decide to mix literal translations of time with more intangible ones?

MYERS: When you are making work and responding in an intuitive mark-making way, what comes up is what you trust. The clock-like faces came from the essay by Sue William Silverman about the time that we as humans spend waiting. She added it up in almost a scientific and factual way. That immediately brought the clock face to my hand/mind, and I felt it was the best singular image I could make (at that moment) that represented and expressed some of the essay’s core ideas.

The more intangible drawings connect more to the original idea I had for the entire collection of illustrations—which was to try and make a singular image/symbol that related to each of the essays. I imagined these would be like new characters in an alphabet, which is something I am very interested in doing in my own practice. Drawing for me can be a way to write a new alphabet, discover a new language. I think those are the ones that look more abstract. 

CNF: How do you feel the drawings—collectively and standing alone; either through the illustration itself or through the medium—reflect the theme of waiting?

MYERS: I read the essays and allowed the core elements of the story to resonate with me, and then began drawing them. This took time. While drawing, I was always waiting for the forms to arrive, survive, repeat. This was a form of action-waiting, of trusting and working and patience. I think that this theme is seen in the work.

Drawing for me can be a way to write a new alphabet, discover a new language.

CNF: You work with a wide range of materials—photography, sculpture, drawings, and even video and performance. How did you decide which medium to use for this project? What were the advantages and challenges of using stark black ink to convey the theme?

MYERS: The art director for the magazine, Seth Clark, specifically asked me to work with black ink, a style he saw on my website that he was most interested in. That helped direct and limit my choice of materials, which I was grateful for. It can be tricky sometimes to know what the best material or media for the job is. In this case that decision was already made, making the work flow much faster.

CNF: You say in your biography on your website that “the use of character and story is essential to [your] practice”—did you find it a challenge to interpret literary works as visual art?

MYERS: No, not at all. It felt almost effortless, in a way that was wonderfully exciting. Since story and narrative is such a focus of my practice, but in such a disrupted and oftentimes fragmented way, this felt very intuitive and relaxed. I loved reading the essays and translating them into drawings. I would welcome this work again.

CNF: What does your creative process usually look like? Did this project take you out of that routine at all?

MYERS: Typically an idea arrives as a vision, and then it is my work to write that down and draw it out until it becomes a bit clearer. The next step is to make sketches with whatever materials are needed or suited for the work, whether that be photography, sculpture, video, drawing, or something else. Everything is pretty open-ended. Once I get the initial impulse or idea, my only real job is to follow it through to at least some state of recognition and clarity. From there you can make decisions about what to do next, but typically it is most satisfying to think of something, or see something, and then be able to keep seeing it more and more clearly. It changes as you work on it, and that is the exciting part about being in the flux and flow of the process. That is where everything for me exists, and the most powerful state. But the finished state is what you want to present to the world, and that is equally as important to consider. This process can take years sometimes, or an entire lifetime for some projects. 

CNF: How do these illustrations connect to the other work you do in your studio? Would you say your work has a theme?

MYERS: These drawings are great examples of the kind of mark-making I am doing in my studio with ink, chalk pastel, and charcoal. Although I am not drawing from a set text that I have read, I am drawing from my subconsious and letting the stories and narratives present inside me and around me take root and form on the page. Also, a very big interest of mine right now is in trying to create a new language for myself, a new alphabet, through drawing. I am creating a database of symbols and forms that mean something—either a feeling, a phrase, a gesture—that I can keep using in my work as repeated symbols and imagery.

As for a theme, I am an artist at work and alive in a world that is beyond any language we can give to it. Art is some loose and fractured bridge I build and use, which hopefully connects to some of this immensity. We are on the brink of everything, teetering, this exquisite planet in this exquisite galaxy. Everything is at stake, and everything is connected. I consider myself first a feminist, aware that her body is the earth body, and all trauma, violence, and extinction is present there, as well as all reclamation, wisdom, and reincarnation. 

We are on the brink of everything, teetering, this exquisite planet in this exquisite galaxy. Everything is at stake, and everything is connected.

CNF: How would you describe your purpose or calling as an artist? Did illustrating this issue give you a chance to demonstrate this calling?

MYERS: My calling is my lifework, and to do my lifework I must remain alive, awake, present, and engaged for as long as my body and mind can hold on. The real trick is maintaining, or creating, a healthy and sustainable balance for the mind/heart/body/soul in times like these as someone infinitely sensitive, empathetic to all of humanity, and prone to sorrow. I recognize my calling as my gift, and my job is to nurture and allow for the space, time, clarity, and wellbeing that it needs and deserves so that I can be as powerful, empowered, confident, and generous as possible. I believe that artists have voices that can act like megaphones. What we say and do matters. I also believe that we have to think like activists. It is not enough to just make art. We are needed on all fronts and in many ways, and to stay silent in times like these is unacceptable for me.

CNF: What are your hopes for these illustrations, as far as reader reaction?

MYERS: You always hope you connect to at least someone, that there is one person out there who appreciates your work and wants to see more of it, who believes in you. That is plenty right there. Anything and everything else is gravy. Staying humble is a big piece of the puzzle. I also hope that the writers appreciate the drawings, and possibly through my translation are able to see their work in a new way.

About the Author

Shannon Swearingen

Shannon Swearingen is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. While studying creative writing at the University of Evansville, she spent a semester abroad at Harlaxton College near London, England; after graduating, she spent five weeks traveling the United States in a Jeep Liberty.

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