Nancy Simonds’ bright studio occupies a spacious section of a converted warehouse on Albany Street in Boston. She has worked in the building, which she shares with fellow artists, architects, and other creative types, for over 30 years, and moved into her current space when she realized she needed more walls. “When you work on paper you can’t stack things,” she says.
During our virtual interview she gives me a tour that serves as a timeline for her career, beginning with the still-lifes, oils on canvas composed of elements such as flowers, game boards, lemons and drapery, that started it all. “Then I decided I wanted to do something more immediate and accessible and less conventional. " I wanted to do something more reductive and distilled with just shapes and color,” Simonds says. Painting with gouache on paper—the same media used by Henri Matisse—she began to create the abstract “block stack” patterns that have become one of her signatures. Simonds calls the work her Urban Series. “It derives from looking out windows and building things in small increments up into a critical mass of color and shapes that has some peacefulness to it, but also has some pops of color and tension, too,” she says.
Fifteen to twenty years ago, she began another related but quite different series, her ovals. “I started them because I didn’t want to do corners anymore,” Simonds says. “It has to do with stroking the paper and putting the paint on. I wanted to feel the edge of the brush more.” She arranges the ovals in squares or rectangles that recall carefully placed collections of stones, shells, or polished sea glass. “Underneath each shape is a beautiful curve, that’s very relaxed and spontaneous,” says Simonds. “And then I just build the color and the shapes up and they rest comfortably against each other.”
The colors for the ovals are often inspired by seasonal combinations in nature—the pinks and greens of cherry trees in bloom, summer sea blues, or the jewel tones of winter evergreens and berries—while for the block stacks she looks for “side-by-side color experiences.” Simonds samples colors by painting swatches, which she stores in dozens of shallow open boxes. “I had so many I started cutting them up into little bits of shapes that I built into a series I call ‘arc sweeps,’” she says. The narrow, curved shapes resemble feathers, or surfboards, and indeed, some have called this new body of work her “surfboard series.” To Simonds, they are just beautiful shapes.
“It’s great to be able to move from one series to another because they each have their own energy. When I get tired of doing one I can go back to the other,” she says. “But a big piece of all of this is mixing paint and mixing colors … you can make an endless array of colors. It’s so exciting. And then when you put colors side by side they change.”
While Simonds creates her art in Boston, the Maine coast is a primary inspiration, and she is as effusive about her love for the state as she is for Portland Art Gallery. I love having the chance to show my work with such a great group of other artists,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful setting and I feel very fortunate to have a place that’s a great fit for showing my work.”
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