MEET OUR ARTIST IN RESIDENCE:
By: Sunny Lee
Nate began his working career as a critical care registered nurse, he received a BS in nursing in 2008 and has since worked in a medical- surgical intensive care unit, a stroke unit, and spent most of his time in a neuroscience-surgical intensive care unit. He has been working as a critical care registered nurse for six years. He began pursuing the arts in 2008, first it was music, violin. He then started pursuing the visual arts in 2010. A self taught artist, drawing inspiration from anatomy, physiology, disease processes and his nursing experience as a care taker of patients and their family members he creates stunning, intricate 2-3d sculptures out of single sheets of paper that visually combines the aesthetics of drawing, sculpture, etching, embroidery, and textiles. His approach to his work is often instinctive and free while at the same time surgically precise. Lewis’s work pushes the idea of freedom within boundaries, and seeks to confront perceptions of vulnerability, tragedy, and time.
It’s funny how art can draw you in and find itself in the most unexpected places, nonetheless the E.R. As a registered critical-care nurse since 2008, Nate Lewis somehow managed to find the time to create his own works, from a background uniquely his own. Thus, Art on the Vine presents the new artist-in-residence, the first of his class to be inducted into the program. And like all novel things, Lewis trajectory is the perfect metaphor for Art on the Vine’s exciting program. Around 2010, in search of an outlet from intense environments like the ICU, Lewis initially began to sketch paper, and subsequently used that very medium to create paper sculptures with surgical precision. Whether figurative or abstract, it’s not hard to discern symmetrical patterns and ruptures drawn from a biological standpoint, especially when it comes to the human body. Keenly attuned to physiological contour lines, Lewis gracefully accentuates parts of the body through textural play so natural, it seems but a mere extension of the subject.
The exactitude of his signature cuts and intricate overlays are astonishing—made all the more surprising by the fact that he is fully self-taught. Neither did he grow up around art, nor did he decide to pick up the pen, figuratively speaking, till less than ten years ago during his first foray into the visual arts. But then again, he’s in no rush. With a monk-like dedication to balance, Lewis seeks to build upon his works, specifically the methodical repetition underlying his art. With an emphasis on authenticity and sympathy, Art on the Vine is extremely honored to house him as the first artist-in-residence and provide him with a platform to diversify the definition of future candidates. Continue on to glean some insights from Lewis, namely a coming-to-conviction, a crucial turning point, and why taking your time is important.
AOTV: You have a show coming up, yes?
NATE: April 7th. It’s gonna be in D.C. at Modern Fine Art. It’ll be my second solo show, so I’m excited. It will be a lot different than the first one.
AOTV: In what way?
NATE: I mean the work, it’s just a lot more mature, you know? I guess within a year I’ve matured my style a lot—it’s a lot more relaxing. I was a mess getting ready for the first one, because I was just really starting the technique in terms of using the figurative, but now it’s like, “Oh, okay.” Last year was like 12-hour days every day, for two, three, months. Oh, my God—but, it’s good, just relaxing now.
AOTV: And do you have any of the non-figure available?
NATE: I do actually, I have some big ones. Oh, like you’re talking about the white pieces? Yeah, we’re unpacking that. I guess the idea is to incorporate this flow into the figurative pieces.
AOTV: So typically how long do they take for you to finish?
NATE: I don’t even know; I really don’t. I work on it, I’ll go back to it and come back to it. It’s a back-and-forth thing.
I have some interesting pieces I started playing with from these news clips. This was when I had the show as a response to the madness in the elections. I got these images, and did the same image three different times in different ways just to show that there are different ways of almost looking at it. But I’m not gonna do any of these for the show because I don’t want to just be responsive to everything that’s going on.
This is actually a record cover for a friend of mine. It’s a band in D.C. called Paperhaus. I’ve done the past three album covers and it’s cool because every time I do something with them, I get out of my comfort zone and do something different. This was the first image that I worked on that I took from Life. It’s just a whole new world and a whole new direction. I don’t want to dive into this quite yet because I like moving slow. I find out so much more when working with the figurative technique just because it’s more detailed in a way where I’m playing with individual depth; there’s so much to build on things with the figure.
AOTV: Feels more charged.
NATE: Yeah, but this is fun, though. This will get where I want it to be but just not quite yet. Can’t jump too fast.
NATE: It’s like, “Oh yeah, let me move onto something new.” It’s more like “Nah, slow down.”
AOTV: There’s time.
NATE: It’s fun just because I really like it a lot. This image was taken with a zoom lens so the hand was in focus and the face ended up being blurry—which I really loved. I really wanted the softness of the face.
And I just did another one here but I left the hand in focus. I didn’t know it added this other texture with the hand in focus. I just like playing with similar images and building upon them. It’s about perspective. I guess when I’m looking at these images and I’m looking at the show—because I haven’t written the artist statement or anything—it’s in terms of using a filter. It’s the filter that I see things through and I see textures on people and in seeing these textures upon people, I see it as the different tensions on people. The different tensions in many areas and trying to be empathetic to that.
AOTV: How do you select your subjects?
NATE: It’s usually just people I know. That’s just where I am now.
AOTV: Because more of the focus is on the technique and the process?
NATE: It is, it definitely is. That’s what it is now. I will get to a point where it’s the specific context of people. I want to use my boxing trainer because he has an interesting story. Having the story, this specific, direct story with a certain person or a certain group of people in context, is great. That’s the ultimate: to have a strong narrative with a certain group of people—or a person—and then really be able to tell that story with these textures. That’s what I want to do.
AOTV: That’s super interesting especially because the mission of Art on the Vine is to bring these diverse voices to a space that’s traditionally not very diverse at all. What are your thoughts on the idea of creating this narrative for a specific group of people? Also, as the first artist-in-residence, you will essentially be setting the tone. Going into it, do you have any sort of goals in mind—even expanding upon this narrative? What do you seek to experience from this artist residency?
NATE: I’m not exactly sure yet. I have to figure it out. I wish I could pack things into my head and be like “All right, I know what I’m gonna do for everything.” But I’m like “No, I don’t at all.” I’m not quite sure yet. It’s a balance of thinking about these things that you want to do and taking the time to make pieces, working on longer and more complex pieces on top of, “Oh, my gosh, I have these shows coming up.” So it’s this balance.
As much as I think about things like “Oh, let me try to do something really specific for this Art on the Vine,” it’s like “No, don’t do that to yourself. Just continue building upon what you’re doing. It’s too new to just put these constrictions on myself to meet this need. That’s not the artist I am now.
AOTV: And maybe the needs will arise from being authentic to your practice.
NATE: You’re totally right. I love that too because that’s kind of what I continue to do: be authentic to myself even though I’ve been discouraged through certain institutions and groups of people.
AOTV: How do you feel like you’ve been discouraged?
NATE: I guess there’ve been instances where if you’re not going for this straight and narrow or some direct narrative, then it’s like, “What are you doing?” So yeah, I think you can be discouraged in that way but at the same time, there needs to be balance because some people want that and some people don’t.
AOTV: You have to be political when it’s not necessarily what you’re trying to do.
NATE: Yeah, and I mean, that’s very important and speaks to important issues, but I guess every artist has their role. But that doesn’t have to be the root of where my work comes from. I know where the seed of it came from: It comes from a point of love, empathy, and care. That’s where it comes from.
AOTV: I’m wondering what type of person you would like to collect your work? What do you expect from the collectors who take your pieces home other than just paying for it?
NATE: I always have the most connection with someone who can see it and tell me what it’s about. That’s always a blessing. You’re like “Okay, wow, I’m communicating these things.”
AOTV: That’s awesome. You had mentioned earlier about how your work is grounded in love and empathy. Can you talk about how you being a nurse informed your practice?
NATE: Yeah, I started working in nursing at 25. I was in the ICU at the time working with electrocardiogram, which are the rhythms that come out of the computer connected to the patient’s bedside when the heart rate is high, low, or irregular.
I cared for my patients, I cared for my family members, but there was a space that I needed to close in on that was basically the intimacy and empathy with these families and patients. It’ll make you a stronger person, and you’ll see the most beautiful things by caring and loving for people. Then it’ll be real. Through that, I was using these rhythms just because this was everything—taking care of these people and dedicating myself to this.
So after using these rhythms that weren’t archival, I made some pieces. They were cool but they weren’t what I wanted while using people’s heart rhythms. So long story short, I scanned the rhythms into the computer before I made art with them, printed them out big and then started making pieces with that. That was my introduction with playing with paper. And it was just like “Oh, my gosh.” It was this huge breakthrough.
The white pieces that I started doing were about freedom and boundaries and vulnerability and love. I was just exploring the paper like a piece of anatomy, thinking about the paper like this organism. It’s like the repetition that I had intentionally to love and care for these people, and it’s really working. It’s made me feel more human than ever.
AOTV: Would you say that was a turning point for you? I know artists, they have this feeling of knowing. Was this the first time in your life you had that urge to get it out and put it into form? Or was there something before that?
NATE: No, there were things before that, but when I had a breakthrough with paper, it started opening up to me. It’s weird. I guess you can say it filled this void.
It literally was this breakthrough, and it was like you’re able to visually express how you feel, how you think about things, how you want to care for people, and what you want to embody—you’re able to express it visually. So then it was like “This is it.” I knew it. It’s weird. As soon as I did a few cuts of the specific technique, I started jumping up and down. It’s crazy.
AOTV: It’s like that spiritual calling when people almost feel like they’ve been called into the ministry.
AOTV: It’s like that spiritual calling when people almost feel like they’ve been called into the ministry.
NATE: Yeah, I was so convicted. I just worked on these pieces like a madman.
AOTV: You showed last year in Art on the Vine, in Edgartown, a very older colonial-esque structure where you talked about access to spaces that people of color don’t necessarily have access, how did it feel showing your work in a place like that?
NATE: It was definitely beautiful. It was such a beautiful space, and with all the other artists that got in it, it’s an honor to be able to show in there. I never thought anybody would take in my work in a place like this, so it’s kind of like you never think you’ll be able to gain access to a place that can give you that platform.
CONVERSATIONS WITH COLLECTORS:
RISA & ROBERT KORNEGAY
By: Sunny Lee
You may or may not have seen Hale Woodruff’s heroic murals and paintings—only a year before his death was he given his first and last retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Under the tutelage of Diego Rivera, he quickly made the shift to mural painting, among which include the Amistad uprising, his best-known piece—and it would appear his only piece when conducting a cursory Google search on Woodruff. Though, thank goodness for new collectors Risa and Robert Kornegay: They’re about to change that.
The Kornegay’s are living every collector’s dream—stumble on some pieces you find in a relative’s residence only to find you’ve hit a boon. But for Risa, this was no happenstance event. Growing up, she frequently visited her uncle in Brooklyn whose colorful interiors and baby grand would entice her. Beautiful paintings of Blackness also peppered the wall, so when her mother inherited these pieces, neither of them thought much of it. That is, until they got them appraised only to discover that these pieces were Woodruff originals—and of great value.
Its been a topsy-turvy journey, and a crash course in collecting, but Risa and now her husband Robert have taken it upon themselves to catalogue these pieces and get them out in the public. Realizing the importance of visibility, they’re keen on showing these so people understand the rather unarticulated influence Woodruff has had on African American art. Catalyzed by their “new” works, the Kornegays are also excited to expand on the legacy of Woodruff to include more artworks reflective of themselves. Risa and Robert are expanding the conventional notions of “art collector,” all the while being grounded and mindful of what it means to acquire any piece—be it an original Woodruff or a hidden gem at a thrift store. Read on to hear The Kornegays relay the details leading up to the Woodruff discovery with AOTV, and see what pieces they’re respectively drawn into whilst still maneuvering the art world with grace and confidence.
AOTV: Growing up, how did you find art? Was it something that was hung on the walls in your house? How was your family engaged with art and how did you start collecting?
Risa: Well, these pieces originally belonged to my uncle Thomas Shepard and his wife Burnette. They were always in his home, so when we would visit, they were pieces that were just there. We didn’t know the significance of them and we didn’t know who was responsible for them. They were just something you expected.
He lived in Brooklyn, and one thing I remember growing up is he had a baby grand piano—which I thought was the coolest thing ever. He always had it out of the wall, and his walls were painted colors. You know, you go in a lot of homes and it’s very white, but there was always a lot of color. He and my mother were very close, and he and I were very close, so once he was getting older he gifted these to my mother, and so they were always in my house as I was older.
Again, not really realizing what we had, we kind of stumbled into being collectors. How they wound up here is that we brought them here to be appraised. Once my mom and I researched more and really realized the value of what we had, we knew it was important once we realized who the artist was. But in getting them appraised, we realized what
We’re just really thankful that they’re here, and you know, able to be shared more here just because I’m closer to Washington D.C. They’ve just been in a random two-story house in New Jersey all this time and nobody’s known. But that’s kind of how we got into collecting and appreciating art. My mother was telling me a story yesterday. She said she wished she’d found the email she had written to Christie’s years ago before we had it appraised and was just inquiring. She’s very into genealogy and things like that and research. And so she called Christie’s just to see what value they would place on it, and their response was “Well, we only deal in artwork that’s worth a certain value” It was a very thanks, no thanks. I wish we still had that letter.
AOTV: And I think you brought up some great points about custodianship and understanding what we have a lot of times. We don’t even realize what we have hanging in our homes or up in Grandmom’s attic and it’s not until sometimes outside communities place value that we realize the value that we already have.
Risa: And we knew when we got the letter, it was like “Okay, you just don’t know.” We didn’t really hang anything on that, because we knew what we had was important because at that point my uncle had passed, and that’s when we discovered more of these pieces when we were going through his home. So it really gave it a lot more context into the relationship that he had with Hale Woodruff, that they were friends.
There’s a book that my mother has, and it’s about black New York or black Brooklyn or whatever, and my Uncle and Aunt Burnette are a featured couple, and you know, it’s a black and white picture and they’re pouring tea, it’s a cool book, but Hale Woodruff and his wife are a few pages away. We discover more as time passes, we just get more and more of the story.
It’s definitely an honor to have this kind of secret in a way; it feels like the best-kept secret that I get to enjoy every day, but we’ve always had the intention of sharing them because they are important. The different types of works show different phases of his life from different eras. From the 1940’s to the 1970’s. So they show different eras of his life. We don’t have one concept, which I think is special too.
AOTV: It’s interesting because we spoke with another couple in South Orange who collects as well, and they mentioned some things that I wanted to get your perspective on. What are your thoughts on the importance of collecting as a means of passing on this sort of oral or visual history to generations in your family that will come after you, and how much you keep that in mind when you’re collecting? I’m also curious to know if your collecting tastes are similar. And if they are not, what dialogue do you have when you think about making a purchase or putting something up on the wall?
Risa: One thing I think about with anything that I put in my home—and this was advice that I got from the first appraiser. She was like, “Make sure you get something that you like looking at. You can treat it as an investment, but it’s got to be something that speaks to you because it’s something that’s going to be a part of your life.” So I apply that to everything. Yes, there’s a monetary value associated with it, and sometimes there’s not—I just have to like it.
I have another hanging in my bedroom; it’s a drawing of a black tennis player that was in my grandmother’s basement. We had it framed. There’s remnants of a blue ribbon on it from Howard University, where I went law school, so I have that little tie. I don’t know who drew it, I don’t know the significance of it, but it showed me an era you wouldn’t associate with African Americans playing tennis.
AOTV: From either one of your perspectives, what impact it had growing up and seeing these beautiful images of black people. I know you talk about seeing the black tennis player, but are there other things where you were sort of like “Hmm… black people exist, and we’re beautiful, and we’re powerful.” I know growing up, everything pretty much on the walls was black. And I remember growing up with this idea of not being the exception. It was just the standard to be excellent; that we were present in all things. Can you reflect on that at all, and what kind of impact that made because you grew up with these pieces.
Robert: Well, I didn’t grow up in a household where there was a lot of art present. I guess the art that I experienced was music. My father is a musician, he’s played the saxophone for over forty years, and I would see photos of saxophonists or whatever. But a lot of my art was the covers you know, for records, and also just that kind of expression. But me, I’m a creative person, and coming from that type of environment or perspective, as far as what I like, I tend to gravitate toward certain colors, or stuff that gives me a certain feel.
When I started getting into art, when I started going to museums, impressionist painting really was something that I really grabbed onto. You know, looking at Monet and the diffusion of light and those types of pieces. So when I got out of college, I brought some reproductions of those and I put them in my home. I really like landscapes and I really am intrigued by how a painter is able to convey light. That is something that I wish I had more of growing up, and if I did have children, that would be something that is important. Not only to be aware culturally from a world perspective, but, your own cultural perspective—instilling a sense of pride through these wonderful works we have by these artists that are still coming to light.
Risa: For me, I didn’t think about it, so it became normal. So that’s powerful.
AOTV: You mentioned earlier that what you enjoy is how every time someone sees an artwork, they see something different in it. As a collector, is that a part of what interests you? The interaction that other people have with it? Do you have your own relationship with it?
Risa: Usually things just jump out at me and make me feel a certain way. With these pieces, growing up with them, I’ve always been attracted to this piece called The Red Bird, but I always like the human figure. That’s what drew me because she seems like a regal black woman with a bird on her hand. It’s really not about the bird, it’s about the person.
Robert: Well, as far as your interpretation of a piece, I’m going to play off of enjoyment. I enjoy being able to take my perspective and then get someone else’s perspective, and then another from a different group of people and the discussion that can arise from there—just the confluence of ideas. That’s what art is supposed to do, it’s supposed to evoke all of that, and that’s the fun of it really.
A piece of art can have a dialogue, and it’s a dialogue, background dialogue, the history of it, and the storylines that unfold. I’m a writer as well, so when I want to write a screenplay, or write dialogues, it’s not “How is this talking to me” or “How is my character interacting with other folks here,” so it’s the same thing. I love it.
AOTV: You all seem like very confident, smart people who would be able to navigate your way through most places, but the art world can be such an intimidating space. For someone who’s not new to Christie’s and Sotheby’s or a Hale Woodruff or Mickalene Thomas, what kind of advice do you have to offer? For someone new to collecting, how can you help people not be afraid to be in these spaces?
Risa: Well, one of the things that Robert and I have in common is our love of music. I sang in a choir and I grew up playing instruments. He’s a DJ and he grew up around music. So when I’m with Robert, I tend to notice things that are more musically inclined, like someone playing an instrument, or cover art on an album cover, or things that speak to cultures like hip-hop culture. I tend to notice those things more, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something we purchased together had that connection, because that’s our connection.
I came into this because these were given to me, but as we build together, I could totally see it building on things that we have in common—and maybe putting up some more of my own work. He encourages me to do that.
Robert: Well, you were also talking about coming together and maybe our world being an intimidating place. So I had no idea the history of these. You know, when she relayed the information of how much that one’s worth, I was like “What?”
I would say my advice would just be take it at your own pace, and enjoy the process. Some people want to focus on this aspect or this aspect. It’s not something to be done in a certain order or regimen—just don’t be intimidated. Art comes in so many different fashions and forms like your Hale Woodruff or your artist from around the corner that could be the next Hale Woodruff… It’s all relative.
ABOUT THE ORGANIZERS
THE AGORA CULTURE IS AN ONLINE MULTI-CULTURAL ARTS PLATFORM THAT CONNECTS NEW AND ESTABLISHED ART COLLECTORS WITH CONTEMPORARY VISUAL ARTISTS. ESTABLISHED IN 2013, WE FOCUS ON PRODUCING EXHIBITIONS, ART DINNERS, SALONS AND EDUCATIONAL WORKSHOPS FOR SEASONED AND NEW ART COLLECTORS.