Hadley Nunes

Hawaii, Painter // October 2011
Working on site presents a number of unexpected challenges especially when working in environments with extreme heat, wind or rain but at times those conditions coincide with the opportunity to work and a location that I am inspired by.

This week’s studio visit is something a little different. I just returned from a trip to Hawaii and now Nikki is on a much needed vacation. In light of her absence I am stepping beyond my usual role as photographer and writing this weeks post.

My friend Hadley Nunes and I spent the last two weeks making art in the Hawaiian rainforest and living in a simple, one-room house that my parents built there in the late 1970’s. The early years of my childhood were spent living off the grid (with no electricity or indoor plumbing), in this unique octagonal house surrounded by dense, dripping jungle. As you can imagine, it left a strong impression. When Hadley recently relocated from New York to Honolulu, we thought the moment was ripe to plan our own private art retreat/adventure and make use of this incredible hideaway on the Big Island of Hawaii. Our time there was shaped, more than anything, by the landscape itself; its moods, challenges and creatures. Between hiking through a volcanic crater in a rainstorm, defending our territory from rats and wild boar and watching spiders weave their incredible webs each dusk, we did manage to find time to make art.

Hadley erected a makeshift painting studio on the covered deck of the house. From there, armed with her portable easel she would go on expeditions out into the world and then return and work and rework her paintings until their layered depth matched that of the landscape. We talked about many, many things (in the absence of TV and internet), but when we talked about art it was clear to me what intense integrity Hadley brings to her work. She spoke of the need to be truly present for the making of every single mark in a painting, rather than executing an idea. For her, the process of making a painting is like diving into deep water and then staying beneath the surface, even struggling, for as long as it takes. And in that process unexpected challenges, needs and rewards arise. Hadley is a list-maker and incessant planner, she approaches each task with a great deal of order and preparation which led me to wonder if perhaps this is an antidote to the unpredictability of her creative process. She loves to have a plan, yet she admittedly always plans to diverge from it.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I tell them I am a painter.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
No. Currently making art is my day job. It means being disciplined and connected to what inspires me and stubborn enough to face the impossible and try anyway.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
Oil, acrylic, graphite, plants, people, the elements, small objects for still-life, clothing, and my person. Natural forms and people recur in my work. There is a process of going back and forth between symbol and form before an image is completed. The satisfaction and directness of immediacy and the desire to go deeper than I’ve gone before are often at odds. The idea that nature changes us always comes back to me. I haven’t performed since 2007, but someday in the future I would like to work with performance and direct a piece in nature.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Finding community and feeling ok with being an artist is always a challenge. It can be a solitary existence. Fundamentally I have accepted that I am an artist, but it’s always in question from outside, especially having just moved to a new place and left New York. At times it’s hard to be strong and resist the urge to justify it. In order to deal with that challenge, I evolve repeatedly. The stress and reflection forces me to dig deeper and think differently. I love that about being an artist even though it’s very difficult at times.

The art world is wild. Grasping it is impossible, in that sense it’s limitless and I wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s no formula and there are no gatekeepers, there is no one route.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Having space is essential. I am constantly finding myself through my space. When I have it, it’s in a constant state of flux–touching down to one visual era before another one takes over. Emptiness is key. I often put everything away so that I can experience my self in an empty space in order to know what to do next. Working outdoors is part of my process, so I have developed a portable studio system as well. Currently I have been working on a deck space outdoors as well as in the field on the Big Island where I bring my easel, paints and drawing supplies on site, search for a location to paint, set up and work. Working on site presents a number of unexpected challenges especially when working in environments with extreme heat, wind or rain but at times those conditions coincide with the opportunity to work and a location that I am inspired by. I recently worked in the caldera at the volcano and as soon as I set up a huge wind and rainstorm blew in. Managing the easel and paints was nearly impossible. The result was a painting that lacked the kind of specificity of color and mark that I am interested in, but the experience of the elements and the struggle to create gave me something valuable. Being in such a desolate and unforgiving environment gives me something that I am looking for. That sense of the rawness of nature becomes a part of my experience and therefore feeds back into the work.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
My work is about how I see, but it’s not a story about my life.

I recently finished graduate school and moved to Hawaii after living in New York City for the past ten years. Being able to observe nature directly gives me more information to work and ends up altering my working method as well. For example I have been on the Big Island and spent some time at Kilauea drawing the volcano and the smoke cloud that was constantly flowing upwards and joining the clouds. I worked on a series of quick sketches of the smoke from the volcanic crater as it was constantly changing, I then utilize the drawings back in my studio for making paintings. Smoke is created by millions of moments layering through movement. The paintings I am making from my drawings use multiple drawings in an attempt to achieve the sensation of smoke. Drawing smoke and clouds is something I have never had the inclination to do before, but the astounding hugeness of Kilauea had such an impact on me. It spreads out with an insane sensation of scale and each of the elements are vast and distinct.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Working from the landscape in Hawaii led me to research more about the history and mythology. Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History by William T. Brigham, Kekaha Wai ‘Ole O Na Kona a report on archival and historical documentary research, and oral history Interviews for Kekaha Kai State Park and Na Honokohau – Na Hono I Na Hau ‘Elua (Honokohau – Bays of the Two Wind-Born Dews) have all been useful references.

What are you most proud of?
My family and our ancestors. They were strong, extremely hard-working people.

What do you want your work to do?
Catch someone’s interest at first glance and then be interesting to look at for lifetimes.

What advice has influenced you?
My mom always said, “Find your teachers.”

How will you know when you have arrived?
When the lights go out and the check is in the bank.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I currently have works on view at the Louis-Dreyfus collection in New York. I’m making a new body of work that I would like to show thisyear and I’d love to be in a group show on the West Coast.

To see more of Hadley’s work: