Nancy Lassen is an accomplished contemporary artist and interior designer based in Uptown New Orleans. For many years she ran her own interior design firm off of Metairie Road called Interiors and Extras. Nancy recently made the decision to focus her efforts on her career as an artist, and it’s a decision that is paying off handsomely. Her work is collected in corporate and private collections all over the country.
Contemporary Abstract art can be difficult for an artist to create and difficult for viewers to understand and grasp. Nancy’s paintings are rich with color, but also soft and luscious. She’s inspired by lines and colors that she sees in everyday objects, often overlooked or taken for granted, and she turns them into something abstract and beautiful.
Pamela Reed and I toured Nancy’s two studios Uptown to see how she works and understand her process. Nancy’s life is devoted to her art and she remains constantly inspired.
NCM: How do you come up with subjects to paint?
Nancy: The subject of the first show that I did on my own was trains. I was working on Metairie Road for thirty years and I got stopped by the train all of the time. So I started taking pictures of them and I got totally blown away, fascinated. I was fascinated by the lines, the wheels, the tracks. I was fascinated by the colors of the cars against the different skies. It turned out that one of my former Assistants ended up working for Stacey Serro, who was in charge of purchasing art at one of the hospitals, and Stacey was interested in doing a show on transportation. She bought four or five of my train paintings and a few other things – Eighteen pieces sold that time. Then the hospital called and said, “You know, we would really like to put them in our patient rooms. Do you think you could make thirty?”
I said, ” I can make forty!”
NCM: Do you ever “overwork” a piece? How do you know when to quit?
Nancy: I paint with a lot of other people, and fortunately we will tell each other our honest opinions about how our pieces are progressing. My friend Rhenda Saporito has the “Rhenda Rule”, that you have to stop for two weeks. Think about it for two weeks and then decide what to do with it. And it works! Sometimes you just put it aside and say, “Oh my God! That’s awful!” Or other times, “Thank God I stopped. It looks great!” But in two weeks you will know if you are supposed to go back.
NCM: You incorporate magazine cut outs and different mediums, papers, and colors into your work They’re amazing!
Nancy: I can’t throw anything away. I drive myself nuts. If you’re an artist, you look at everything with the idea of, “What can I do with these? It’s cool!” When I get gifts, I’m more excited about the tissue paper. I will never use all of the paper that I collect.
I just went to this exhibit in San Francisco called “Fog”. It was fabulous! Down on the wharf there was this place called Flax that had great papers. If I paint 24/7 for the rest of my life, I will still not be able to use all of my paper!
NCM: Do you think that there’s an addiction to the tactile feel of the paper?
Nancy: Yes, most definitely.
NCM: If you had to give up one studio, which one would you give up? The home studio or the studio on Soniat?
Nancy: The home studio. The other studio on Soniat is very special. It is on a corner and I can drive my van right up to the curb. I can unload and reload easily. The light in the Soniat studio is very good.
NCM: Do you take many commissions?
Nancy: I have always liked commissions, except that now that I am painting more, I’ve noticed that it gets me out of my rhythm. If it is not a commission that’s in your current field of vision, then it messes with your rhythm and it’s hard to get back.
NCM: My experience with abstract work is that it’s always harder than it seems. Often, people can be heard commenting of abstract art: “Oh! I could do that! Anybody can do that!” That’s not true, is it?
Nancy: It’s funny because (at the Academy), they didn’t really think very highly of contemporary either. It’s a very traditional teaching school. And I won the Director’s Award this year, which is great!
I got into Nell Tilton’s class in 2004. I’ve never given up my spot because there are too many friends in there now painting. We’re super close. We do trips together. Now Zona Wainwright is teaching beginning Contemporary. Up until now they were lumping beginning painters with people who were painting for years, which was so unfair.
NCM: Studying art is not like work for an inspired artist, is it? It takes over.
Nancy: The more you know, the more that you want to know. For example, if you look at that wall over there, I probably have $5,000 worth of paint right there. My teacher sent us a fresh list of supplies (which she hasn’t sent in a long time) and I realized that there were about five out of a list of twelve that I did not have. Basics! I had gotten so far away from those basics. It was life changing! I was so glad that she sent that list because I can go to a workshop in California or wherever and just take this, instead of taking all of the other stuff.
I went to a workshop in Maine. I used a lot of texture in my paintings. A lot of hard molding paste and glazes on my canvas. And I was complaining that I couldn’t get the texture because I didn’t have the right stuff. And the guy teaching the class said, “Just get a glob of paint and get it on there!”
We had these big jars of paint for the class. So I made it work. And that was the point of the workshop. Try something new.
NCM: What made you decide to be a professional artist as opposed to just having art as a hobby?
Nancy: This year, I hope that I can support myself strictly with painting. My degree was in painting and I’ve started to paint much more, even though I’ve also always loved interior design.
I went into interior design, had a child, and a store. I was all consumed with that life for years. And then when my daughter went to college, I went back to classes at the Academy and just started painting, painting, painting!
I want to really focus on painting. I read a lot of blogs on different artists, and they all say that when you think you are ready to go to the next step, go. Just jump!
I’ve been very dependent on Interior Design and it’s paid my bills. And I’ve loved it. I’ve loved meeting people. I was afraid for a long time that it would be isolating to paint. I did try it right out of college. I was in a studio by myself and it was lonely. No one tells you in school that being an artist can be such a lonely deal.
Now painting is not lonely at all. I think I am also older and more mature and ready to be in a studio all day by myself. I could be very content, but I have so many friends that I’ve met through art to keep it from being a lonely profession. I’m turning 65 this year so I can slow down the pace and I’m hoping that this will be my final career, and I can paint all day every day.
NCM: Have you always been an abstract painter or have you tried other genres?
Nancy: Pretty much. When I was a little girl and wanted to please my dad, my biggest fan, we would go on River Road and he loved to take pictures of shacks and buildings that were falling down. I would paint those.
He was a Pediatrician and I decorated his office. I picked the paint colors and the carpet. The whole nine yards. I even framed everything myself. So I guess I started painting barns when I was in college. But the minute that I picked up a brush after college it was contemporary.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most? Do you have any artistic heroes?
Nancy: Krista Harris, who lives and teaches out in Durango. It was a really cool experience to see where she paints. She lives on a gorgeous piece of land on top of a hill, and the vistas are gorgeous. She did a gallery talk in Telluride, CO at her workshop.
I stayed with Krista in Durango. She gets inspiration walking to her studio every day. For example, she’ll see a deer or perhaps a bush without leaves. What she sees on that short walk determines what she will create that day. That’s her inspiration.
One series that Krista did was on wind. She researched wind and cyclones. You see it in her work. She’s phenomenal.
I also have learned a lot from Steve Aimone. He has a website called Pink Dog Art Group. I probably have 300 to 400 artists friends online who follow the Pink Dog Art Group.
There is also an artist named Madeline Denaro whose work I love. Her colors are beautiful. Also a lot of the girls in my painting group inspire me all of the time. We are all totally different. It’s so fascinating to me that we can get an assignment in class and our creative output is so completely different.
NCM: How many people do you normally work with at one time?
Nancy: About twelve. I think that there are twelve in the class. The morning group is the group that’s been there forever. We all show up.
NCM: When did you first try painting with acrylics? Have you always painted with acrylic paint?
Nancy: I used oils in college, but I hate cleaning up oil paints. I hate the fumes. I don’t like the clean-up. I do love the fact that you can work oil paint forever.
NCM: What do you wish that you knew about being a professional artist before you got started?
Nancy: I guess I wish I had known sooner the wonderful people I would meet and the fun I would have. I wish I had known some of the colleagues and friends sooner. I had to seek out those relationships. When I was in the design world, I had a lot of clients, but they were clients and not friends. My artist friends are soul mates.
NCM: How do you handle negative criticism?
Nancy: I am fine with it. I don’t take it personally. Everybody has different taste. For example, I’ve had art teachers whose art I didn’t necessarily like. I prefer more contemporary art. And not everyone else does.
Trestle in the Light of Day
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art?
Nancy: I usually start by the square foot. But that price per square foot is going up, because now I see how hard it is to produce the ones that I really want to get out there. If I try to sell my best work, I want to charge more it. I started out at $200 a square foot and I am inching up. If I feel like there is one that is really spectacular, then it is more. If someone really loves a piece, then they’re willing to pay for it.
You can see more of Nancy’s work at her upcoming show “Trestles” at Degas Gallery. The opening reception is April 7, 2018 from 5 to 8 p.m. The show will continue until May 4, 2018.
Nancy also has a website at www.nancyhirschlassenartist.com detailing her portfolio and current pieces available for sale.