All my life, I have looked at visual art reproduced in books and exhibited in museums, and I acknowledge that my work quite naturally reflects this exposure. At the same time, I appreciate the fact that, except for taking two courses in photography in the early 1970s, I have not been schooled in art.
I stepped into the visual arts as a black/white documentary photographer with a penchant for photographing people. I have published and exhibited my images. But in 1988, when I was 44, my desire to turn the lens inward superseded my urge to focus on others. When I heard about a Jungian art therapist, I leapt at the opportunity to paint with her. Content overshadowed artistic convention—hence the outsider, psychological quality of my early work. Later, when I turned to process painting—painting spontaneously without analysis or judgment—my approach continued to be introspective.
At first, I worked in tempera, sometimes embellished with India ink and/or pastel. Later, I used oil pastel and, more recently, I have been drawn to monotype printmaking. Bold dynamic lines and stunningly vibrant colors have always been my trademark, but my newer work draws from nature and is more lyrical.
Although I have painted a range of subjects in different media over time, I have continued to work outside the bounds of tradition. By rejecting artistic conventions and criticism I access—and stand in awe of—the mysterious and fathomless place where intuition and imagination abide—the wellspring of creativity.
To eliminate the possibility that descriptive titles would bias the viewer’s response to my images, I identify each one by number only. I invite all viewers to approach my paintings in the same spirit that I have created them—with openness and curiosity.
VIDEO: Response to Open Press Solo Exhibition
I was born in 1944 and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1968, with a bachelor’s degree from Wells College and a masters degree in teaching from Johns Hopkins, I began teaching biology. Later, I designed and taught a course in cultural anthropology. The shift in focus foretold my passion for story—both others’ and my own. To enrich the anthropology class for my students, I recorded an interview with an African-American woman raised on the farm her father owned in Alabama. That interview led to my first book, the oral historyYou May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks (Norton, 1986). The black/white photographs of Alabama mule farming in the 1970s that I made in conjunction with the narrative were exhibited at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, the Mather Gallery of Case Western Reserve University, and galleries at Bowling Green State University, Buffalo State College, Colorado State University, Purdue University, and Wells College.
In 1982, the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust awarded me a grant for documentary work in a Greek village because I had expressed “bravery” and “venturesomeness” when I turned from biology to anthropology and oral history. I sojourned in Elika for two years, where I immersed myself in daily life, photographed villagers, and recorded their stories. Eventually, I published Dancing Girl: Themes and Improvisations in a Greek Village Setting (Fundamental Note, 1991), a blend of villagers’ stories and my own—accompanied by photographs. I also purchased a roofless village house that I restored by hand, (and I became an independent travel guide in Greece).
My recent book, Dances in Two Worlds: A Writer-Artist’s Backstory (Fundamental Note, 2011), was funded in part by a grant from the John Anson Kittredge Educational Fund (2007) and won the Colorado Book Award 2012 in creative nonfiction. This book describes both in words and visual images the experiences that have shaped my life as a photographer, writer, painter, and stonemason. Open Press in Denver, Colorado, celebrated the publication of Dances in Two Worlds with a solo exhibit of works on paper created between 1988 and 2011—the first time my paintings and monotype prints have been shown.
I live alternately between Denver, Colorado and Elika, Greece.
—Thordis Niela Simonsen