Nina Rossi: Art Worker by Laurie Wheeler
Artist Nina Rossi is the real deal. Meeting with Rossi in her Turners Falls home, shared with husband (and musician) Caleb Wetherbee, and in which Rossi has spent half of her life, is like tumbling into an action-packed Alice-in-Wonderland dream of personal and intense homages to family, self, and the human condition. Rossi’s gritty life path and deep observations, which could be the stories of many people, are filtered through her rich and imaginative inner life, translating into art that is powerful, accessible and terrifically unique.
Texturing even her main living spaces, Rossi’s art is multi-media and multi-dimensional paintings, clay, fabric, molded mice sculptures, “junk sculpture” and, a newer foray for Rossi, her music. In her living room is a sexy, powerful-looking electric bass guitar. Rossi explains that she saw one in a guitar show and just knew it had to be hers.
Moving through to her two studio spaces (a construction room and a sewing room) the visitor encounters a maelstrom of materials, adhesive and molding compounds, and power tools. What you see is perhaps not what you were expecting, if you’re thinking traditional, “safe” art work. “I do what is necessary for me. I’m not interested in the pretty thing. Eventually, though, the pieces sell.”
Rossi’s materials include, but are definitely not limited to metal, wax, resin, clay, wood, fabric, “found materials”, and a glorious tangle of industrial bits and pieces. “Things find me. I find things.” She frequents the Turners Falls shop Loot, and watches for odd pieces as she moves through the world. One of the quirkiest of her recent finds is a cast iron baby’s arm that appears to have once been attached to a larger object.
Rossi has been a member of the Shelburne Artist’s Cooperative since 1997. She continues to exhibit her highly-textured mixed media wall paintings; dolls made of old bottle caps, cogs, old condiment tins, faux jewels; tiny, happy slugs; mirrors painted and out of found objects.
Rossi is the owner of Nina’s Nook & Nina Studio described by the artist as an “itsy bitsy” gallery, featuring her work and other selected artists. The gallery, located at 125A Avenue A, offers funky sculptures, 2-D wall art, jewelry, her well-known slugs and “pocket wheels” which are handbags made from recycled Eddie’s Wheels dog cart wheels, and so much more. Go visit!
The space is an example of Rossi’s “making do with what you have” ethic, where she has created an inviting, non-pretentious art gallery out of what was the a bottle depository for the former candy store, Equi’s. The space, a tiny “hole in the wall”, was dark and hard-used. Rossi restored it, creating a welcoming, well-lit space with intriguing art work filling its walls, as well as the 20-foot alleyway she rescued from neglect, in back of the gallery.
Born in Chicago, where Rossi lived until she was 7 years old before moving to Baltimore, in both places she went to Saturday morning art lessons. Her parents, both sociologists: her father doing survey design and evaluation, and her mother a founder of the National Organization of Women and specializing in family, sexuality, gender and feminism. “My work” says Rossi, “has that kind of sociological vision. This is where my perspective comes from.”
Early on Rossi was drawn to sculpting, and cartooning. And, she explains, “public school was not kind to my rebellious, artistic creativity. I was a cartoonist early on. It was bawdy, humorous always.” She visited the principal’s office more than once because of her cartoons.
“Withdrawn, an outcast, I was always doing art”, said Rossi, who would create dolls and dollhouses, “making miniature worlds come to life. I cobbed and hacked my way through. It was a mental health thing, really.”
Her parents moved them to Amherst when they took positions at UMass. At 15 she began drinking. “I was not used to the college town culture I was dropped into in Amherst. It was a rich, privileged culture. Alcohol was a link to the rest of the world, a path to communication.” At 16 she got her own apartment “where it was all about the drinking diet”. Within a short time she moved to Provincetown during “the last gasp of the fishing industry”, where she ran the winch in a fishing wharf, a male-dominated place. “It was a sucky, sucky job. It was a really hard environment”.
Said Rossi, “I was used to risky behavior. I moved in with a guy, an abusive Vietnam Vet, and became his ‘old lady’ at 17.” At 19 Rossi tried to leave the relationship, but through a series of circumstances was unable to leave. “At 26, I was able to escape.” Rossi returned home, where she got her Class 2 License, and then, a job at Pelham Auto Workers Cooperative where she managed the auto parts store. “It was a family, a good place to be. There was love, appreciation in what was again a male environment. It appealed to that rebellious, contrary issue of mine”.
It was there that she met her first husband, and, in 1987 she bought her house in the former industrial town of Turner Falls, located halfway up the hill, At this time it gives her both quiet space in which to create, and a connection to the lively and downtown Turners Falls community.
During this time Rossi had two sons, and with the help of her parents, took night classes at Greenfield Community College with the initial goal of becoming a reference librarian. “It’s the search for information in both.” She segued into the Art Program and received her AS in Studio Art. She followed this up by being accepted into the Ada Comstock Program at Smith College and receiving her BA there. Studying mostly history, science and creative writing she won awards in several prestigious poetry contests. Unable initially to find a job after graduating, Rossi for a year ran a brown bag lunch service out of her kitchen, for private school students (they called her “The Lunch Fairy”).
Subsequently Rossi worked as Production Manager, Fabricator and Inventory Manager at Eddie’s Pet Wheels; she wrote the Arts Column for The Recorder; and freelances as a graphic designer as well as creating her art and creating the ever-changing Nina’s Nook.
Artist, writer, poet, cartoonist, “closet sociologist”, Rossi is a Renaissance woman with an upbringing and tough life decisions that have created her choices of vocation and avocation. Fearless and wildly inquisitive and creative, Rossi peers into the human psyche, including her own, mining the gritty truth of what it is to be human. The result? Art that isn’t afraid. Art that may be provocative, powerful, sad, whimsical, risky, or fun. And without fail, interesting.
I live here in Turners Falls, Mass, snug in the armpit of the Connecticut River as it turns back on itself after the Great Falls. Turners is a would-be Industrial Age wonder turned delightfully deferred, down at the heels hip town. Housing, rather than business, dominates the downtown due to conversion of many building to subsidized housing during the 1980s. This has kept the old brick heart of the village beating. Recent improvements to the town have raised the quality of life with a canal side bike path, rehabilitated buildings, park ampitheater, and various public art projects dotting the streets and paths. The streetscapes and people of Turners have inspired my artwork for decades
My favorite items right now are my Slimy Sam and Slippery Sally slugs. I've been making small clay slugs for about 15 years and they are my best selling item always. So I thought huggable fuzzy stuffies would bring the creatures into the arms of babes and seed a new generation of slug lovers who might enjoy the "spineless circus". They amuse me so much. I love putting out my basket of Sams and Sallies outside my little shop in Turners because I know it makes people smile as they go by and it is a child magnet.
The slug thing started as sort of a contrary joke for a "Garden Art" exhibit. Rebelling against the reign of jewel like watercolor flowers in still life, I decided to invade the exhibit with slugs. There is something of the fourth-grader-willing-to-eat-bugs-for-attention about me. I'm not above being rather gross in the service of being different. But they really weren't gross, they were cute, and I sold out two batches of them before the show was over! And so I continued to make and sell at various locations and I have kept the price under $5. I tried gluing them to fabric leaves in order to raise the price to $8 but they just didn't sell that way. I also tried to get Agway to sell them but they had no sense of humor about slugs there ("we sell stuff to kill those, etc")
Like many artists I am motivated to make things and excited about the process of creating...and not so great about marketing, promotions, etc. Since I have a "bread and butter" job making wheelchairs for pets at Eddies Wheels, I am more committed to keeping it interesting for myself than driving myself crazy in the promotional arena. Like sunlight hitting a slug, I shirk from the spotlight in favor of getting under a rock and propagating.
That being said, it is exciting and validating to sell the work from my brain and hands. I am a terrible example of a shop owner on Etsy or in Turners, as far as making a living at it goes. But it does pay for its own expenses and that is something.
I have also discovered that it is sometimes enough to just share my work, as people wander in to Nina's Nook to sit and enjoy looking around without buying anything. I imagine many people live in a world of mass produced mediocrity lacking the sort of colors and textures that real fabric, paint, ceramics offer. They come in to refresh the soul. I see their eyes feeding on it. It is a very tiny space I have rented, only five feet wide by twenty feet long, so I am sort of in a very intimate space with people when they come in, like being in an elevator or a closet together. Sometimes I will ask to record their stories if they feel like talking
My hidden talent? I am a good business person... For other people! I've worked like hell for my boss to help his business grow and succeed. I can do that. I have an incredible nitpicky left brain obsessively cataloging side of me that thrives in inventory and information management. I've designed the paper flow, work processing forms, the parts numbering system, and written and designed the technical and sales literature at Eddie's Wheels. I make sure that things get done and done right by instituting systems and procedures that take into account our tendency to err. I make sure things are orderly and beautiful and meaningful as possible. Things (and people) need to speak their own truth.
How do I support the local arts community? I figure everyone benefits from whatever contributions we make, the arts community as part of the larger picture. I try to respond as generously as I can to demands upon my talents and offer them up as well. I try not to calculate about all this but ask instead. What do I want the result to be? What gives me pleasure in life? What matters? When I work for my boss, I do the equations and the numbers. For myself? Not so much, not to be ruled by that. I like that it can be a pleasant surprise when money comes. I like that my efforts can at least cover their own expenses. I like that what I make can become part of other people's lives and make them happy.
Some other facts about me:
I enjoy the challenge of building a three dimensional object, whether for decorative or functional purposes. I work in metal, wax, resin, clay, wood, and fabric and every type of industrial material in between.
I like to incorporate little bits and pieces of industrial materials into my collages and paintings. WHen working on a two dimensional surface, it is my urge to incorporate some sort of three dimensional textural material.
Currently I am sculpting in wax to make my rodent musicians, which are then molded and cast into a cold bronze.
I have maintained a home here in Turners Falls since 1987. Prior to that, I lived in Amherst, Sturbridge, and Provincetown. I left high school in Amherst to run a winch on a fish pier in P-town. I have also maintained highways, cooked breakfasts behind a grill, and managed an auto parts store. I married and had two boys, then I went back to school in 1993 with the aim of getting an MLS; seven years later I had received an AS in Studio Art from Greenfield Community College and a BA from Smith College, where I fell in love with the history of sciences program and was awarded prizes in both poetry and short fiction.
Since then, I have written an arts column for the Greenfield Recorder under my married name, Nina Bander; ran a bag lunch service for private schools from my kitchen; worked as a freelance graphic designer; and have helped another small business grow as a fabricator and production manager at Eddies Wheels for Pets in Shelburne, MA (www.eddieswheels.com) . I am also a member of the Shelburne Artisans Cooperative gallery (www.shelburneartscoop.com) where my work is regularly featured.
june 2011: Recently I decided to make an old dream a reality by renting a tiny hole in the wall space on Avenue A in Turners Falls. When "Nina's Nook" opens in June it will be part interactive art installation part gallery part store part comic book come to life. Inspired by Russell Miller's "Northangle Nocturne" (www.roothogrecords.com) there will be a "story collector" available at the rear of the 5x22 space. There will be plenty of work to do before it is ready for visitors. I hope it contributes something to the Avenue. Follow my journal entries to see what's going on at 125A Avenue A, or become a friend of Nina's Nook on facebook.
October 2013: For the story of what happened with Nina's Nook please refer to my blog pages under The Story of Nina's Nook section of this website!