Forging a Unique Path
Nancy Valentine (American/Bermudian, 1925-2019) studied at Pine Manor College and Northwestern University in the 1940s, before deepening her studies at The Art Students League of New York (1954, 1973). The school, renowned for its unrestrictive approach to artmaking, is the alma mater of many of the Abstract Expressionists, including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, as well as ground-breaking artists such Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, two of Valentine’s contemporaries at the school.
Valentine moved to Bermuda in 1950, where she continued to develop her art practice, at a time when there were very few visible women artists. Initially painting in oils and working in ceramics and enamel, she quickly moved to experimenting with plastics, intrigued by the adaptability and pliability of the synthetic material which transformed life in post-war America. She told the Bermuda Sun in 1969, “Ceramics and enamels, which I had been working in at the time, have been around for thousands of years. This was the first new art medium. I thought it was exciting. Anything you did in it was new; no one had used the stuff before, and that made it interesting to me.”
Youth On Fire (1955) is an early example of Valentine’s experimentation, containing a small epoxy resin butterfly overlaid on oil paint in the bottom left corner of the canvas. The work was exhibited in cities across the U.S. and Canada in the early 1960s as part of the travelling Bermuda Art Exhibition, sponsored by Eastern Airlines, at a time when very few artists, and certainly none in Bermuda, were working with such innovative materials. Reflecting on her work in plastics, she said to the Bermuda Sun, “Plastics have become an artform, which they weren’t considered to be when I first started, and this pleases me very much.”
In 1956 Valentine began making large-scale decorative screens, which displayed natural materials elegantly embedded in resin and framed in wood. National Geographic published an article on them in 1958 which led to features in House Beautiful magazine and the Chicago Sunday Tribune, and a commission in 1960 by the Bermuda government to make a pair of screens for Princess Margaret, a gift to her from the people of Bermuda to celebrate her marriage.
That same year, her screen won Third Prize in the third Annual Design Derby held in Miami, Florida. The expo, which was sponsored by the Designers and Decorators Guild, highlighted the works of both national and international designers, decorators, artists, and craftsmen. Valentine took this experimentation one step further later that year with the design of a set of modernist furniture made from fiberglass, a new medium which at the time was predominantly used in the manufacture of boats.
Nancy continued to make art up until her death in 2019. It is interesting to note that after a period working predominantly in oils and focused on landscapes in the 1980s and 90s, she continued to innovate, returning to plastics towards the end of her career. She told Bermuda National Gallery in 2002, “I have temporarily returned to polyester resin and fiberglass, the medium I developed in 1955 and worked in almost exclusively for 20 years. Plastics as an art form somehow seems appropriate for the 21st century.”
From The Archives
To celebrate Women’s History Month, The Bermudian have republished a feature about Nancy Valentine written by Pamela Hennell, and photographed by Frederick Hamilton, for their January 1958 issue.
The article is a stark reminder of how unusual it was for a woman to be working as an artist at the time and provides a fascinating insight into her process of working with resin and fiberglass.
Many friends of Nancy Hutchings are firmly convinced that she has two different and distinct personalities. One is the glamorously dressed Nancy who goes out with her husband in the evening. The other is the Nancy who, casually dressed in Bermuda shorts and shirt, makes beautiful panels of fibreglass and plastic in her workroom during the day.
Click here to read the full article.
Testing Boundaries: In the Studio with Nancy Valentine and Christina Hutchings is on display in the Upper Mezzanine Gallery through to June.