George Eastman Museum's current exhibit, "Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory," marks the artist's first major retrospective in her 50-year career. The show highlights a lifetime of femme, maternal, and dream-like works. Throughout her life, Nettles explored a variety of media and themes, and the Eastman exhibition brings her luscious works and life's memories together in a compelling showcase.
Just outside of the galleries where the exhibit is held, visitors are greeted by an interactive display of Nettles' "Mountain Dream Tarot" deck -- which was produced in 1975 and is unique in that it's believed to be the first photo-based deck ever created. Mounted on the wall is an enlarged image of the Queen of Pentacles, a motherly card that symbolizes home, hearth, and security, set against a navy wall with pink stars, mirroring the pattern on Nettles' dress in the image. Just below that, a digital display allows guests to explore the deck by receiving a three-card tarot reading, each card paired with the traditional interpretations associated with it. The reading sets the stage for the elements of mysticism that can be found in Nettles' work.
There is a kind of magic in Nettles' ability to elevate often mundane maternal and household themes with her fanciful use of imagery, collage, color, and diversity of materials. "Harvest of Memory" is not arranged chronologically. Instead, Nettles' photographs and bookworks are arranged thematically to build emotional and thoughtful narratives.
Throughout the exhibit mauve and periwinkle walls serve to organize and emphasize smaller narratives built through collage and Nettles' reuse of images created with negatives of family photographs. The hues are borrowed from her hand-colored images; Nettles' pre-photography training in painting and background in printmaking are evident in her application of color. The hues shift across images from dreamy, collaged, bichromate prints in the section "Flamingo in the Dark" to a whimsical and moving combination of words and images in many of her bookworks in the exhibit, such as "The Imaginary Blowtorch."
There's an ethereal quality to her work, emphasized in themes such as the dreams and heavier preoccupations of her children. In one image, titled "Sacred Stiff" (1983, from "Close to Home"), Nettles uses collage to build a representation of an insect that plagued her son's nightmares. In "Missing" (1986, from "Life Lessons"), faces of lost children on milk cartons are central to the image, documenting a phenomenon that haunted her young daughter.
As a working and teaching artist who became a mother during her career, Nettles incorporated maternal themes in her work, and the audience sees her evolution both as an artist and mother in this retrospective. The subjects of the photographs include arrangements of her children's toys and her battle with breast cancer, depicted through poignant self-portraiture.
Instead of letting motherhood or cancer halt her career, or become a hidden part of herself, Nettles wrapped her artistic life around these events and used it to explore them.
"You're interrupted -- children, parents, you know, elderly parents, whatever, illness whatever," she told CITY during an interview at Eastman Museum. "And how do you navigate that? And you're not a bad person, you know, if you have to stop making art or doing work or whatever during these interruptions. You just have to do what you can and learn from it, and pick back up if you can."
Nettles established a career in Rochester in the 1970s, at a time when photobooks and printmaking were flourishing and photography was moving to the forefront as an art form. She was used to being the only woman in a group exhibition, or one of a few women on an educational staff -- Nettles was one of two women teaching photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1980, out of the 50 photography instructors.
"I was teaching full time, I was an artist still exhibiting and I couldn't leave home, I couldn't just go on a trip to China, you know, to photograph something there," she said. "I had to do what I had to do, which was stay close to home, use what I had, which was the kids' toys, basically and also trying to make Rochester look a little better in the winter. Some of these are fantasies, you know?"
Nettles' use of materials and methods are as practical as they are playful -- her choice of medium has often been determined by what was readily available. Her use of collage and fabric in early works, including "The Skirted Garden," was inspired by materials she had on hand for quiltmaking after she left her warm, native Florida to attend school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Later in her career, when her camera broke on a trip to Colorado, Nettles switched to an Instamatic instead. When she was invited to work with Polaroid in the 1980s, she took advantage of the opportunity to not only create large-format images but to alter them with text in a unique and provocative way.
The memorable exhibition leaves the viewer with a feeling of knowing Nettles as an intimate friend, an understanding of her versatility as an artist, and a glimpse into a world that is often held private though experienced in common by many artists.
Amanda Chestnut is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].