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Q&A with Artist Nancy Pane Fortwengler

Presence by Nancy Pane Fortwengler.
Presence by Nancy Pane Fortwengler. (click for full size)

Nancy Pane Fortwengler, winner of the Carol Bruce Pastel Award in this month’s “Pop Art” exhibit, has a long history with ballet. In her Fabrications series (the subject of a 2009 solo show), she paints the dramatic lighting, movement, and costumes of that art form — without the dancers.

Fortwengler, a Torpedo Factory artist and The Art League’s president, artist told us more about this series, the award winner Presence, and how pastel makes it all possible:

How did your figurative dresses series start? What drew you to return to this subject in particular?
Nancy Pane Fortwengler: Fabrications is an ongoing series of figurative dresses and costumes that portray disembodied ballet dancers, often set in movement at center stage against dramatic theater lighting. During my years of working backstage with a ballet company, I was very fortunate to have had access to dancers during dress rehearsals and performances, which provided models, venues and eye-popping stage lighting that have been artistically inspirational. All together, the ingredients ignited in my mind’s eye the possibilities for artistic expression in 2D form. What followed was a series of ballet paintings that focused on the human figure in costume, sometimes a sole figure, but often in an interconnected group.

As time went on during this body of work, I became far more interested in the costumes, and the beauty and abstractions that formed in moving, layered, transparent fabric amid saturated, high-contrast stage lighting. With the encouragement and support of my teacher and mentor, Diane Tesler, I began an exploration of what life these costumes might have in a world where they existed without the need for a body.

The figurative dresses are personas in their own right. Whether in movement or in repose, each is unique and powerful. They are akin to the steely women, the ballerinas, who outwardly appear to be fragile and vulnerable, but who possess within them strength, tenacity and an unshakeable spirit.

Anticipation, from the 2010 "Herstory" exhibit.
Anticipation, from the 2010 “Herstory” exhibit.

Where does Presence fit in the series?
Presence is one of the close up portraits in the series. Taking the major portion of the visual field, it provides a clear view of the abstracted shapes within the costume. Each shape was laid down to the next, until the whole was completed. Shadows and lights are distinctly warm and cool, and the color palette is exaggerated to lend a heightened sense of reality. The form stands up with “presence” just asking to be noticed!

What is your goal with Presence, or with the series in general?
My goal for this series is multi-faceted. First, and simply, it must give me joy and satisfaction to explore the possibilities of how it may evolve, and to paint each piece! When I see patrons emotionally responding to the work, I’ve hit another goal. Working in pastel, and capturing transparency and a figure’s movement without a body, opens up a portal for the observer to see my small portion of the world the way I see it.

Why pastel?
Soft pastel is the essence of pure pleasure! Almost pure pigment, it is held together in stick form with just a little binder. It unites the act of drawing and painting unlike any other medium. The very nature of holding the pastel and manipulating it directly allows me to greatly control the amount of pressure and pigment I apply to the surface. The possibilities of what can be achieved with just one pastel stick are tremendous. There is an endless variety of pastels available in the marketplace, from very hard to very soft, all colors and values, with each type bearing qualities to perform certain tasks.

The luminosity, vibrancy and consistency of pastel are extremely relevant to my subject matter, enabling me to fully capture and portray transparency and dimension. There is no color shift after application to pastel, because there is no liquid used, as in watercolor or oil. There is also no drying time, and work can be continual and swift if desired. Light that travels through the layers of pastel achieves a vibrancy and sparkle that work so well with the portrayal of the figurative dresses.

What’s your artistic process like, from an idea to a finished painting?
The process for a new painting often stems from what has come before it. Challenges and experiences from past work often are great tools for how to tackle the next project. Most often, the ideas begin with notes and thoughts I record in a journal. Sometimes, they are just free flowing words, phrases or mental compositions that I describe with words or a quick linear sketch. Sometimes, I’ll reflect on what I’ve written for several years before the “ah-ha” moment arrives and I know what it means artistically.

Then, the process is fairly rapid, with an intuitive direction to composition and size of the painting. I do not do a complete sketch before getting to the pastel paper, as I find that solving all the problems beforehand kills the discovery process in the painting. While I start with a loose plan for color palette, the first few marks on the paper ultimately dictate the color and value choices I make. Knowing when to stop painting and call it finished is very challenging! Over the years, I have learned that it’s better to have a painting that is slightly underdone than one that has gone too far and is overworked and dead.

Reflections in Silence: After the Storm by Nancy Pane Fortwengler won the Geri Gordon First Choice Raffle Award. (click for full size)
Reflections in Silence: After the Storm by Nancy Pane Fortwengler won the Geri Gordon First Choice Raffle Award in this year’s Patrons’ Show.

What are you working on now?
I have several paintings in process at the moment. One is an acrylic piece that combines historical costume with politics, another is a pastel painting that is a close up in the Fabrications series, and I am continuing with a new series I began last year, Reflections in Silence.

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