“Two things that I love in my life are painting and pulling people together.”
Napa Valley resident and artist Nancy Willis authentically lives her life by this concept — using her art to explore themes of intimacy and social connection and, in so doing, brings people together around art.
The Ohio native with an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute conducts Path of an Artist tours, leading artists to France and Sundance for annual painting workshops. Through these immersive experiences, Willis guides the participants to discover the artist lurking within while affording them an opportunity to feel renewed and restored in beautiful locations.
“I’ve always been influenced by my surroundings,” Willis said. “Whether it’s a dinner table or the terrain — a recurring theme from my time in Napa, Sundance and France.” She works in oil paint and ink on paper, canvas and panel, in both small and large scale, to examine what’s personal and private in conjunction with public and social space.
The underlying themes of intimacy and social connection carry through much of Willis’ work. As a painter-printmaker, she has developed such series as “The Bed,” “RSVP,” “The Chandelier” and “Terrain.” Employing paint or printing ink, Willis uses an additive and subtractive process to explore how color, light and atmosphere instill meaning to the finished work.
Her work was recently exhibited at the StARTup Art Fairs in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Through “The Bed,” Willis explored these themes that are central to the hotel environment: Public and private spaces bring a sense of community and isolation, both of which can shape the direction that life takes.
In the “RSVP” series, Willis delves into the atmosphere, props and social codes that surround the dining experience. While light plays a big part of her work, she is interested in the stories we come to the table with. Willis is quick to point out that her lifelong experience of working in the hospitality industry has given her a heightened awareness of how the smallest detail can make the biggest impact: “a dismissive remark or a lingering glance through the glow of candlelight.” She continues to explore the “RSVP” series, which is now extending to the enduring quality of French café culture — which naturally complements her Path of an Artist tours through France.
After Willis began teaching at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in California, she began to see a disconnect between chefs and visual artists, which belied her European experience.
“When I started teaching at the CIA, I realized that I was the only art person there,” said Willis. “I saw artists out in the community dealing with food and sustainability, but the CIA didn’t have much influence from the visual arts. So I started working in my studio, with an idea and a little sketch.”
Willis spent three years doing additional research, then guest-curated “Nourish,” a vivid, intriguing exhibition in 2015 at the Napa Valley Museum. Willis aimed to bring to light what goes unnoticed around the dining table. She brought together 25 artists, nine chefs and a live stream from the kitchen of Maison Pic, a Michelin three-starred restaurant in France. For three months, visitors to “Nourish” could watch the French restaurant artfully plate and serve the food in real time.
The exhibit showcased these unique perspectives of food, gastronomy and consumerism to remind people of the significance that artists have around the rituals of dining. Whether focusing on tactile surfaces, the lasting significance (or not) of such heirlooms as lead crystal stemware passed down through generations, thrift-store Mr. Coffee machines suspended in resin or lipstick-stained cocktail napkins, the artwork aroused the mindset of each audience member in thought-provoking ways.
In addition to her Path of an Artist tours, Willis teaches Principles of Design at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone. In this class, she explains the principles of two- and three-dimensional design, as well as language to analyze product design, plate presentations, decoration and packaging on visual, tactile and conceptual levels. Willis also teaches painting, printmaking, mixed media and drawing at Napa Valley College.
Willis draws much inspiration from time spent in her studio. With her paintbrushes and favorite music — contemporary, French club, Indy, jazz and Frank Sinatra — she is able to set the stage for the activity and action of her work.
“I found that my life is really one big art practice,” she added. “Everything is connected and part of who I am. I create events and I’m an entrepreneur offering classes locally and on the road to Sundance and France. The food and the wine — the hospitality — is all part of it.
“My path as an artist has never been a straight road. I got a master’s degree because I wanted the social connection with other artists and to become a better painter. But the degree would also elevate my status as a teacher. I used to think that all the events were pieces, but I now realize that they are all a part of me.”
Currently focused back in the studio, Willis is actively finishing a series painting about Paris, along with an ongoing project that is near to her heart: She received a grant for “Conflict Zone” — a collaborative printmaking project with a group of Yazidis from northern Iraq. Willis went to Houston and worked with a group of Yazidi kids, women and men to create a series of monotypes about their daily lives. The goal was to help bring awareness about the ISIS-led genocide and the capture and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi women and kids. Willis brought the work back to exhibit in Napa in the hopes of bridging the geographical divide between their experiences.
Ever the perennial teacher, Willis has simple but compelling advice for aspiring artists:
“Follow your instincts and go with it, and you’ll find ways to make it happen.”