To Nancy Youdelman, process equals pleasure as she creates the mixed-media assemblages that honor women’s work through the ages. “I absolutely love what I do,” the Clovis, Calif., artist told the Journal recently. “I am always amazed that I am able to teach 2½ days and support what I love to do.”
Youdelman’s art gets a solo exhibition when it opens today at Eight Modern on Delgado Street. “Threads of Memory” shows recent work exploring the threads that connect memory and objects, interweaving broader themes of love, death, history and femininity. Although she uses vintage girls’ and women’s clothing with found objects to create sculptures, bronzes and reliefs, Youdelman said her pieces are not nostalgic for any particular past. “It’s transformation I’m after,” she said. “It’s creating something that’s almost like a shrine, but not exactly. I want to bring women and girls into our consciousness, to give all the arts that women have traditionally done- the dressmaking and gardening and quilting- the credibility they deserved.”
Youdelman comes by her feminist views legitimately. She has been perfeting the conversion of castoff clothing into contemporary art for close to 40 years, since her involvement with Judy Chicago at California State University-Fresno as an undergraduate, and with Miriam Shapiro’s Womanhouse at the California Institute of Arts.
“I was in the first class of the feminist arts program that Chicago and Shapiro created at CalArts,” she said. “Shapiro used fabric in the arts and talked extensively about how women’s work could be different from men’s and still be credible,” Youdelman recalled. “We talked about all the hours women had given to weaving and dressmaking, and how women aren’t really given credit for that. I felt it was important to focus on those materials, to increase that credibility for women’s arts.”
Some of Youdelman’s assemblages end up as bronzes, like “Twig Shoe,” and some remain plaster and found object sculpture, like “Ellen’s Regret” and “The Other Nancy,” but all of them start castoff objects of clothing or accessories with additions on the surfaces. “I start with a tall table,” the sculpture instructor said, “and put the clothing on it and stuff it with tissue paper so it has a ‘body’ inside. Then I cover it with plaster bandages, and cover that with hard-setting plaster to create the form. Then I create from that, eventually removing the actual clothing.
” She adds objects to the form’s surface with acrylic glue. “A lot of times I don’t even know what I’m going to do until I do it,” she added. “I have an enormous store of materials I use. I love to garden, for instance, and I cut flowers to use or twigs. In the fall, I gather lots of materials. I think being around all the agriculture here in central California makes me want to use that stuff.”
Bronzes also start with castoff clothing, like the shoe in “Twig Shoe.” That cast started with an old shoe from the early 1900s. “I glued twigs onto it and then made a rubber mold that was filled with wax- it’s the traditional lost wax method,” the artist said.
Youdelman has realized that because she treats every surface with something, it’s the transformation into something new and wonderful that she’s seeking. “The idea is that all these things will somehow reconnect in a certain way and create something that is much more than what it started out to be,” she said. Youdelman was an English literature major at Fresno State, near her childhood home, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from CalArts and an MFA at UCLA. There is a clear literary element to her work; she’s telling stories. Many of her pieces impart feminist messages as well, which she is not afraid to underline with clever titles.
She carries the same “try anything” spirit into teaching her classes at CSU-Fresno. “I’ve got a student working with cement and plaster right now and good for her,” she said.
Youdelman also has written for and edited art books, and received numerous awards, including recent grants from the Pollock-Krasner and the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundations. Her show at Eight Modern will run through May 18.