A Trailblazing Nod to an All-American Artist
On Saturday evening at its annual gala, the Putnam County Historical Society will honor Garrison’s Don Nice with its Israel Putnam Trailblazer award. The PCN&R visited with Nice in his spacious but cluttered, cathedral-ceilinged third-floor studio on a rainy afternoon in mid-September. The conversation spanned centuries of art history and theory.
Born in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the 1930s, Nice is, in many ways, an “All-American Boy”—a star high school football player who earned a full scholarship to USC, a cowboy, soldier, and teacher who married a Minnesota-born American model in Paris and has lived with his family for the past forty or so years in a historic home overlooking Constitution Marsh.
But that description barely scratches the surface.
Throughout his career he has sketched and painted watercolors, many of them of Hudson Valley locales. But Nice is best known as a New Realist who, in the 1960s, painted large images of everyday objects—a huge bunch of grapes, a rumpled bag of peanuts, a cluster of lollipops, a white sneaker (to be exact, a low-top Converse All-Star, a pair of which he was wearing on the day we spoke)—without the encumbrance of surfaces or shadows. The idea of these unconventional still lifes is to invite the viewer to appreciate the thing alone.
Nice has worked with what he calls heraldic images of fruit and other objects that offer a nod to classical California produce-carton labels and his upbringing as the son of a citrus grower. He has also created totems and predellas— series of images that traditionally have represented significant events in the life of a saint, but that, from Nice’s point of view, can refer to any place, an idea, or a person. Many of these reference familiar Hudson Valley themes: animals, plants, fish, and, of course, water.
Nice is a kind and courtly man with a sort of timeless ease about him. Everything he says seems carefully considered, but there is also a stream-ofconsciousness quality to his conversation that can take the listener from Chuck Close to Vincent Van Gogh in less than a heartbeat.
Nice has been described as a maverick, which explains, in part, why he would be selected for an award that celebrates “trailblazing,” but the PCN&R sought to find out what the award means to him personally.
“It means a great deal,” he began. “My interpretation is that talking about the Hudson River one has to refer in memory to the Hudson River painters. What I hope I’ve done is given new insight into upgrading or updating our view of the Hudson River in that in the times of Frederic Church [a central figure of the Hudson River School of landscape painting] people were on horseback and they had kind of a one-view look at the river, and they had time to look at the river.” Nice noted that Van Gogh said “every painter needs a good chair.”
Referring to the spiritual quality of the paintings that Church and his contemporaries painted in the 19th century, Nice said, “the whole concept of the notion of the sublime was very pertinent, and they had a … realization that there are things beyond their control when it comes to nature.
“What I’ve done is to try to take that notion of the Hudson River and to interpret it through, if I may, Cubist eyes—in that if you take a chair and you do a painting of it as an object, it’s one thing, but if … like the analytical Cubists did, you take the chair and turn it upside down and you magnify some of the interesting things about … the formal aspect of it—that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
While acknowledging that his elegant prints and watercolors of Hudson Valley landscapes are probably what much of the Trailblazer award is about, Nice was clear that the Hudson has informed virtually all of his work since he began living in Garrison.
“Two things happened to me: First, I was on a train going to New York and I was, as I do, I draw as I go down, and suddenly I am in the tunnel, I am inside the mountain. And so it occurred to me that it may be possible to do a synthesis, kind of an X-ray vision, of what the Hudson River is.”
“And the second thing is, I was coming in by airplane and looking down at Storm King, and you know Storm King was down below me. We tend to see things on the surface, and if you can allow yourself to think visually of the line that comes down Storm King and then goes down underneath the water and comes up the other side—the mountain being convex in that it pushes out against the sky, and the other line is concave, so you have the pressure moving in on it, so all those things you can’t simply do by painting a view. People continue to make pictures of that view … but I think we visually, intellectually, and every other wise … have gone past that point of view of just going out and sitting down with a watercolor, just as I do—I love doing it—but it doesn’t really explore the possibilities, the real possibilities of what’s out there.”
Nice, like other visual artists of his generation, is keenly interested in escaping the earthbound assumptions of “classical” art. “One of the great problems in landscape paintings is the horizon line,” he said, “because it’s axis mundi and it’s there and it’s been there since the Renaissance.”
Nice started out painting what he described as “nice little sort of Cezanne-ist landscapes and I was thinking that I was doing something really interesting.” He was living in Paris, rode a Vespa, and had just met his wife-to-be, American model and designer Sandra Smith. “I saw a [Willem] de Kooning painting in Paris along with a [Jackson] Pollack painting … Those paintings—I just get goose bumps right now thinking about it. I was able to recreate those paintings in my mind from beginning to end. I told Sandra, ‘I’ve got to go back to America.’ So that’s what started the whole thing.”
Nice’s current work is not traditional painting at all: it is objects, really—he calls them “spinners”—that incorporate painted images on unconventional backgrounds (aluminum, for instance), and hang from the ceiling rather than flat on a wall, so that movement is part of the experience of the artwork. “You have your earth forces—you have earth, fire, wind, and water, and I’ve added gravity to it,” Nice said.
“My strength is not with color and it’s not with shape. It’s— and I could be very wrong—think my strength is with the process of making a mark.”
One wall of his studio, directly above a massive old fireplace, is decorated with smallish sketches and paintings that appear to have been torn from the pages of a sketchbook, and Nice confirmed that indeed they had.
“Jacques Maritain, in an essay called ‘Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry’ talks about not the ‘sub-conscious,’ but the ‘pre-conscious,’” Nice said. “And it involves an idea that … we are given little gifts … We hear this throughout—you know, people have asked, well how did Mozart create those things, and he said, ‘well I just write them down.’ And this happens to me at 4 o’clock in the morning and I have to get up and write it down. I have to draw. And all of these little pictures here you see are things that happened as the result of a dream.
“If you keep … the channel open and you listen to that mentor then I think, I know—it’s not a question of whether it’s significant or not, but it’s a way for you to move through areas that are open to you.”
In addition to his dream sketches, there are more than 300 sketchbooks lining one low wall of the studio, visual diaries of his time spent around the country and around the world. On some pages there are simple pencil sketches of people and things he saw along the way; on other pages are larger, more formal color renditions; and still other pages are dotted with clippings, lines of type, labels, magazine images—anything that at the time seemed significant or inspirational to Nice. The visitor is intrigued by the thought of reviewing the volumes one by one to learn more about the life this man has lived.
Don Nice is an individual who has spent most of his adult life thinking about and making art, and it is clear that the act of creation is what keeps him vital, even as a septuagenarian.
Nice agreed, saying, “I must say I have enjoyed painting over the past two or three months more than I ever have in my life.”
The Putnam County Historical Society Gala will be held at the Highlands Country Club on September 25. Details are online at pchs-fsm.org. The society will also honor the Polhemus family that evening. For more information, see “Carrying on an Enterprising Heritage in the Highlands” in the September 1 issue of the PCN&R.