A Carnival

Her characters are crustaceans and clowns, fairies and ballerinas, marionettes and puppeteers combined, even ghosts in clocks, standing alone and sometimes inhabiting furniture; they are intricate fantasy creations. "My sculptures are three-dimensional paintings," she tells me. She is Nancy Wiley, a beautiful, highly talented artist with a vivid and fascinating imagination.

Nancy grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. Her father worked for the government in the Foreign Service so they moved around a lot, Berlin, Frankfort and Bonn in Germany, Florida, Laos, California. They moved every couple years until Nancy was in high school.

Following high school she went to Rhode Island School of Design where she studied illustration. "Because the Talking Heads had gone there," she grins. I like her sense of humor and logic.

Nancy decided she wanted to illustrate children's books and following school, moved to Brooklyn. As a child, Nancy was very visual, she spent every free minute drawing. Her mother loved dolls and opened a toy store, dolls soon became an everyday influence on Nancy. "I grew up around dolls, my mother repaired dolls and there were always doll parts around, legs and arms, you know and my friends thought that was weird, but I didn't think anything of it."

In New York, Nancy roomed with her brother, who designed and made dolls. He taught Nancy sculpting and mold making techniques. The effect of his influence was profound. When Nancy's brother died, unexpectedly and too young, life and the importance of living each moment of each day took on a new perspective for Nancy. She thought, "What do I really want to do?" One day images began to come to her and she frantically began working, sculpting. She fired the doll heads, then did something she hadn't tried before, she began painting them. She discovered that painting them created a new dimension, a three dimensional presence, they came alive for her. The result of her work fascinates her still, "I don't feel I create them, I start them and they take on a life of their own."

Nancy began showing her work around and soon got a show in Chicago. Her dolls took off. Demand was great and husband Rob O'Brien helped her meet that demand. Demi Moore, Anne Rice, Richard Simmons, Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta count themselves among the many who collected Nancy's dolls. A few years ago John Kennedy Jr. commissioned Nancy to create a life sized version of one of her dolls. She created a red and white striped panniere styled dress in which Demi Moore posed, duplicating the doll image for the cover of George Magazine.

The Comedia del Arte, the circus, old marionettes and Fellini influence her. Her characters possess a festive carnival atmosphere, while the subtext reflects the sinister dark realities of life behind their smiles. "I love characters that reflect all sides of life. I see somebody on the street or on the bus and I think, what a great face." The more you look at Nancy's dolls the more life you see, the more dimensions are revealed. You might say Nancy allows you to see the tears behind the eyes of the clown, but only if you take the time to look, to explore, "I always start with the head, then as the pieces begin to fit together it gets exciting, but it's the face that is compelling, it's what draws me to it. I like working with the texture of fabrics, too, that makes it more a doll than a sculpture."

Nancy and Rob stepped back from the hectic pace of the doll world a couple years ago to start a family. The demands of childrearing, of motherhood caused Nancy to redirect her creativity, "It's creative, putting your energy into raising a child." Their son Henry, now two, has had an effect on Nancy's work. Nancy finds that because of Henry, her dolls are less dark and more surprising. "It's an exciting time" she smiles.

One of the recent changes was that Nancy and Rob converted "The Nancy Wiley Gallery" on lower Warren Street to "Henry's House" a delightful gift shop. Henry's House carries mostly handmade craft items, featuring many Columbia County artists. The shop is a unique and whimsical expression of both Nancy and Rob's imaginations. There's everything from Dr. Seuss teapots to fantasy hand painted furniture to kids things to jewelry to calendars. Many items I found surprisingly inexpensive, under ten dollars. Many of Nancy's doll sculptures are on display along with some festive small egg faces made especially for the shop. A visit to Henry's House at 253 Warren Street is an enchanting destination.

It is always an exciting time, the reemergence of an artist from a seemingly dormant period and Nancy is getting itchy to explore new creative avenues, to discover the extent of Henry's effect on her work.

"What is your dream?" I ask.

"The root of everything is freedom. The freedom to express yourself, to reflect what I see and to create."

You might say life is a carnival.

We'll talk next time From The Road.

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