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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
to Road Archive