102 Nancy J. Rodwan


Born 1968, Ann Arbor, Michigan / Studied Antioch College; The New School University; New York University / Lives in Detroit

Smash a teacup, reglue its pieces, paint them Tacky Trump Gold, wrap in barbed wire, then set the table and invite your neighbors in. Your neighbors are artists, the table is set with their own reimagined wares, and the invitation means resist. It is the second day of the 45th presidency, and Nancy J. Rodwan and co-curator Pam Murray are creating solidarity by hosting “The Uninvited” at Detroit’s Tangent Gallery.  Several dozen artists sat at that table. Another fifty submitted to Rodwan’s “Never Again (Again)” – an outraged, satiric exhibit mounted at the Annex at 333 Midland to recognize the presidency’s 100th day.  

For Nancy Rodwan art is, in part, a matter of creating community. Her curatorial projects aim to bring people together and include tributes to those (women especially) whom she admires. She draws inspiration for her own work from music, literature, and current events while experimenting tirelessly with artistic materials.  Literary inspiration led Rodwan to “Poetry in Pictures” – a filmmaking enterprise that has garnered awards from festivals in Carmel, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, including the 2015 Mykonos Biennale that featured this author’s poem “Overheard Among the Arthropods” a few months after its debut at Art X Detroit. There’s a keen poignancy laced with humor and a kind of tongue-in-cheek innocence in Rodwan’s films. Imperfect Armor (2010)—a concoction of sand, shadow, clay puppets, paintings and live-action footage based on John Rodwan’s poem of the same name—follows a naive, seemingly stoic, clay elephant through situations that suggest vulnerability and regret. A whimsical clay snail in Overheard Among the Arthropods traverses an empty beach scene that opens suddenly onto dozens of high-kicking 1940s dancing girls as the snail’s resident hermit crab muses on the “pulpy creatures that used to live inside.”

Intrigued by the idea of creating art from cast-off items, for “Purged: the Art of Metamorphosis” Rodwan collected discards from over fifty acquaintances for her to do with what she would, with the resulting exhibit opening to positive reviews at the Annex in March 2018. To purge means to get rid of “an unwanted feeling, memory, or condition, typically given a sense of cathartic release,” with cleanse, clear, purify, wash, absolve as synonyms.  As she worked, Rodwan considered what the thrown-away objects might reflect about her friends and fellow Detroiters. Her donors include a filmmaker/animator, musicians, small business proprietors, activists, artists, museum directors, writers, a scientist, a DJ. Subjected to Rodwan’s investigative smashing, grinding down and otherwise dismantling, an array of items (baby shoes, doll parts, beads, bolts, bullets, and many more) became sculptures, mobiles, decoupage, paintings, or film. Rodwan’s process depends on surprise: the artist taking energy from destruction then feeling her way through the rubble. As she writes of Carole Harris’s coffee pot from whose broken-up pieces she created a minimalist mask and a sculpture, “Once the thing was reduced to its parts, many ideas revealed themselves to me.”

After much sanding and polishing, an architectural sconce from Olayami Dabls changes into the powerful Gizo’s Great Horse of a Nigerian trickster tale, reflecting how Dabls, artist and founder of the African Bead Museum, uses African material culture to explore the human condition. Activist Sarah James’s dress morphed into Divided – a mobile of the 48 US contiguous states, each separate from the other, that Rodwan describes as “very fragile,” making the image especially apt for this American moment. The art in “Purged” also butts heads against gun violence, climate change, the poisoning of Flint, and other evils. Night at the Movies places a car-shaped refrigerator magnet/match holder with the Looney Toons slogan “That’s all folks” against a photo of a rifle and abandoned flip-flops from the Aurora, Colorado massacre, the whole splattered with red paint and pierced by a bullet hole. Wanda Bazemore, who has lost a loved one to gun violence, contributed the magnet, which now holds bullets under the chill-inducing slogan.

But “Purged” also offers sweetness. WDET radio host Ann Delisi’s plastic Wonder Woman rides around and around on a vinyl LP to a danceable song by Nadir Omowale in a film titled, in honor of Delisi’s signature expression, How Cool Is That? A sifter from April Anderson of Good Cakes and Bakes inspired the bright primary hues of Sugar Rush, Sugar Crashand Baker’s Twist, which capture the atmosphere of the bake shop as well as Rodwan’s “affection for the store and its proprietor.” With “Purged, II” and more in the offing, we can be assured that Rodwan’s approach to art, friendship, and community will continue to serve her collaborators and audiences well.   

Terry Blackhawk, June 2018

Copyright Essay’d, 2018