Layers of paper, paint and memory

A large white canvas leans against the wall in Clara Nulty’s painting studio. It looks almost blank, but there is a dot pattern, much like a cribbage board. Below, a white panty liner is stained red with menstrual blood. On closer inspection, the holes in the canvas match the pattern of the panty liner. The work is a palimpsest, painted in layers, on layers of paper and canvas, often superimposed with meaning.

The play was Nulty’s way of addressing anxieties about motherhood and infertility.

“For me, this painting is deeply anxiety-provoking. If I want to get pregnant, having my period is a bad thing,” she says. “But when people walked into my studio, seeing him brought out a deep sense of relief.”

In a way, the reactions of others serve to recontextualize the work for her, she says, adding another layer.

A palimpsest, according to Merriam-Webster, is a writing material used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. Historically, vellum or parchment was scraped and washed to be recovered and reused. Merriam-Webster’s second definition of the word reads: “something generally having various layers or aspects apparent below the surface”.

“I feel like (palimpsest) is a good catch-all term to describe my work right now,” says Nulty. “That kind of layering, obscuring, revealing and creating a very specific focal point on the layered ground of thoughts and previous moments in my life.”

For Nulty, the word is both literal and metaphorical. She literally lines her canvas as part of the grounding process, painting on it before the rest of the art begins to appear. Working primarily with water-based paints and washes, which are typically painted on flat surfaces, Nulty’s layered grounding process adds texture beneath what would generally be a smoother medium.

Metaphor comes in the form of narrative and memory, with Nulty’s paintings starting with a photographic subject and often an associated memory. Although the paintings are shown without context, the layers of inspiration still exist. Drawing on the metaphor, Nulty often uses postcards and personal documents to line and anchor the canvas.
Lying atop a literal and metaphorical palimpsest, Nulty’s work shines a light on mundane and often overlooked things – a panty liner, an electrical outlet, an expedition pod or the door of a house.

But not just any door: that of his sister’s house in Denver.

“It’s a door that I know very well. It’s like a very touched door. It is used and it has life experience even as an inanimate object,” Nulty explains.

The textured canvas lends to the details of the door and frame painting, the house siding, and the stone work built from the foundation. The cracks in the paint show this life experience, as well as the shadows, the grain of the wood and the cut stone. Precision and detail are enhanced by the lightness of watercolor and muted tones.

She strives for a detailed depiction, often presented on canvas with more negative space than subject. The use of textured backgrounds and pastes on the canvas served to conceal details in personal documents, she explains.

The choice to work in watercolor is not without challenges. Watercolor dries quickly, and loose liquid moves with its own will.

“With watercolor, you really build a relationship,” she explains. “Watercolor can be very frustrating for people because it’s just loose, it moves and does its job. You have to learn a partnership with it to get a certain level of detail.

Nulty admits a fraction of jealousy that oil and acrylic painters have an easier time wiping a canvas when they are dissatisfied with a work. This, in part, contributed to the nature of her palimpsests, she says.

The subjects, like her sister’s door, are often old and worn, Nutly says. Capturing these subjects in precise detail is central to his practice. A painting in his studio captures water moving under a concrete overpass. The space under the bridge and the water itself is an empty square, but the whole work is evocative. You can almost smell the mold under the bridge, feel the stone crumbling and the paint peeling off under your fingertips.

“Painting, for me, is almost like an archaeological experience. It’s a moment when you’ve captured something. It’s going to become something that references a specific moment or moment,” she says. “I think my work is quite personal, so I don’t know how much that translates, but I think a lot of people can project their own moments.”

Making art is part of Nulty’s family history – a personal palimpsest – but she humbly refutes any kind of child prodigy.

“For me, art is such a fundamental medium of communication, especially painting and drawing – the urge to create images is a really basic human instinct,” says Nulty. “So I think most kids want to make marks on something and it usually means something to them, even if it’s hard to see from the outside. I don’t think I was anything special in that regard.

Yet her father draws and paints in watercolours, she says. Making art was completely normal and routine for her, but a youthful, perfectionist streak nearly took her away from that creative path. In middle school, Nulty felt embarrassed and discouraged by her own lack of progress, so she stopped trying for a while.

“I assumed I wasn’t that good. I’ve always been interested in doing something representative and having that stuff be descriptive and accurate on some level,” she explains. “Those were tough years wired that way, and especially learning to draw, nothing goes the way you want it to.”

Nulty’s mother encouraged her to take basic art classes in high school, she says, and this teacher encouraged her further. She jokingly calls herself a studio rat, always going to the art room after school to finish a drawing or painting. It was there that she discovered the joyful feeling of becoming hooked on a piece and working it through to its conclusion. Motivation will carry her through her MFA, further honing her practice.

“I think what always excites me the most about my studio is what I haven’t started yet,” she says.
Palimpsest opens at the Firehouse Art Gallery on July 15.

Email: [email protected]

About Debra D. Johnson

Check Also

The $52 7.5-inch E-paper screen connects to ESP32 boards

Until now, LILYGO’s ESP32 boards with an E-Paper screen such as TTGO T5 or Mini …