Nancy Furino Knows What She Does

Inside Nancy Furino's Chilmark living room
Eighty-six years old, her work is now in her studio, and in her imagination.

Walking into Nancy Furino’s house is like walking into one of her paintings. Of course, there are her paintings hanging on all the walls, but there are also the chairs and books and objects that become the subjects of her interior paintings. I always like that feeling, familiar and fantastical at the same time. And I am well familiar with her house and studio; we have been friends for over 30 years.

I stopped in for a visit on a recent afternoon, to see Nancy’s newest paintings and to talk about art, the Red Sox, and whatever else might come to mind. First I had to look at the paintings currently hanging in the living room. They always change.

This time it was early art school lithographs of jazz musicians. I asked if Domenic, her husband, had been the model. There was a resemblance. “He was in my mind, but he wasn’t there posing,” she said. In between those black and white prints was a large painting I hadn’t seen before. Nancy called it “Lucy Vincent Looking the Other Way.” She had painted Lucy Vincent many times looking from the pathway in toward the overhanging cliffs. Now she had set herself up past that now-gone icon and painted looking back across the beach and water. The exaggerated shapes were all her own.

Which made me ask, “What do you think of Thomas Hart Benton and the WPA artists of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s?” Anyone who has seen a Furino painting will find it recognizable in a similar way. Her images, though based on nature and natural forms, have a stylized rhythm and drama. The brushwork may be flat or broken, “depending on what the painting needs,” she would say. Color is always pushed to its limits. Sometimes beyond. It always surprises me when Nancy talks about rules from art school, then goes on to break them with impunity.

So back to Benton. In past conversations Nancy has mentioned Van Gogh, Picasso, and Rembrandt as the artists she is most indebted to and influenced by. I wondered why not Benton, Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh, artists whose subjects swirl into patterns of their imagination. They are all powerful painters, both in the energy of their brushwork and in the energy barely contained in their figures or landscapes. Some of Nancy’s early figurative work has the look of those 1930s murals, a similar way of drawing the figure with all those bursting muscles, exaggerated stances, groups of people together.

We went upstairs to her studio to look at new work and to revisit old friends. The work in progress on Nancy’s easel was a large landscape of beach and marsh, looking left from the path onto Fuller Street Beach. Her small watercolor sketch leaned against the back of the easel above the canvas, reference to the scene and the day. The watercolor was bright, with simple shapes and a light palette. The translation into oil was of a darker scene, more complex in color and design. Imagination takes over in the studio; one is no longer constrained by what is right in front of one’s eyes. Our friend and fellow artist Ruth Kirchmeier calls it “Nancyfying,” Nancy’s process for translating her scene with her own vision of rhythmic, twisted, stylized shapes, knitting the elements together into a harmonious composition, a harmonious surface.

It is always interesting to see how another painter decides on a subject, how to place the elements of the composition, what to put in and what to leave out, how to change reality into a work of art. Despite what some think of as great artistic skill, the exact reproduction of a subject — “it looks just like a photograph” — making a painting is a series of infinite decisions, changes, nuances, artistic vision or license, if you will. There has to be more. An artist has to transcend reality, to make something more than a reproduction of a person, an object, or a scene. I have watched Nancy paint many times over the years, and still marvel at what she makes out of what she begins with.

Nancy is 86 now. She was in her early 50s when we met, a devout plein air painter. Her current work is in the studio and in her imagination. It is ever more abstract. She showed me a pair of paintings she did after the Coast Guard boathouse fire in Menemsha. Dark shapes using black paint, instead of the brighter, more traditional “Impressionist palette” I am used to, they smell and feel of throat-clenching smoke and destruction. Powerful.

Some of the new paintings are reworkings of old ones: “Now I know what to do.” Although I am sad that my friend finds it too difficult to get out with all her gear to some remote place, I am fascinated by the more interior — in the sense of her own inner design — direction her paintings of these past several years have taken. Nancy always said the plein air work had more of the sense of time and place, while her studio paintings became more of her imagination. It is the distillation of a lifetime’s point of view as an artist, and her paintings have only grown stronger, as have her convictions. “The paintings speak for themselves. People either like them or don’t like them.” It has been ever thus with my strong-minded friend.

I doubt she ever even thought of having a business plan. Or commercial success. I suppose there are artists who have business plans, and organized, projected goals for commercial recognition. I have never met anyone like that. Most of the artists I know just want to do their work and hope for the best.

Nancy is the grande dame of our crit group, showing us the
way she accepts, or rails against, aging as an artist. It is a place
we will all find ourselves in, and one we will all have to navigate
for ourselves.

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