When I first met artist Nancy Ostrovsky more than 20 years ago, I visited her at her studio in Accord. We talked for hours about her work, she played some of her favorite music for me and she showed me a grainy video of her, painting live, to accompany jazz artists performing in Germany. Like most people, I had never heard of an improvisational live painter and have felt energized – mesmerized, even – each time I’ve watched her do it in the intervening years.
Over a career that now spans 35 years, Ostrovsky has established herself as a painter adept at translating sound into vibrant, energetic visuals that, says pianist and composer Michael Cain, “looked like music.”
Ostrovsky’s first mini-retrospective, “For the Love of Jazz,” exhibits 18 of her live performance-inspired works at the Unison Arts Center until July 22. “Stuart Bigley [Unison’s co-founder, with his wife Helene] asked me to do a show featuring my music stuff, and it was hard to choose. Some is old stuff – even back to 1976 – and there are a bunch of pieces people haven’t seen. One piece is ten panels from performances with Patrick Cress, a saxophonist from San Francisco; and another, in 1998, from a trio performance featuring [local resident and trombonist] Roswell Rudd. And it’s a thrill to see the large pieces up,” she admits. “It took a lot of thinking and I’m proud of the show. I think it looks pretty good.”
A performance at Unison on Saturday, June 17, “Drum Song,” offers a rare opportunity to witness a live duo reunion performance featuring Ostrovsky painting to the music of percussionist Syd Smart. “Syd’s setup is incredible, sculptural, and he has instruments all around him. He turns and plays, and I like his approach. It’s like mine,” Ostrovsky says. “His setup keeps changing, and he’s doing some interesting sonic things with electronic drums, too. He’s a storyteller, and he sings too.”
The two friends have worked together for 40 years, since first meeting at Friends of Great Black Music in Boston’s Chinatown. “It’s similar to Art Ensemble of Chicago,” says Ostrovsky, “and I felt at home there, ran the gallery for a while. The school there had eight teachers, and I was the only woman. I taught ‘Drawing for Musicians,’ and we would go into the woods to get branches to dip in ink. Any expectation of what you’re good at goes out the window.”
When she first started creating art to live music, she wore black clothes and gloves, and would draw images projected onto a large screen. These raw, experimental projects were conducted with friends working with the Boston Film/Video Foundation and the Massachusetts College of Art. “My work progressed from there, and slowly I started standing up. I learned what works, what drips, what paper to use; and Syd and I worked together in the gallery and classes. The last time we performed together as a duo was at Mohonk in the 1990s, and this will be only the second or third time that we’ve performed together, just the two of us.” They will perform for an hour, followed by a question-and-answer session.
Ostrovsky’s once-compact studio has since been transformed into a cozy Airbnb, and her studio space is now ensconced in the home that she has shared for nearly 30 years with inventor and wrestler Paul Widerman. “I have a 34-foot wall with no windows or doors in my studio now, and I make a lot of stuff,” she says. “With my studio in my house, I live with stuff, walk by it all the time. It used to be that when I would go out with my kids, dressed up, I would come home and get paint on my clothes. Now I have a box of paint clothes, and I get out of my good clothes before getting into the paints.”
A second Ostrovsky show, “Birds, Horses and Humans,” represents work produced in the last year in her studio. It’s on exhibit at the Ruby Gallery in Kingston through July 22. “I purposefully put animals before humans with respect,” she says, owing to what she calls our challenging political situation in America, because “maybe they know more than we do.” Figures with human heads atop the bodies of horses and birds; feathers from a friend’s peacock; inspiration from photos of exotic species that are unbelievably real. Eventually, she arrived at the feeling that animals have much to teach humans about optimism, hope, strength, courage and community. “Someone recently said to me, ‘I wish there was more fake news, because I can’t take this reality,’” she says.
The show, which constitutes a look back on her past year, was informed by her personal life. “My dad died last year, and he was one of the kindest, smartest, funniest guys,” she says. “You think you’re prepared [for the passing of a parent], but you’re not. All the clichés are true; and, though I’m not that much into religion, the Jewish faith says it takes a year for mourning. I gave myself until May 30. Grief, missing him, just comes up, and you never know what will trigger it.”
Referencing the Leroy Jenkins tune “Why Am I Here?” Ostrovsky adds, “I work in a lot of different mediums, and I’m trying to merge some of them.” With creative urges ever-present and juxtaposed against all the time and preparations required to mount her two current shows, she can’t wait to start working again. “I work every day, and sometimes I’ll get hooked by something and be on a roll. I work on paper or ink always, and canvas projects take more time,” she says.
Looking back, Ostrovsky points to a few memorable highlights, such as a live painting performance in duo with Stan Strickland at the Cambridge Multicultural Center in 2010 as part of a “Sights and Sounds” event. “I knew right away that it would be an amazing experience when I saw five or six seeing-eye dogs coming in with people who could only see an inch from their faces. They would touch my clothes full of paint, and get up really close with the art. It was incredibly moving,” she recalls.
She also performed with blind pianist Henry Butler for a “Very Special Arts” event attended by people who didn’t have all their senses. “Deaf audience members would be able to see me, but there was a lip reader and stenographer onstage. People who could hear, but not see, heard visual descriptions every 15 minutes about what was going on, what people were wearing, colors, what the artist was doing.” And, in 2016, she broke another art-and-sound barrier: she performed with Czech violinist, singer and composer Iva Bittova and bassist/composer Michael Bisio at Jazz at Lincoln Center – the first time the iconic organization featured a live painter.
Upcoming, as part of the “Express Yourself” series at the Wang Theater in Boston, she’ll return as guest artist in 2019. “Michelle Obama gave them an award [via the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities] for their work with emotionally challenged kids,” Ostrovsky says. “Some of the kids are in hospitals, and art saves lives. Art. Saves. Lives,” she repeats.
Her deep awareness of how much she receives from music’s presence in her life “helps my work be honest and direct, and I feel really blessed. Painting to live music is my way to honor that,” Ostrovsky says. “I didn’t honor performance painting properly at first – it’s not like studio work – and I had to learn to respect that part of myself. That took time, and the medium tells you a lot. I like to explore, and performing live taught me a lot about letting go, when to stop, all those aspects.”
Asked what she wished she’d known when she was just beginning, she laughs. “Do you have a week? I have a whole list!” Then, pausing to contemplate, she adds, “It taught me to value myself more. I’ve lightened up. I was very critical of my progress: Is it good enough? Now I just want to make it easier, to get my work out into the world, maybe look for a gallery…This is how long it took me.”
“For the Love of Jazz” runs through July 7 and “Drum Song,” a live duo performance featuring Syd Smart (percussion) and Nancy Ostrovsky (paints) on Saturday, June 17 at 8 p.m., will be held at Unison Arts Center at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz. Call (845) 255-1559 or visit http://unisonarts.org for more information. “Birds, Horses and Humans” runs through July 22 at the Ruby Gallery at 275 Fair Street #31 in Kingston. Call (845) 616-7629 for more information, or visit www.facebook.com/RUBYgallerykingston.