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When she returns to Haiti, as has been her annual ritual for more than 18 years, Nancy Josephson will do so with her visual art restored to the front of her mind. She is a self-taught artist, and she practices what some call folk or outsider art – her particular brand is filled with embellishment, by way of beads (with which she once decorated a full-room installation, floor to ceiling), sequins, rhinestone chains, glass mosaics or found metal.
For the eight years prior, though, Josephson, who in the 1970s sang in bluegrass bands including Buffalo Gals, had music on her mind. She’s married to David Bromberg, a renowned singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose solo career is complemented by the voluminous work he’s done with a range of artists, including Bob Dylan. Bromberg in 2006 persuaded Josephson to jam with him and some friends near their home in Wilmington, where they run a violin sales and repair shop. She soon formed the folk group Angel Band with Kathleen Weber and Aly Paige, and for the next several years, she was, first and foremost, a musician.
Indeed, during a recent late-winter trip to Jamaica, where Bromberg had a gig, Josephson ended up onstage, singing.
But she is pleased to be free of the machinery that both fuels and clogs the world of the performer – the managers and booking agents, for example.
“I’m really wanting to physically be making this visual stuff,” she says.
She visits Haiti at times to work with other artists. More often than not, however, Josephson’s work there is with a spiritual teacher. Those experiences return home with her.
“The work that I do in Haiti informs all of my work,” she says, “how I connect with everything spiritually, and how that guides the work that I do. … It is about trying to understand how to bring out all of the best parts of me that I can.”
One of her shows consisted entirely of cremation urns, each bedazzled in its own way. Among the pieces was an urn Josephson has set aside for herself. On the back, in letters of Scrabble tiles, it reads, “Does this make my ashes look big?”
She noticed at that exhibition that some people who upon first glimpse of the beautified objects had smiled would reveal a level of discomfort as they approached and recognized the urns. The juxtaposition of beauty and dark subjects is among the threads that connect Josephson’s work.
She loves taxidermy forms, for instance.
“I think they’re beautiful,” she says, “and they’re good stand-ins for humans.”
Her piece called “Ingredients” features a fox-like animal, made of countless baubles in shades of blue and accented with darker patterns, standing on its hind legs while pushing a shopping cart. In the cart are three vegetables and three squirrels, which are standing and peering out as children might. The fox-like creature either is shopping for the ingredients it will share with the squirrels or is shopping for ingredients that include the squirrels.
“What I was looking at,” Josephson says, “was these weird relationships that sort of have to do with safety or prey.”
Years of trial and error have lent her expertise in adhesives. She has become technically proficient in a painstaking medium.
“Even when I hate being in my studio,” she says, “I love it. Sometimes, I just want to whack my head against the wall, because I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing next. And then it’s, No! That’s exactly where I should be. This is where I need to be able to kind of go through that next fire, that next thing that’s going to make me be that much better.”
And when her pieces prompt questions or evoke swings in reactions from wonder to puzzlement, she absorbs the apparent disquiet.
“I’m older,” says Josephson, 59, “and I’ve been living this life big for a really long time. And I know stuff about this. I know that if you try to do stuff for other people, if you’re working externally, it’s like, for what? I’m talking about in your art and in your creative life. It is hollow and like swallowing ashes. Why would you waste your precious time doing something only because somebody else would like it?”
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