Accomplished artist Nancy Villere has photographed ABILITY Magazine covers for years, but her talents as a painter lay mostly dormant until her recent health challenge. At Villere’s Crush Photo Studios in Orange County, CA, she spoke with editor’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan about how facing a major illness also helped her face her fears. Nancy shares her life’s journey with art and latest exhibition called Revealed.
Chet Cooper: We’ve known each other for years, but I realize that I don’t know that much about your background as a painter.
Nancy Villere: Professionally, I’ve been a photographer since my early 20s. And then, in my 30s, I went to school for painting. I didn’t believe that I could render anything recognizable. I had a friend who was a painter, and I would watch her do her thing and just kind of pine about not being able to do that.
One day, she took me down to the art store, and we got supplies so I started playing with it, and then, all of a sudden, I had something that I could relate to and that I enjoyed. Shortly after that, I had an opportunity to go to the Laguna College of Art + Design.
Cooper: Tell us more about that.
Villere: My photo studio and the art college shared space in the canyon right by the Laguna Art Festivals, and one day the dean of fine arts came to tell me they were kicking us out of our parking places. I had never met the man before in my life, but I told him, “Here’s my first painting ever, and your school’s awesome. Wouldn’t it be—” I don’t even know what I said, just some compliment about the school, and he liked it. He goes, “Well, you’re a photographer and we always need photography, so why don’t we trade photography for tuition?” And I said yes immediately, and so I did all of the photography for this college, all the documenting of student art, all the art shows that came through their gallery. I did photography for their brochure, their booklet, their marketing material, and I got to go to school.
Cooper: All four years?
Villere: I started out as a freshman, and dropped out when I was a junior, because my photography business was too busy. But my time there was really good. I had fun. I was blown away by the other students. I felt like an imposter. (laughs) I was with 18-year-olds who had so much talent. They knew they were gifted, but I was gifted, too.
Cooper: He gifted you with the class, with tuition.
Villere: That’s right! I was gifted as well. I was glad I had the opportunity to go, because as an uneducated painter, I would have thought that I needed something to be better than what was coming out of me. Then I realized that what was coming out of me was fine. It flowed. It’s like channeling. I always feel like I’m channeling a painting. So having the school background gave me the reassurance that I had the technique and knowledge that I needed, but I don’t feel like I put it to full use because I just do what comes out.
Cooper: But you stopped painting for a long time?
Villere: I painted in and out of those years, but never with the idea to sell my work or have it be shown publically. It was very personal.
Lia Martirosyan: So this new thing that’s happened, where you’re painting prolifically, came about because of your breast cancer experience? Can you tell us more about the connection?
Villere: At the end of 2013, I got diagnosed with cancer in my right breast. They were unable to schedule the surgery until January 2014. When I had the cancer removed, I got reconstructive surgery, and had to take about four weeks off, because I couldn’t lift or carry the cameras. But I like to be busy, so I decided that I was gonna get my painting materials out, buy some new supplies, and paint while I recovered. I figured that would feel good, and I would have some concentrated time to paint. It felt like a new experience, and it was fun. I challenged myself to go beyond what I had ever experienced with painting. I felt like I wanted to get over old conversations and just see where I am now. (crying) I’m sorry, I don’t know—
Martirosyan: Don’t apologize, let it all out.
Villere: I was painting and communicating with my sisters a lot during that time, because I have another sister who likes to paint, too. So when I started doing it, I invited her over and we had a day of playing, and then she went home and got her supplies out and started painting at her house, too, so she and I would communicate, take pictures of our work as we did it, and send ‘em back and forth to each other. I was willing to paint only while it felt beautiful, not when I was feeling frustrated or pissed. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, but sometimes every layer isn’t what you want it to be. It’s actually a foundation for something else, and so when you’re looking at it, you have to make judgments and evaluations. There was a freedom. I was willing to paint until it was complete. That gave me permission to play and play and play and play.
Martirosyan: You played until you completed some works.
Villere: And then there was a moment where something shifted, and the layers started coming out beautiful more often. I was doing both abstract and figurative work simultaneously. The figures started to become bolder. Rendering the female figure has always challenged me. It’s fun to create dimension with light and shadow. In all my years of photographing women, I’ve been looking at light and shadow, and how it defines curves and all of that. So it was time for that to come out. I don’t know if this has anything to do with breast cancer, except for the fact that it got me painting again, and stopped me from being distracted.
Cooper: You started to get emotional there. What things were you holding onto that maybe you started to let go of?
Villere: Whether what I painted was good enough or interesting or valuable. It didn’t really matter. I got to the very peaceful place of having no agenda for the final product, and that always gives me room to go deeper into creating.
Cooper: Art for its own sake?
Cooper: So there weren’t any other issues you were holding onto, like your mortality? Even though breast cancer has come a long way, I would imagine that it still made you give some thought to your mortality.
Villere: Actually, it was more about should I put these paintings out for people to see or not. I think contemplating my mortality helped me move forward because if not now, then when? Who knows what’s just around the corner? That was part of the impetus to let the stuff go into a public forum, and see what I could do with it. Because we only have today (laughs) as you know. We have today to be the best we can be.
Cooper: I don’t think we have today. We have now.
Villere: Exactly. So not waiting till the right time felt like it was based on the cancer. I think what it also did was, as a woman—I don’t know—it’s like, our bodies are beautiful no matter what they’re doing. I don’t think anybody’s perfect, and so the concept of perfection really is overrated. Physical perfection may happen for a handful of people out there, and I do see them in my photography world. But if you asked those women, they wouldn’t think they’re perfect. Being at peace with the imperfection of our bodies, I think that I got pretty clear about that. It is whatever it is. I’m not my body. I’m my heart, my soul, my brain, too…
Cooper: You’re no body?
Villere: I’m nobody. I’m not my body. I’m a nobody. (laughter) I’m somebody, dammit! I don’t want to be all woo woo with this stuff, but—
Cooper: Do you think what moved for you was the freedom from fear?
Villere: Maybe conquering the fear. Creating for me sometimes is connected with fear, because it’s really like being my true self in that expression.
Martirosyan: Exposing yourself?
Cooper: Like a peep show? (laughter)
Martirosyan: Yes, there were so many times I was reminded of a peep show as you were talking! (laughter)
Villere: That’s awesome!
Cooper: Now that we’ve said “peep show,” we’ve got to explain.
Villere: (laughs) No, I don’t think we have to explain “peep show.”
Martirosyan: We can’t just say “peep show,” and have people figure it out. We’ve got a picture of Nancy in the peep show, don’t we?
Villere: I’ve been, for the last year and a half prolifically, painting a number of pieces that are figurative and abstract, and I’ve been asked to participate in a SoHo show at The Living Room. The woman who put the show on has known me for about 10 years as a photographer, and when I introduced myself to her as a painter and showed her my work, she asked me to do the show, she said, “Nancy, nobody knows you’re a painter. This is like your secret life. We should do something with the name of the show where you’re uncovered or whatever.” And what came to me was “Revealed,” especially with the nude figures that I have in the show. So I decided it should be called “Revealed,” for me and for my pieces. (laughs) And it just so happens that right after that, we moved, and I had a lot of my old family photos of myself and my children in a couple of crates. I also found this roll of photos that I had done of myself naked for my husband, ‘cause I liked to do that in my cute early 30s (laughs) or late 20s. I decided that I was gonna paint from those photographs and did three self-portraits for the show, because how better to be revealed than to have my body exposed?
Martirosyan: There you go.
Villere: And while I was painting, it kept coming to me that I should have these photographs in the show. I liked them as they were: 5x5s on a roll, having come out of a printer and not yet cut apart. But then I thought of the idea of having a box that you look into, or something where it’s a private viewing, and you can attach the pictures to spindles and turn them from side to side to see… In my head I was remembering an old stop-motion thing that I had seen at some point, but it wasn’t gonna need to be stop-motion. It was just turning it from side to side as the way you view the pictures. I have a friend who’s kind of a handyman construction guy, and I told him what I wanted and he had this old great breadbox (laughs) that you could flip the lid down, and he fashioned the spindles in there, and I applied the pictures and it worked exactly the way I had imagined. So I named it “Peep Show/Artist Revealed,” which would be me doing what I ask women to do every day in my photography, to go in front of the camera either unclothed or partially clothed. I thought it would be fair if I put myself out there in that. And looking at myself from 1991, I felt a little bit of separation, (laughs) so it wasn’t like it was me doing it today. I don’t know why that made a difference, but I enjoyed the pictures. I thought they were cute and sweet. There was something I saw in them, so putting them in the show was fun. And why not?
Cooper: You sound like you related to the pictures.
Villere: I could relate to them, and I could relate to the person in the pictures, slightly. (laughs) That’s peep show. It’s in the show for $25,000. Should anyone want to buy them, they are for sale—at a price. (laughs)
Cooper: There’s been a lot of talk about art therapy. Were you thinking that when you started painting again?
Villere: I think I was. I’m so happy when I’m painting. I’m truly in the most peaceful place.
Cooper: Are you laughing as you paint?
Villere: Sometimes. (laughs) When I’m shooting and painting, I’m really laughing! Or listening to my karaoke, I really laugh. When I paint, it’s definitely for therapy, like a release.
Cooper: The word “therapy” seems too clinical.
Villere: Right. For me, I like to have a positive attitude about things, and I like to think my way through my life as if I imagine it’s gonna go a certain way, and then it goes that way. I believe in the power of your intentions. To deal with the cancer, for me, I just kept my intention that it was gonna be easy, simple, not disrupt my life and not kill me. (laughs) The painting helped me to stay clear and positive about that. When I’m in my painting mode, nothing else matters. There’s no stress, there’s just that process that’s going on.
Martirosyan: It’s different than photography?
Villere: I get a lot of that with my photography, too, that’s why I love what I do so much. My joy is when I’m working with another person. This is more solo. But any time I’m expressing myself artistically. It’s the transcendence, letting go of the physical and I’m somewhere else. That’s how it feels when I experience art, painting and photography are the moments when that occurs.
Cooper: Different people have that reaction to different things. I was just listening to NPR where the guy was talking about his passion for soccer. It wasn’t even getting the goal per se, but the whole setup with the line and being in the moment. That was his thing. But he was known for something else, so when the reporter asked him what his passion was, it wasn’t what they were talking about. It kind of threw the NPR guy off. He was like, “what?” (laughs) I guess Lia has that transcendence with her singing. Of course I have that with my—
Villere: motorcycle riding.
Martirosyan: Do you prefer acrylic or oil?
Villere: I like acrylic because of the way it operates. I love paint and texture. I love to show texture. I love to have you feel the paint as well as look at what the painting is. I also like the drying time of acrylic. Oils dry so slowly. My inspirations are a lot faster, like when I have something coming out of me. If I’m blending a layer, I only want to have to wait a little bit of time to blend it. There’s all sorts of mediums you can add to ‘em. But sometimes even acrylic is too slow. (laughs) It’s like, “Stop. That blue. Get rid of that blue! I want white now!” But I definitely like acrylic work for the way I paint. At my show, this collector was like, “I love your work!” Then he said, “You paint really fast, don’t you?” And I was like, “Whoa! How can you tell?” He felt the energy in the way I create my images. It was really cool. I think he might be the one who bought—
Martirosyan: “You get a discount!”
Villere: “You get a discount for paying attention!” (laughter) “For guessing right!” But I thought that was funny, that he could tell that I was a fast painter. Maybe you can tell in the style of them. I never feel like I’m doing something that I’m not supposed to be doing. The fact that all of these paintings are coming to me, and I’ve managed to figure out my work schedule so I have days to paint, when I never used to look for days to paint before. The universe has lined me up with a good assistant for the flow of my business, so I can spend days painting in between days photographing, so I get to continue on with the painting, which is really fun. And now I want to share it with other people. It’s bigger than me, so I’m finding out how many ways I can get my work out there, how many places I can display it.
Cooper: When I first saw that you’d started painting, it seemed like you were doing an overabundance of breasts in your work.
Villere: My figures are mostly all women’s torsos, and a lot from the front.
Cooper: But recently I’ve seen a lot more of other things, especially in the abstracts.
Villere: I feel there’s something pleasing about my torso. I connect with them as far as the painterly quality goes, and also in rendering the figure. I don’t know that there’s necessarily showing breasts for the sake of showing breasts. I would say it’s probably some subconscious thing; I just like rendering the shapes, and those orbs are so fun to render! For whatever reason, my nipples come out 3D, even though I only give them two seconds of time. I put highlight, shadow, a twist, and I leave ‘em. And for some reason, they pop off the canvas. (laughs) It’s the channeling. I don’t feel like I’m the one who’s always in control. I like letting it flow and seeing what happens. And sometimes I’ll be standing at my canvas painting, so close to it because of the length of my brush, and I’m doing things that I am seeing to do as far as putting paint on and adding color, highlight, shadow, whatever, but when I step back it looks so different. Like I didn’t even know I was creating dimension because I was right on top of it, but if I take a little break and step back, I see what I’ve done.
Cooper: That’s good.
Villere: I don’t know if that’s good or not. Probably not good (laughs) that I don’t know what I’m doing until I step back! (laughs) But it’s the whole being connected. And I’d say if I have done anything since starting Crush Studio for my photography, it’s been about stepping out of my way with my thoughts and judgments, and allowing myself to be in the moment as I create with my clients. That practice serves me a lot when I paint. I try not to predispose myself to doing something specific. I just open up my thoughts and allow what’s there to come through and see how it looks.
Martirosyan: You get so intimate with each piece. How are you when it comes to selling?
Villere: Oh, my gosh, it felt like somebody was taking my children away. I think I sold two paintings out of this last show. I put ‘em up for sale—
Cooper: —and bought ‘em back? (laughter)
Villere: I may have to buy them back!
Martirosyan: Write yourself a check.
Villere: I had a discussion with the woman who was having the show, and she was like, “Nancy, you can price them at, say $5,000, but until you’re known, they may not sell that that price. You can decide how you want to price them.” And she let me decide the pricing on everything. So part of me was like, “I don’t want to sell that one because I know that one’s gonna be more valuable later,” because to me, they’re all like miracles. So to have them priced at somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000—mostly in the $2,000 to $3,000 range—that doesn’t feel like enough. It feels like, “Wait, they’re gonna be worth more.” But, no one knows for sure; this is the tricky part about art…
Cooper: The higher price comes after your death.
Villere: There you go. (laughs) I have a few saved for my family so they can cash out.
Martirosyan: You’re going to create more.
Villere: All of my babies are precious. But I’ve got to let ‘em go. And yeah, by having ‘em sell, it gave me—
Cooper: Start selling your kids now, and you’ll feel better.
Villere: My children! (laughs) My girls are 35 and 34, I don’t think anybody’s buying ‘em. Their husbands are already paying for them, so there you go
Villere: So anyway, I bought two palettes of canvases and made room for them in my garage. All different sizes, or multiples of the same size, so that I have five to 10 of each of my favorite sizes. I even got some so that I can go bigger when I’m ready.
Martirosyan: Go big or go home.
Villere: Go big or go home! There are some babies that people are never gonna see. I have to keep ‘em. I like what they were for me at that time.
Cooper: So you paint at a home studio? You’re not doing the painting here, right?
Villere: Right. I’ve created a home studio.
Martirosyan: Very nice. Your own corner to focus on your art.
Villere: Yeah. It’s always ready to go; I can go down there at any hour.
Cooper: The neighbors don’t complain about the noise? (laughter)
Martirosyan: Do you listen to music while you paint?
Villere: I do. I have my headphones or ear buds.
Cooper: You do karaoke, where you’re yelling and screaming. I forgot the name of that thing you do.
Villere: It’s called Smule. I actually can’t Smule and paint at the same time, although in the very beginning I did some really fun Smules, when I was super-shy. I was like (singing softly). That’s how singing feels to me; my voice scares me. Smuling is like the ultimate frontier. Singing in public— because I’m letting people listen to it—and even singing for myself is a new experience. I was singing “The Girl from Ipanema” and spray painting at the same time. So the music’s starting, and the microphone starts picking up what’s going on, even if you’re not singing over it right away, or you’re not supposed to, so I was shaking, and it’s like the shake of the spray-paint can, it was all adding texture to what I was doing.
Cooper: The kind of paint can with the metal bead inside?
Villere: Uh-huh. It was really fun. Adding that texture, that layer of sound to the process was fun. So I spray painted during my Smule. (laughs)
Cooper: Can you do graffiti-type art with that spray-can effect? Are you spraying the larger areas?
Villere: I haven’t really created graffiti, so far.
Cooper: The people who really can control a spray can, can do an amazing amount of work in a small area.
Villere: That’s not my forté. I like to do big swatches with abstracts. I like to play with the paint. I have a series, you put stuff on it and it changes it. I was doing a thing where I had one spray can that was carpeted and it would kind of splatter, but that was perfect, so I knew when to use that one. So again, just taking what was happening and using it to create layers and texture and whatever happens for me for abstracts, which is the layers and textures and what came first and what came second, who knows at the end of it?
Martirosyan: Thinking about what you said about letting go of the fear of, is it good enough? For me, I think, “Am I creating anything that anybody would look at, let alone buy?” It’s a huge step you took just being comfortable and confident enough in what you created and putting it out there.
Villere: Part of the process is giving up attachment. I’m not attached to whether somebody else likes them. And I do feel confident about these paintings. My mom has a bunch up at her house from when I was in school, and they make me laugh. But they’re good, there’s nothing wrong with ‘em, but I never took ‘em seriously. I don’t take these seriously, but I do enjoy them, and I feel like I am happy. When I had that show, it was the first experience of having a lot of my pieces hung and displayed and observed, and I was afraid that I wasn’t gonna be able to stay present that night, like I wasn’t gonna be able to stay in my body, because it was about me, and that’s usually when I check out. But I stayed present. And it was wonderful to have people look at the paintings, and experience ‘em and enjoy them and have comments about ‘em.
I loved eavesdropping, walking behind people as they were talking about ‘em to hear what they were looking at, and what they were seeing, and how it was affecting them. That is so fun for me. Even if they said they didn’t like it, it didn’t click or whatever, I’m like: That’s fine for you, ‘cause it’s different for everybody. The experience or the connection or non-connection is a very personal thing for people, and I don’t expect them all to get it or want it or like it or whatever. That part was pretty freeing.
Villere: Is he sleeping?
Cooper: What? I didn’t stay present, sorry about that! (laughter)
Martirosyan: He was waiting to slip that in somehow.
Villere: “Chet snores” (laughter)
Cooper: I was thinking about if you’d ever been tested for having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and then when you said that about staying present, I was thinking about that, and that’s why I made the joke.
Villere: I’ve never been tested for that. I definitely could have ADHD.
Cooper: I love the fact that you thought enough to know that you might check out in certain situations, like, “I don’t want to hear this, I’m just gonna go over there.”
Martirosyan: I can relate to that.
Villere: I’m not good at being that center of attention with groups of people. Performance is not comfortable for me.
Martirosyan: Being the center of attention, is odd, but I enjoy expressing something I’m confident in. I like the part you said about walking by and experiencing what people are saying about you, without it being fabricated because you’re there.
Villere: Yeah, that was fun. I had the time of my life that night. Having the show was for everyone else, too. It was for the people to have that experience. Patricia, my assistant, she’s a good therapist for me, because sometimes I’ll be like, “Why am I doing this? Who cares?” And she brings me back to, “You know, why would you deprive people of seeing this if it would give them pleasure—or pain?” (laughs) I’m like, “Okay. It’s not about me.”
Cooper: That how I got pulled in at Chippendale’s. (laughter)
Cooper: It’s not just about me; it’s about the audience.
Villere: Are you a guest performer at Chippendale’s? (laughs)
Martirosyan: He pulls out his sequins.
Villere: His breakaway pants come off. Magic Chet. (laughter) crushphotostudios.com foapom.com smule.com