Nancy Guzik | Everyday Magic

October Harvest [1996], oil, 40 x 48.,painting, southwest art.
October Harvest [1996], oil, 40 x 48.

By Norman Kolpas

Back in the late 1950s, two exquisitely simple prints of a woman by French Impressionist Auguste Renoir were displayed on a wall in Nancy Guzik’s childhood home in La Grange, IL. “I remember looking at them all the time,” Guzik says. “I couldn’t believe that someone could draw a line on a piece of paper and communicate something. It was like magic to me.”

Today, Guzik creates magic of her own. And while her style of painting and the subjects she chooses are worlds apart from those of Renoir, she shares with him and with other European masters two dramatic characteristics: a mastery of the medium and a passion for portraying the warmth and wonder of everyday life. Or, to quote acclaimed painter Richard Schmid, who is also Guzik’s mentor and husband, “It is her chaste skill at painting and her irrepressible enthusiasm at being alive that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary and makes her art so haunting.”

The Book [1989], oil, 36 x 36.,painting, southwest art.
The Book [1989], oil, 36 x 36.

Central to Guzik’s transforming powers as an artist are the observational skills she has developed over a lifetime and continues to hone on a regular basis. “I was a shy child,” she says, with charming hesitancy. “I didn’t talk much. I viewed. I watched. I loved watching people, the way they moved, what they said, and how they said it. And art was a better way for me to speak than with words. It fascinated me to be able to paint or draw something on a blank piece of paper and see it come alive.”

Like so many children who show a spark of interest in art, Guzik found her talent almost extinguished by an educational system that she says is ill at ease with creativity. “In high school,” she recalls, “they tried to steer me away from art by saying I could not support myself with it.”

Garden Harvest [1997], oil, 30 x 46.,painting, southwest art.
Garden Harvest [1997], oil, 30 x 46.

Fortunately, with her mother’s encouragement, Guzik found another satisfying outlet for her creativity: animation. For 10 years she worked for a company that created animated films for children, bringing to life such beloved fairytale characters as the Gingerbread Man and Rapunzel. “I absolutely loved it,” she says.

“I trained my eye to capture movement, and I think that has helped my painting to this day.”

Richard Schmid, Nancy Painting [1989], oil, 30 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
Richard Schmid, Nancy Painting [1989], oil, 30 x 24.

Animation also helped pay Guzik’s way through her early studies with legendary teacher William Parks at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, to which she eventually received a scholarship. “Once I found life drawing and painting, that was it for me,” she says. “That was all I did. It was so absorbing, and there was much to learn.” Her drive to develop her talent and skills also led her, along with three or four fellow academy students, to paint at the city’s Palette and Chisel Club under the tutelage of Richard Schmid.

Schmid had first become familiar with the work of an unknown artist with the signature N. Guzik while judging an exhibition of the Midwest Pastel Society in the mid-1980s. “I created the pastel at the academy,” Guzik explains. “There was a model dressed in a ballet costume, tying her ballet shoes. While everyone else did her whole figure, I concentrated on her hands and feet. It was only when I finished that I realized I was the only one who had not done the entire figure.” The painting won first prize. Several years later, the drive, determination, talent, and quiet passion of the artist who painted it also won the heart of Schmid.

Aunt Lavinia s Daffodils [1999], oil, 40 x 30.,painting, southwest art.
Aunt Lavinia’s Daffodils [1999], oil, 40 x 30.

By 1990 Guzik and Schmid were living in the northeastern foothills of the Colorado Rockies and painting together there and on trips throughout North America and Europe. At such a point some artists might have fallen into a comfort zone, feeling secure in their abilities. Guzik, however, quietly drove herself even harder.

“I felt I had never learned anatomy as much as I needed to,” she says. “I craved it.” She finally satisfied the craving at the Old Lyme Academy in Connecticut in 1993 and 1994. “People thought I was crazy to take eight months off to study anatomy, but I did, first in life drawing and then in a sculpture class. It was a risky thing to do. But the lessons I learned there have stuck with me ever since.”

You can see vivid evidence of that training in even the simplest of Guzik’s works, such as paintings of her cats titled Theadora and Ophelia Sketches. Though quickly rendered, the animals appear so lifelike that they seem ready to spring from the canvases.

Bethany and Tulips [1998], oil, 36 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
Bethany and Tulips [1998], oil, 36 x 24.

When Guzik portrays hu-mans, however, her powers to breathe life into oil and canvas are even more obvious. Consider her paintings of children, a subject she loves because “they’re so honest in what they do and what they say, and their honesty is something to learn from.” In Bianca a tiny girl reaches over the railing of her bed for an unseen object on the floor below, and her sense of focus and striving sum up all the wonder and optimism of childhood. In The Shoe, a toddler watches her mother slip on a shoe. It’s a simple, everyday act, but Guzik sees something more. Describing the emotion she captures in the focus of those dark little eyes, the pursing of lips, and the anticipation of tiny hands, the artist says, “for that child, at that time, it was a miracle.”

With an effortless appearance belying the hard work that went into them, Guzik’s paintings convey the idea that miracles surround us. And miracles, the artist says through her work, can be found as often among grownups as children. Take, for instance, Tea With Mrs. Seay, a life-size portrait of the mother of two of Guzik’s favorite child models. The woman’s kindness and good cheer fairly shine out of the painting, enveloping the viewer in warmth. “I wanted to show how wonderful it was to have tea with a great mom,” Guzik says. “She is one of those moms you know will embrace you and bring you into her house and give you chicken soup.”

Likewise, Guzik’s tender love for her husband suffuses the canvas in Richard Painting, a work she completed while the couple was visiting Scotland. “There we were, with this beautiful castle in front of us, which Richard was painting,” she remembers with a gentle smile. “And what I found more beautiful was the sight of Richard painting. So I started to paint him and he looked at me and said, ‘There’s a castle! Why aren’t you painting the castle?’ But the way that the light fell on him just seemed so perfect; it was a painting that needed to
be painted.”

Guzik’s ability to evoke the wondrous nature of everyday people and things seems especially magical when she brings inanimate objects to life in her paintings of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Such things surround her and Richard now in the 210-year-old southern Vermont farmhouse they have shared since the fall of 1998. Her still lifes titled Garden Harvest and Corn and Cantaloupes, for example, seem as if the produce that inhabits them almost grew in place on the canvases, so lusciously modeled and yet naturally arranged do the subjects appear.

What particularly fascinates about such works is the way Guzik uses lush painterly techniques to create a sensation of reality that goes beyond mere observation to convey the emotions she feels about her subjects. “I can only paint what I see,” she says, “but I have endless choices of how to do that. The way I love most is to trust what I feel about what I see and try as hard as I can to express that.”

The emotion Guzik puts into her paintings is what she most fervently hopes people will respond to when viewing them. “I think what people hunger for in art is the artist’s willingness to go deep down inside and share an inner experience,” she says. “That experience can be good or bad, but when it is expressed as art, it is always beautiful. And we need that kind of beauty for our spiritual nourishment.”

Norman Kolpas also wrote the article on Daniel Morper on page 74.

Photos courtesy the artist and Talisman Gallery, Bartlesville, OK; Pam Driscol Gallery, Aspen, CO; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; and West Wind Fine Art, Manchester Center, VT.

Featured in December 1999