English Translation from “Jazz and Art”

Interview with Nancy Ostrovsky by Alessandra Sciotino
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Why did you chose jazz among all the musical genres?
I will have to say, the music chose me. There is a passionate feeling I have about this music that transforms me and allows me to express myself. Although I also work with others types of music.

Which are the colors of jazz?
This is a complicated question and I hope with the following questions you have asked me, there is an answer. I believe all colors are available and applicable in transforming creatively what I hear and feel in the music that I can apply in my work.

According to Kandinskij, each color and geometric shape is associated to a specific sound: the yellow triangle, for instance, translates the high sounds of the violin. Is there a real scientific correspondence between the sounds and the colors or the geometric shapes, maybe?
I have not studied this- but for me, specific colors and images do emerge-while listening to music- it can be very complicated and layered. I am limited physically, to totally reproduce, in all of its richness, colors and texture, along with acknowledging real time,those images that visually immerge in my mind when painting live in performance. For example I have experienced some specific colors of deep hues and variations of blues and purples the sounds of very lower notes from the acoustic bass. The cymbals of the drums can shimmer with a wide variety of colors in horizontal patterns, and are layered, changing very quickly at times on top of each other-some parts fading in and out after which new groupings can emergeÉ this would be a visual manifestation, transferring what I hear and think to what I see and apply.

Your jazz series are always dynamic, bright and brilliant. Can jazz be associated to such a kind of emotion only?
These are your words and I don’t think they explain or describe my work. Each performance is different. There are many choices to make in the moment when painting live – there are the musicians, the audience and how I am thinking and feeling. Colors are only one aspect of my process. The work generally is figurative.

The intricacies of the use of colors – patterns and composition, and images from my unconscious, are all important aspects of how I respond to the music I am hearing, giving me an infinite number of possibilities. Good music music hits me in my belly, works its way through my body, creating emotions and energies that force me to be real, as real as possible while painting that particular work. I would add, included at times, is certainly a joyousness and humor in my work.

I painted live numerous times, with the late great bass player Fred Hopkins. His music was incredibly powerful, complex, sad, and brilliant. He had a sound that I have not heard the likes of since. I not only loved his music, but was familiar with him as a person which gave me additional insight. The complexities of his music, and in other musicians of this caliber, for me, catch essences of being human. The hard parts also have a stirring beauty.

How much has the African culture influenced you as for the approach with jazz music?
I was born in Benghazi- Libya and lived there only the first 2 years of my life. I do feel the sixteen years where I lived in numerous countries in Asia-Taiwan, the Philippines and in Bangladesh, affected my awareness of intonations, the emotional quality of speech and songs sung. For example as a child in Taiwan I went to the local Chinese Opera often. These experiences imprinted me deeply.

Is it possible to consider your works a kind of translation from a semiotic system, the musical one, to another, the pictorial one, or your intention is different?
I have been creating art since I was 8 years old. I knew this was what I was going to do with my life. I have followed my own personal interests, instincts and am basically self-taught. Along the way I’ve had mentors who seemed to show up right when I needed to be pushed further. There were a few pivotal moments hearing music growing up that helped to open my mind. These experiences just naturally led me to ask questions and look for answers. There began a life long journey as an artist who was also thirsty for music from which to learn from.

I will describe a bit about how I came to be interested in what I am doing with the Improvisational Live Painting that I do. In the 1970s in Boston’s Chinatown, I met percussionist Syd Smart. He had a loft called ‘Friends of Great Black Music’ which was modeled after the ideas from the performance ensemble, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

I ran the art gallery in the loft and taught a class called Drawing from Musicians. Musicians performed and we drew with black ink on paper. I chose the medium along with the use of sticks, bark from nature and various brushes to work with. The unpredictability of dipping a stick in ink broke preconceived notions of one’s expectations of the mark at the end of the brush. Students were forced to let go and work with the image that emerged on the paper. The music added an important focal point. One had to follow the rhythms and make marks while watching the physicality and the movement of the musicians with their instruments. The students became aware of the additional choices in image- making.

Syd had a very free-form percussive setup. One day we both noticed our approach to our medium were physically, very similar. This grew into more experimental work at the Boston Film Video Foundation. There were collaborations with video artists doing 3 camera shoots. Syd and I would be filmed using the 3 video cameras. The video artist would decide when to overlap images which were projected behind us, on stage, onto a large screen.

When I first began doing live painting -it was initially to inform myself. I wore all black and had long black gloves. The idea was that the paintings would just emerge and one did not see me. I worked on the floor and the video camera would shoot over my shoulder. Over the years I slowly became upright and now I am totally visible and my physical movement has become an integral part of my performance. I work on black boards that are usually 5 ft by and up to 15 feet long. This enables me to move and make strokes that are natural to my body. The music pushes me.

One day while working with black India ink and brushes, I felt blocked just using brushes. I picked up the whole bottle of ink and starting squirting the images, also using the opposite end of the brush and my hands as well. The improvisation, spontaneity, and democracy (in the best sense of the word) in a great jazz performance are ingredients of which I am most interested to mirror with paint. In creating art, staying true and being disciplined, one can continue to explore one’s medium.

To answer your question, yes, I am very interested in responding, translating the music, musicians , the performance into visual imagery.

Is the emotional source the fil-rouge of your works?
My Studio work is figurative as well as autobiographical. I am interested in conveying a strong emotional intensity of the human process. I do this in the movement and interaction between figures in my work. My performance painting informs this work- and keeps me spontaneous and holds me hostage to stay in the moment.

Do you think that a base on musical education needs to translate musical suggestions into figurative arts or make simpler this proceeding, at least?
Education in anything is an enhancement. Education and being compelled to being an artist and what particularly informs that artist’s need to create, that is personal. For me it probably would have enriched me. I would have loved to have played an instrument. I dabbled a bit in my early 20’s. I learned to read music a little but nothing lasting. Being a painter consumed me.

You also give some live performances together with jazz musicians (Painting to music). Is improvisation the common element?
Yes improvisation is one of the key ingredients .

What are your different emotional attitudes in your studio paintings and in the live performances? Which one of these forms of expression do you prefer and why?
My Studio Work is done alone. In the studio I have different approaches and mediums that I work from. My drawings and ink work are very direct-clear lines that have a calligraphic element and are mostly figurative. With my paintings, I start with applying paint to the paper or canvas. Usually I have no set idea. I work with, what could be called, the unconscious. From there I make my moves.

I recently created a series of 16 charcoal and ink drawings which are called ‘The Artist and The Painting’. These drawings again came unconsciously – meaning I did not sit and say to myself this is what I want to do. They just emerge, in a certain order that clearly reads from one to the next. The question that came up was: Is sitting and working on drawings for 8 hours a day the best way I can help people in my lifetime? This question was triggered by 9/11 as well as the events in the world and the incredible suffering one see’s all around. I took the age old theme of an artist in the studio with the canvas in front of her. The artist was female. The last piece in the series was called ‘The Artist As An Old Woman’. After finishing this series I felt “Yes, continue making images.”

Another series which in many ways came out of that work is called ‘Escaping the Painting’ series. Where the characters I create are trying to escape from the canvas. This should shed some light on my studio.

With my Live Painting I am not alone. I weave, intricately, a large painting guided in the moment by the music, audience, musicians, all directly influencing the direction of the work. My palette, with the performance work, is very large and varied. I use long sticks with brushes attached, rollers, opaque water sticks, squeezable paints and other objects. I am not interested in creating abstract work. Though, sections may have those elements. The work in the end is very recognizable.

Live performances were born in ’70s, like a new and provocatory form of artistic expression, but nowadays there’s not yet originality nor provocation in that. What justifies its use today, then?
I am not an art historian. There is a certain vacuous ness, vanity and ego in the culture now. I see this in painting. I see a certain laziness to do the foundation work. To learn to paint an apple one needs to really look at the object, painting what you see over and over. One needs to know ones medium in order to have a voice. Then there is the question: Do you have anything new to say? I would make the metaphor of playing an instrument where you understand scales and the foundations of playing that instrument, in as many ways as possible , so one builds a vocabulary to establish a voice. On another note, there is work out there to pay attention to.

DOWNBEAT June 2006

JAZZARTSIGNS Wheelock College Family Theatre, Boston, MA
by Fred Bouchard

It’s a gig like none other. Singer Lisa Thorson’s band’s onstage, playing loose and warm. But who are all the extras? Two women on a podium stage-left take turns hand-signing along with Lisa’s lyrics, while on a large scaffold stage right a dancing woman flamboyantly paints a huge portrait of the band playing. An off-stage announcer gives thorough play-by-play, and someone’s typing nearly every word onto a caption monitor. Welcome to JazzArtSigns, all you jazz fans, disabled listeners and/or watchers, art buffs, music therapy students!If the stage looks busy, it’s just the swirl of a backstage maelstrom of long-term planning, hardscrabble funding, and complex logistics, reasons why this is just the third performance since Thorson conceived it in 1999. The on-stage cast — Thorson, saxophonist Cercie Miller, bassist Dave Clark, drummer George Schuller, pianist Doug Johnson, American Sign Language interpreters Jody Steiner and Misha Derissant, improvisational painter Nancy Ostrovsky – is mirrored and amplified by off-stage support: Vince Lombardi (audio describer), Don DePew (captions), Marc Okun (sound), Josh Monroe (lights). The hook: at some points, everybody trades fours, improvises! Collaborating presenters are fearless, too: Wheelock Family Theater hosts events for historically under-served minorities, and VSA Arts of Massachusetts sponsors arts performances for the disabled; both groups are celebrating silver anniversaries.

Well, is the show worth all this effort? I’d say yes. The jazz content is top-notch, the set list unusually evocative. Cercie solos on soaring alto on “Double Rainbow” as Nancy sketches large red forms. On “Speak No Evil” Lisa sings “It’s time to learn” while Nancy Ôscats’ white starbursts, Cercie, Lisa and Dave trade fours. Parker’s “Anthropology” and Tom Harrell’s”Terrestris” inspire air-solos by Jody and Misha. Lisa’s purling voice invokes beauty and peace on her “Wondering Why” and new lyrics to “My Favorite Things” foster chuckles. She reads the audience’s scribbled wishes during a slow-burn, sinuous “Lonnie’s Lament” with arco bass and mallets. Misha’s hands flail note-for-note with George’s mallets on “Eye Music”, which Vince recites offstage. Lennon’s “Imagine” reharmonized, finds Cercie airborne and Doug afire. While Nancy daubs aural/visual inspirations on black paper, she prances in sync with rhythms and dynamics. Spreading an acrylic rainbow, she brandishes squeegee, squirt bottle, palette knife, brushes, feather, even a daisy, to paint an energized portrait of the playing band. Sometimes everything stops and Vince catches us up with a graphic account of the mural’s evolution. There’s often too much to keep up with – a good sign for mind-stretching.

Making music accessible to the disabled has been a goal for Thorson since a 1979 accident left her wheelchair bound. The performance – 90 minutes, no break – constantly redefines audience / performer interaction. The interactive potpourri of improvisation, music, visual art, and language encourages audiences to bond in a spirit of acceptance, innovation and cooperation. Thorson’s hybrid of theatre and music brings people together to effect social change. (In 1980, she co-founded Next Move Unlimited, a theater company that championed disabled performers.) “We welcome first-time jazz listeners with music that’s diverse and theatrical but not difficult, lyrics aimed at unifying people from different musical and social levels. We play few standards (tough to sign), avoid dark moods (to lighten up hard-bop). With so much going on, listeners may have to choose. We keep our sense of adventure and humor, balance shorter solos with the big picture.”

After the show, wheelchair people greet Thorson in the lobby, Ostrovsky shows her paint-box and palette, weighs offers for the mural; the musicians bask onstage, Schuller showing his drumkit. Thorson explains: “It’s a tightrope walk. The presentation cannot be based on ticket sales, because it must be affordable. We cannot do it in a big space because we lose intimacy. Funders may not see it as artistic, jazz presenters may say it’s not jazzy enough. Hey, life is a performer with a disability!”

For more information, contact: www.lisathorson.com

The Woodstock Times July 1998
by Mikhail Horowitz

“The trombone gronks, and she responds with a thump of her paintbrush, a loud red thwak! on black. The cymbal shimmers, and she flicks an arpeggio of white streaks to accent the head of the drummer, whose likeness she’s implied in a flurry of yellow lines. Often, the musicians react to her –a cadenza might cap a particularly vigorous commotion of strokes; an abrupt change in tempo might follow a series of long, slow gestural sweeps. Gradually, as Nancy Ostrovsky paints to live jazz by the Rosewell Rudd Trio, you become aware that what you’re really watching is not three, but four musicians improvising.

Ostrovsky, of Accord, has been doing her vibrant thing to live jazz for some time now, ever since the days when she and Syd Smart ran a gallery together in Boston. She started by painting to Smart’s drumming, crouched in a inconspicuous corner of the floor. ‘He’d do this percussion stuff that was really very sculptural, hitting these pots and pans and going up and down with his sticks, ‘ Nancy recalls, ‘and I was going up and down with my sticks…it was like being in a kitchen and cooking together, and we just connected.’

Eventually, Nancy began to assert more of her physical presence in performance, quitting the floor, standing before a panel or canvas, painting to and with the music. Today, having worked with such illustrious and responsive players as David Murray, Fred Hopkins, and Andrew Cyrille, and having spent 20 years developing an ‘inner vocabulary’ of squiggles, daubs and smears that correspond to musical figures, she sees herself, in performance, as part of the musical process. ‘I’ve stopped trying to have some big concept about it,’ she says. ‘[The performance] is just who I’m with, and where I’m at, and whatever’s happening at the moment.'”

“Each musician immersed himself deeply in the music as Ostrovsky made whorls and thrusts of the instruments visible.”
-Bob Blumenthal, Boson Globe

“The trombone gronks and she responds with the thump of her paintbrush, a loud red thwack! on black. The cymbal shimmers, and she flicks arpeggio of white streaks to accent the drummer, whose likeness she’s implied in a flurry of yellow lines. ”
-Mikhail Horowitz

“Ostrovsky reaching for the right paint or pastel..fingers dipped in jars and nozzles of bottles become impromptu paintbrushes..”
-James Shaefffer

“When you first see it, you wonder what the hell its going to be.”
-John Clifford

“Why don’t we let painters like Ostrovsky make our currency instead of Mint? Be more interesting and we’d probably keep more of it too.”
-Joe Giardullo

“The performing arts prevailed…and was greatly enhanced by the visual arts, her slitherly, bodily responses to the sounds drew the audience in immediately.”
-Charles H. Matz

“The shadows of the previous night’s performance danced on the black canvases, forming a musical traffic jam and paint gobs….as in the 21st Coltrane Concert , Ostrovsky’s work comes alive even a day later. ”
-Sarah Johnson, Northeastern News

“She’s special: she’s like another player.”
-Roswell Rudd

“I love Nancy’s work and resonated with it right away. It felt like seeing that which I had wanted to see, but only been hearing until then. It looked like music.”
-Michael Cain