Drawing Interest

Drawing Interest

Merle Nacht grew up in a “notch”: in Erie, Pennsylvania, “up in the northwest little notch” of that state, “on Lake Erie between Cleveland and Buffalo” but closer, as the goose flies, to the southernmost edge of Ontario. “My mother was really interested in art,” the New Haven artist says. “She was a high school graduate, so had no training, but she just had an instinct,” a nature she then nurtured in her daughter, who “always had drawing equipment.” Nacht would spend Saturday mornings with her mother at a small local museum, drawing the natural history displays, and by sixth grade was taking classes alongside high school students. “We’d go down to the dock on the lake, and we’d sit with our big drawing boards… There was a boat to Niagara , and we’d just sit around there for three hours, five days a week in the summer, and draw. It was wonderful. And when it rained, we’d meet at the Erie Playhouse,” where the instructor “would give us problems. He’d say, ‘I want you to draw a rectangle, and in the rectangle in the front there’s a square cut out of it, and you can see through it,’ and we’d be doing those kinds of puzzles.”

In the end, she says, “I was just brought up to do” art. And yet the path to her career as an illustrator, selling pieces large or small, color or grayscale, made with pastels or inks or paints or collaged paper, to clients of many kinds—especially newspapers, books and magazines, the long list of which may be topped by The New Yorker, where Nacht notched five covers among a slew of interior drawings—was not as smooth as one of her signature pastel sweeps.

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A false start at a small women’s college in Pittsburgh, which boasted just a single art instructor and a dull social scene, led to three much happier years at Syracuse University, where Nacht majored in illustration after being impressed by the work she saw those students producing. Graduating in 1968, she moved to rough-and-tumble New York City and eventually landed in the art division of women’s department store Franklin Simon & Co. She married her beau, Arthur Nacht, who’d been a year behind her at Syracuse, and the two moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she took a similar job with Filene’s, headquartered in neighboring Boston, while he attended Harvard Business School. Years later, when the couple moved to Connecticut after another pit stop in New York, she found herself employed in the art department of G. Fox in downtown Hartford.

Disputably, perhaps, she describes her retail work—creating or shepherding hand-drawn promotions of this or that product, from conception to layout to illustration—as “not creative,” though she’s thankful that it “kept me at a drawing board.” She managed board time at home, too, and not long after moving to Connecticut, in 1974, she applied for and won the opportunity to stage an exhibition of original works at the Phoenix Mutual headquarters in Hartford. That show, her first solo, included still lifes of “a lot of tabletop things,” many of which have followed her through the decades to her current home in New Haven; the vase that appeared, in drawn form, on the poster for that 1974 show is visible from her couch.

Several years of individual and group shows had followed that first exhibition, as had a number of prizes and awards, when she realized that “my heart wasn’t in it”—“it” being the fine artist’s life. She didn’t like “having to explain and promote it and hype it up… Not my personality.” So she returned to illustration, this time with an eye on editorial work. Small portfolio in hand, “I would take the train in,” she says, “calling ahead to various magazines to make appointments with art directors. One of the first places I went was The New Yorker, and they some spot drawings—those little black-and-white drawings.” She’d already had a bit of success with Redbook, which wasn’t too shabby either, but she considers the New Yorker sale to be a “lucky break,” since “anything you can get published makes you more interesting to any other art directors, and if it’s The New Yorker, it has a little aura about it.”

The editorial nature of this new direction in her career meant Nacht could mostly avoid the promotional aspects of retail and fine art that had been troubling her. It also meant a satisfying balance between creative freedom and artistic direction, which sounds like it generally unfolded unfussily. “I’d be given a story—a piece of fiction, an article—and come up with ideas, show my sketches,” she recalls. “And an art director would pick the idea that they liked, and then I’d do the finish.” And then, of course, they’d send her a check, producing a “much steadier living” than she could’ve hoped for as a fine artist.

Hundreds of clients and one retirement later, a steady living is no longer a concern, and Nacht, at her husband’s prompting in honor of her 75th birthday, is giving at least one more fine art-style exhibition: a retrospective at Merwin’s Art Shop downtown. As of the opening date yesterday, 42 works span the initial stretches of the art and frame shop’s famously jam-packed walls, simultaneously spanning Nacht’s career as a drawer, illustrator and painter. Moods, methods and motifs cluster and cross like constellations in the night sky. A fluffy tree blushes red in autumn sun; vacationers let loose across a cruise ship’s seven decks; a hypochondriac takes the initiative and grabs the doctor’s stethoscope.

“The most delicious thing in the world is a box of pastels with 120 colors,” Nacht says, and as you try to take in this 45-year array of her work, you might be able to relate.

Merle Nacht: Drawings, Illustrations, Paintings: A Retrospective
Merwin’s Art Shop – 1052 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-4pm through April 16

Written by Dan Mims. Images 1 and 4 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2 and 3 provided courtesy of Merle Nacht.

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