The Jungle That I Am

by Nina Alexander

Nina Alexander has been making art for 60 years. Her work has transitioned from metal sculptures to photography, collage, and most recently, the pastels which are featured in this 10×10 inch book. Preceding the artwork is a brief biographical text. The psychology of creating art is a recurring theme.

Nina says, “Every meaningful art project I have done has been driven by a great need to transform or know something within myself. My process of exploring the unconscious, has always been to make art. I trust art.”

“She started out using an acetylene torch… In 2005 Nina made a group of life-size figural effigies from sheep’s wool. These whimsical females echo life size welded feminine figures she made while in college in the 1960s and prefigure the dominant female figure which appears in many of the later pastels. The strong woman is a theme that gradually assumed greater importance.”

The book includes an introduction by Gordon McConnell titled A Dream World Bestiary. Cambridge Dictionary defines bestiary as “a book written in the Middle Ages containing descriptions of real and imaginary animals, intended to teach morals and to entertain.”

Deer Cocoon, 1984, contact print, 10×8 in.

“Nina migrated to photography in the mid 1960s… Nina first secured a significant position among the vanguard artists of Montana with a series of photographs she made in the 1980s primarily of animals, birds, and snakes in the stillness of death… That form of beauty became an obsession and gradually turned into photographic still life. She adopted the large format 8×10 camera and brought dead animals into her studio where she tenderly groomed them and positioned them on black velvet fabric. In her arrangements they often appear weightless, suspended in a spatial void, radiating a beauty of being and hope, the potential for resurrection.”

Nina says, “While the camera itself allowed for a great deal of intimacy, the printing process required long hours alone working in the dark with chemicals and an enlarger. It was the chemicals and the enlarger that gave me my first deep experience of the transformative power of art. They made it possible to make something ordinary into extraordinary.”

The Jungle That I Am, 2020, pastel on paper, 19×25 in.

“After working on these images for over ten years Nina put her cameras away. A growing interest in psychology had become her new driving force. She had seen the healing powers of art earlier in her life while working in a women’s prison where she ran an arts and crafts program.” Nina says, “Inmates were able to find that vulnerable part of themselves and give expression to it without appearing to let their guard down. They often painted bouquets of flowers or crafted Madonnas or babies out of clay.” See also Beyond the Blue, a book about another prison art program.

Nina says, “Making images played a functional role in my own psychological stability. With the animals I was able to make deadened parts of myself beautiful again.”

“She felt sometimes art could heal trauma when words could not. Nina got her master’s degree in Education and Human Development Services and supplemented her training with studies and experiments in art therapy and photo therapy. She maintained a private practice for the next ten years working in part with clients who suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder). Her next artistic period, collage work, came directly out of that experience.”

She Became What She Loved, 2021, pastel on paper, 25×19 in.

“Most people, including myself, are fragmented in one way or another. I understand an important aspect of therapy to be the process of integrating parts of the self back into a functioning whole. When I made collages I cut out all sorts of objects that spoke to me. I moved them around on long tables in my studio trying different combinations. In time images would form. Cut out pieces would come together to form a beautiful whole. It was so satisfying.”

“The evolution from photographic still life to the world depicted in the pastels can be seen as a movement from control to release. The images went from presenting a haunting stillness symbolized by death to drawings brimming with the vibrancy of life.”

“Is this dream, vision, myth or fairy tale? In the labyrinth of the psyche, all three are one. The symbols are secret—from unspoken sources—yet universal, attuned to the lexicon of humanity’s collective unconscious.” This reminds me of Arthur Danto’s phrase “wakeful dreams” in What Art Is.

A Red Spider Blessing, 2020, pastel on paper, 25×19 in.

Nina says, “These drawings… have woven together the subconscious, memory and hope in a way that satisfies my primal longing to be seen. I credit it all to my muse. When I listen to my muse I become more than myself. I hum with the richness and urgency of what it means to be alive.” John Cleese expands on this idea of tapping the subconscious in his book Creativity.

Both the format of this book and the artist’s viewpoints remind me of Drawing Is Thinking by Milton Glaser. Whereas The Jungle That I Am discusses the psychology of making art, I have previously reviewed a book about the psychology of viewing art: The Art of Seeing by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is best known for his flow theory. 

Alexander, Nina. The Jungle That I Am: Pastel Drawings 2019-2021. Materialist Press, 2021.

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