Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Nathan Oliveira: Fundamentals

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 2, 2005



As I drove down 280 toward Palo Alto to meet Oliveira the anticipation I felt was familiar; it was mixed with a little anxiety as always happens when I'm about to meet an important artist for an interview. My only contact with the artist had been brief and by phone. And although I was aware of the widespread respect and admiration for this artist I’d hadn't spent much time looking at his work. Being nervous made sense.
     The stretch of 280 south from San Francisco is beautiful, running through the coast hills just west of 101. Before long Page Mill Road came up. It wasn’t far now. At the front door, Oliveira greeted me warmly and invited me in. As my eyes adjusted to the subdued light, dozens of pieces of tribal art, masks and figures hanging on walls and standing on tables caught my attention, as well as a large canvas, one of Oliveira’s.  
     After looking around for a few minutes, I set out my tape recorder on the dining room table and we sat down. I'd already begun to feel at ease...

Richard Whittaker:  I thought a good place to start would be to ask, what are the roots of your artmaking?

Nathan Oliveira:  Well, as a child, I did a lot of drawing. I spent a lot of time amusing myself copying from magazines. I loved those wonderful illustrations that you found in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. Remember, I was raised in the country and there was very little opportunity to see paintings. This was in the 1930s and there was little interest in art in my grammar school.

RW:  When would you say were the earliest drawings you remember?

Nathan:  I guess my first drawings were when I was about four years old. My father took me to the zoo in San Francisco and I came home and made a drawing of a crane standing on one leg. It was pretty convincing.

RW:  You remember that.

Nathan:  Oh, yes! And I remember a lot of other things from there, around Niles and Fremont [south East Bay Area], where I was raised. We had an apricot orchard. I have very fond memories of all that and how beautiful and important it was.

RW:  Close to nature.

Nathan:  Close to nature. It was wonderful to grow up on an orchard with chickens and gardens, vegetable gardens, and wood stoves and things like that. It was important.

RW:  Any moments which really stand out? I ask because I can remember some of my own when I was a kid.

Nathan:  I remember being in this small little house with a very thin roof that absorbed the sound of rain and wind, and the trains going through the town in the middle of the night. I remember feeling pretty secure within all of that, and the kind of drama that created inside my head. The sound of the trains, you know. They really puffed through the town just a few blocks from where I lived.

RW:  Some of us are old enough to have had that experience—of the steam engines, right?

Nathan:  That’s right. Those were great moments. And certainly, nature was very important to me as well. I remember the way it was after a rain, for instance, and the meadowlarks that were out in the bush, singing a very beautiful song that I still identify with and feel good about.
     I enjoyed the summers and the whole ritual of the apricots growing in this little orchard, getting ripe and being picked, and then being cut and put onto big trays and then smoked in the smoker with sulfur. Then, after a certain time, the trays were laid out in the sun where they’d stay for a while. Then they’d be stacked until the apricots were dry.
     The whole ritual of the summer was kind of guided by the production of these apricots. And I remember living through the summer with an almost continual case of diarrhea because of the apricots. Both my wife and I still love them! You can’t get decent ones around very much, you know.
     But anyway, the war came and after the war, we moved to San Francisco out in the Richmond district. I was about seventeen, I would think.

RW:  So most of your childhood was spent around those wonderful orchards.

Nathan:  Yes. It was incredible! And it was beautiful because it was just before that whole war which changed everything for all of us.

RW:  Are you a fan of Carl Jung, by any chance?

Nathan:  I knew of him, but I'm not especially a fan.

RW:  I had to ask because you’ve got so much tribal art here in your home, and I thought of Jung. That archaic man, and that part of ourselves which still has a direct connection with nature, is so important to Jung and I sense this would mean something to you, too.

Nathan:  Yes. I still feel that very, very strongly. And there are some ancient Chinese pieces in our bedroom, and in the kitchen. I believe in a kind of fundamental man, human, and the cultures they create on our earth. That’s been part of what I do.
     My work has usually been universal. The figures have never really been that specific. They’re not clothed; they’re not identified with any trappings that specifically tie them down to 2005. It could be today, but they could be from some other time, a long time ago. So I do connect all the way back to the fundamentals of the cave.

RW:  So art can sometimes reconnect us a little with some of these experiences that are more basic, fundamental, that may come from our childhood when we’re still whole and before we’ve been divided up so much.

Nathan: Yes. I gave a talk at the New York Studio School about two months ago where the first slide I showed was a Hellenistic death mask of a beautiful woman. I made a claim that this face, this ancient beautiful face, was no different than the beautiful faces that were in that audience that night, or that might be in an audience ten years from now. It’s a perpetual, ongoing identity that is fundamental, and we are simply part of that.
     This is what my art is about, but without making anything specific, without making the paintings Anglo-Saxon or black or green or blue.

RW:  Well, I’m leaping to a very big question. You’ll have to forgive me. I have this tendency. What is painting? Of course I mean what is it for you?

Nathan:  [laughs] For me painting is that magical material, that beautiful stuff that was invented, the ground-up pigments in oil which makes it very malleable. It can be manipulated and changed, darkened, lightened, given different hues and colors, so that by manipulating this material somehow I can find that figure I’m looking for, that figure that represents all the issues I’m bringing up and addressing: from my own autobiographical moments in Niles, fundamental experiences as a child being raised on a farm, all the way up to what we are about today.
     Painting is a matter of somehow manipulating this material, and I can start with an idea in mind, or I can start with no idea and I will end up with a figure. It will be there.

RW:  As Richard Berger says, it’s this amazing thing of taking colored earth on the end of a stick and [gestures].

Nathan:  Yes. Pretty much like the cavemen did. You know, taking a piece of charcoal, they inscribed themselves on the wall. It’s pretty amazing.

RW:  It’s a search, a process…

Nathan:  …Yes. This is where Abstract Expressionism was really important to me. I was just a kid when I went to art school. I went there to be a portrait painter, but I haven’t explained yet how I was moved by painting. It happened very simply.
     We moved to San Francisco as a family and lived around 30th and Balboa out in the Richmond district. Since I didn’t know anyone, on Saturdays and Sundays I’d wander around the community and one day I found myself at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. I walked in and was surrounded by all those paintings in there. There are a whole series of portrait galleries that went back along one wing, and as I walked through one gallery, there was a painting that attracted me; it kind of beckoned me over to see it, and it froze me in my tracks. It was a Rembrandt, Titus, a painting that Rembrandt painted of his son. There was something emanating from that painting that other paintings just weren’t quite doing. Other paintings in those galleries could seemingly be more realistic, more precise about what they were, who was being painted, but somehow Titus became a kind of universal kid in a way. There was something captured in it, something frozen in that paint that created a living quality that the other paintings didn’t have. I was impressed.

RW:  Is that something for which one continues to search not quite knowing how to get there?

Nathan:  It’s like anything you don’t know anything about, you just proceed and find little bits and pieces and parts of that. It has little to do with movements within art or movements within society. It has something to do with maybe an artist like Giacometti or Van Gogh. So this is what really affected me, and when I finally got to art school, I found that all over again when I was working with my teachers.
     I wasn’t at all concerned with Abstract Expressionism then, but that came a little bit later. As I found out, the whole gist of it was the gesture of painting. The great mark that could be made, or the energy, the living mark, a large mark of life which could maybe inscribe the whole size of the human being.

RW:  It’s mysterious, is it not, how in a mark something can sometimes be conveyed? One can feel that. You know what I’m saying?

Nathan:  Yes. There is something there. Something comes to life that doesn’t normally come to life, but it’s something rather rare because you can paint, and keep putting material on and on and on and nothing can happen. It’s something you simply have to find, and at a given moment, there is something there; it is extraordinary! A sort of signal occurs, a living signal, a signal of life.

RW:  The conventional idea is that art is a picture of something. But what’s not understood so well among non-artists is that making a painting can be a process in which something is being sought which isn’t about a likeness, let’s say.

Nathan:  That’s right; the act of painting creates the painting and its idea. That’s what led me to Abstract Expressionism. As I grew older and got more involved, I saw people like DeKooning who was trying, really, to be an abstract expressionist. He applied material in such an abstract way, but he tried to make figures out of it. And he failed; he continually failed and he’d destroy it and redo it again. I’m speaking mainly of those early women. He would paint, and if it didn’t work out, he’d scrape it down. He didn’t know where he was going; it had to present itself, and after a period of time, there it was.
     He was important to me, and there was Max Beckman, too, who manipulated the paint in such a way that wasn’t so refined, but somehow the experience of the paint created those great images of Beckman’s. Combined with his great sensibilities and his mind and intuition, he created these images that were phenomenal!

RW:  I remember reading something Beckman said about how the important things of art have always originated from a deep sense of the mystery of being.

Nathan:  That sounds like him. That sounds very much like him. And his paintings, again, were all discovered. I mean he could paint whatever was expected of him as a painter, but that wasn’t what he was after. So it’s a very hard, difficult thing to do; to take that challenge is incredibly difficult, and many times it’s misunderstood, as well. So when you see some paintings that are very active and abstract, there’s nothing much there. Often they missed it. They missed the whole point.

RW:  What we’re talking about, just to bring it to this moment in the art world, do you feel that this kind of search is not currently much appreciated?

Nathan:  Oh yes. [laughs] Well, the art world today is pretty much controlled by the museums, the curators and the collectors. They’ve reinvented Duchamp a thousand times. Poor Duchamp can’t die. They’re all claiming him for themselves, and the curators are all waiting for the next most phenomenal thing or person to happen. They can’t really deal on this simple a level. It’s gone, in so many ways.
     But it’s not gone. This thing is so difficult that each new generation really has to rediscover itself in this way, as artists. That’s what I’m doing in my own work—at least, that’s what I figure I’m doing, as Beckman did it in his time, and as Picasso, Matisse and the rest of them did. They all meant to find out what they had to paint.

RW:  I think it’s important to be reminded of this. Now I wanted to ask you about color. Here’s this word “color.” It doesn’t take us very far, that one word.

Nathan:  No. What does it mean? Usually people think of color as red, yellow, blue, green, purple. I don’t look at it that way. I think color is like one’s appetite. One develops through time, in living, a certain appetite for certain kinds of food, nourishment, that really sustain one. And painters do the same thing. They gravitate to certain colors that simply become identified with them or part of their nature, their health, their vitality, or whatever you want to call it.
     A lot of my color comes from a lot of these things [arm sweeps around room]. There are some Ban Chang pots from Thailand, very ancient pots made of clay and then there are some ancient, neolithic Chinese pots and clay objects. Then the earth around Santa Fe New Mexico is really very beautiful. The Native Americans made pots out of this material. There’s something about using the earth’s substance to make objects.

RW:  Would you say that it’s fundamentally kind of mysterious? That there is this little band of the spectrum like a musical note, yellow.

Nathan:  Yes. But yellow has to mean something, too. Yellow is yellow. But if it really then begins to take on some significance when you use it, use it in such a yellowish way…

RW:  Can you say something about that?

Nathan:  That’s hard to say. It’s like trying to find out why do you like lamb chops.

RW:  Okay. Now “yellow” is just this little word, but yellow is a whole world, right?

Nathan:  Absolutely. My show in New York was made of nothing but red—red figures—and I’m going into a series of paintings right now about red oaks. I’m going to make them red, actually red. I may change colors, but we’ll see—whatever the discovery is, or that moment that comes that rings the bell.

RW:  You were saying that color is like a food, and that there are certain ones you’re attracted to. I’m guessing that over time new colors have appeared that become interesting.

Nathan:  Yes. That whet your appetite.

RW:  Have you ever pondered what that’s about?

Nathan:  No. I accept it. I am very thankful that something which has been sitting there for so long in my mind, and in front of me, suddenly becomes relevant. My sense of color isn’t that in order to “be a colorist” one has to use all the colors of the spectrum. I think one has to be very selective. Certain sensations of color kind of assist you in the inscribing of whatever it is you’re trying to find, and that’s very difficult to do, too. It’s incredibly difficult.
     For the last maybe twenty years or so, I’ve been using fundamentally earth colors with some highly charged colors, but not too many of them. I use them because I became very interested in New Mexico. I wanted to go and live there. There was something about the desert and the pinkness of it and moments of whiteness that happen there, and Native American objects that were made fundamentally from carbon or dirt. That all became important for me. I used it.
     Now those rocks in the bottom of that case there are all pieces of stone that I brought back from New Mexico, from a piece of land that I almost bought. I almost moved there, because it was so beautiful. To look down at the earth and to be moved by it; that is pretty amazing.

RW:  Yes. Is there an analogy between color and music? Some artists have been fascinated by that, Klee and Kandinsky, for instance. Does that mean something for you?

Nathan:  I guess in some ways it can. I don’t know. I bought a recording of Stravinsky’s small orchestral works, and it was so beautiful. What I thought about was just the interaction with silence, mostly, when I listened to it, and the rhythms of all that, but I didn’t think of color. There’s color in the broader sense, of how he put the sounds together in such a way that he “colored” that period of time during which the music was being performed.

RW:  I’m thinking of colors being used together so that the effect might be something like chords in music.

Nathan:  Maybe in some way. Painting can be a very quiet experience. Elements can be loud or they can be softer, but I don’t really think about something becoming yellow or blue.

RW:  I have just enough experience in painting to have tasted a few things, and one thing I’m used to is coming to a place where I like what I’ve got, and then the next day I look at it and wonder what was I thinking?

Nathan: [laughs] It lies to you. It will do that. You’re sitting there with your muse and your muse is telling you something and you’re following it, and you end up the next day looking at it and thinking “what the hell was the muse saying to me?” Yes. But of course color, oil paint, is organic. It changes. Even overnight it can go from something very brilliant to something very dull. That’s just the nature of the material. But yes, I know. You simply believe it. One can fool oneself so easily.

RW:  How do you get beyond that?

Nathan:  Well, there’s looking at it the next day! That isn’t working! So then you have to go back into it again. So there’s a whole series of questions and answers, and many times it takes a long time, quite a while, to find the answers to that particular problem. It can involve a whole different set of colors or values or whatever. It’s complicated.

RW:  Are you familiar with Agnes Martin?

Nathan:  Yes, pretty much.

RW:  She writes that there are moments that can come in artmaking which she calls “moments of perfection.”

Nathan:  That happens. My scientist friend says that an experiment becomes worthy or important when it develops a certain level of elegance.

RW:  When a moment like that comes, everything falls into order, she says. But then it goes away, and you can’t find it.

Nathan:  Yes. But that’s exactly the way it works. It’s the most difficult thing in the world to do, to paint. That’s why I can’t understand why so many claim that they enjoy painting: “it is exciting and wonderful!” It’s really a rather painful experience, because it gives you so little. You have to coax it out so much. You’re always falling short.
     But what else is there? It’s such an incredible privilege to be able to spend my time doing that rather than going out and shooting people in a war, or becoming a stockbroker.
     It gives you the opportunity to find something. When that moment happens, it’s miraculous! Because suddenly things do fall into place and a certain sense of life occurs. And then you don’t want to touch it anymore. You want to go ahead and find something else, if that is possible.

RW:  I was going to ask, what are your paintings to you when they’re finished?

Nathan:  They end up, if they’re good, as solutions. There’s that moment for me. So it does exist; the paintings are a kind of evidence that it does, in fact, happen; you find that moment of elegance.
     In the early days, I used to question it a lot, because I thought even that was a lie. I would paint something and be satisfied with it for a period of time and then, foolishly, I would go into it again and destroy it. I would reawaken it, but then it would become a totally new escapade, a whole new exploration that would lead to either finding something again or not. I usually didn’t find a bloody thing that was more important!

RW:  And there was no going back, either, right?

Nathan:  That’s right, and that’s painful. That became so painful that I stopped painting for about five years. This is when I first came to Stanford in 1964. I’d get to a place, maybe an ecstatic moment, or probably more than likely not so good, but somehow it was concluded. Why go and mess with it? But the idea would come to go back into it, assuming that the more times I’d go back into it, the better it’d get. Well, it’s just the reverse. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a gift. It’s kind of given to you, if you pursue it properly. And this is so beautiful and so wonderful it’s kind of hard to see why so many youngsters can’t find it today. I can’t understand what this is about. It’s a challenge at a time when there aren’t too many challenges, unless you’re in science or certain other fields.

RW:  What you’re describing, the challenge of this inner discipline of painting, seems to be part of life which is falling more and more out of the mainstream. In our age of science, speed, power and these incredible feats of technology, we’re trying to deal with this inner world in terms of biochemistry, neurophysiology, psychopharmacology and so on, just as part of this outer world we’re so good at manipulating. And first of all, this work, artmaking, takes time, right?

Nathan:  Yes. [laughs]

RW:  And that’s out of step.

Nathan: Absolutely.

RW:  And there needs to be someone who can tell us that this is important!

Nathan: Yes. Someone has to get out there and say, “Hey, I see it!” You know, this is something that I can’t quite understand because once I was back east at Harvard and I walked into a gallery at the Fogg, and like that experience of seeing the painting of Rembrandt’s son, I walked in and I was suddenly startled. There was a group of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings in a gallery and suddenly, there’s this incredible scream! A visual scream! You couldn’t deny it. It was Van Gogh. It was just, whhoooo! [laughs] There it was! And none of those paintings in that room, and there were some awfully good paintings, but nothing could come up to that.

RW:  I saw some of Van Gogh’s work at the Metropolitan about ten years ago. They have some great ones, and I found myself moved to tears. There was especially something about the color. You would understand that, I think, because how did he get there? And where was he, at that point?

Nathan:  Oh, yes. You see all these strokes. They’re not just marks; they’re really bits of his energy, the intensity of his energy, the speed of his energy or the anxiety of his energy. This is all put together in those paintings. When he made his Starry Night, he really made this thing, you know. Yet people can put dabs down. That’s a lot different. With Van Gogh, every stroke—and I think that had something to do with Rembrandt, too—each stroke means something. There’s a sense of credibility in the stroke itself. Then when they come together and are representing a head or a landscape, then you have something that is really moving, and it can move you to tears. That’s what it’s about. One feels the inner drama of this great artist.

RW:  I just realized, as I was listening to you, that a painting from the hand of a master, is actually an object of knowledge, if we only knew how to read it. A kind of knowledge we don’t have good words for.

Nathan:  We don’t have people who have been speculating about that kind of language very much. It’s too bad. When you get people who can operate on that level, who knows what we would come up with? People who are far more articulate than I, and capable of putting words together at that level, would make experiences like I have described truly incredible.

RW:  I must say that as I was looking at your paintings in preparation for talking with you, I was amazed by so many of them, even just in reproduction. There are several I can picture in my mind right now and one in particular struck me as pure magic, a single bird in flight. It’s from a catalogue called Singular.

Nathan:  It’s the one with the bird in the middle.

RW:  It’s just magic. I don’t know how you did that.

Nathan: [laughs] Thank you. Who knows how one does those things? Certain ones, you hit on it and it’s wonderful. I work for that, and seek that kind of aliveness, or credibility, or whatever you want to call it, but there are so many artists who don’t understand that, who work for some kind of superficial reality of a subject. That never really interested me very much.
     Sometimes this visual language can be very special, the fact that it can transform, transcend just the making of a picture of a bird to something that is moving, expressive and important. Maybe this is true abstraction!
     As an artist, these are hard things to come by. Once Dick Deibenkorn was talking to his students and was asked “Why is painting so difficult?” He replied, “But what did you expect? Painting is probably the most difficult thing in the world to do!”
     But it’s quite wonderful to pursue it! So you know, you get used to all the moments of frustration or insecurity that artists have, and we’re terribly insecure people, at least, the ones we’re talking about. There are a lot of them who aren’t. Are you going to be able to find this? Whatever it is. You’ve done it all these years, but it isn’t so easy to find it again. It doesn’t happen automatically. So in the process of painting a painting one goes through a kind of traumatic experience of questioning: questioning myself, my ability, my sight, my vision.

RW:  That’s certainly the reason Agnes Martin called the life of an artist a life of suffering. Exactly as you were saying. Now, in reading about your work, I ran across the word “ethics” used sometimes in relation to your work. Maybe it wasn’t a word you’d chosen exactly…

Nathan:  The reasons for painting have to be very strong and sincere and honest and ethical. You have to be challenged by all these unseen qualities, and these are all ethical issues, I think, in painting. There are painters who are not ethical, and one doesn’t really care about those concerns.
     I just saw Bob Bechtle’s show in San Francisco. He’s such a fine painter! He shows you a way of looking at things you’ve seen over and again, but he shows you in a different way, the way he’s looking at it, and it is so genuine and honest a way of looking at something you can believe him.
     So we’re bound to the ethics. When you’re not ethical, and there have been moments when I’ve moved away, and I knew it. They were there.

RW:  So when one is searching for things that are real and true, one doesn’t want to fall prey to lies or vanity or something else, because that won’t take you to where you wish to go, right?

Nathan:  You can’t get there. It’s impossible. Sometimes I try to knock something out, so to speak, and it just doesn’t work. Your whole self has to be there. You can’t cheat. There’s no cheating. [laughs] No cheating! That’ll come up and slap you! If those things get out, eventually they come back some way, and they hit you, and you feel very badly about it, and possibly many years later.

RW:  I think I know what you mean.

Nathan:  It’s a mysterious kind of scolding that you get, like your mother used to tell you, “if you do this, it’s going to come back and hurt you; your nose will grow!” [laughs] But I don’t know. Painting is just a hard and difficult thing to do and it’s a worthy process. My big problem is that I have all this time behind me and I’m seeing this abstract world move along with me as I keep trying to find these abstract figures, these figures that are made out of paint. I’ve been kind of anguishing about “why have I been painting these damn figures?” Once you commit yourself to a figure, it’s loaded with content, with what it isn’t and with what it is. And here I’ve spent fifty years fooling around with this. There have been some moments where you kind of liberate yourself and deal with abstractions, but I still can’t get rid of the figure. I question if this has really been that good a vehicle for me because it’s been done so beautifully so many times by so many great artists and, you know, who am I to think that I can bring something new to it? Except that I’m here in my moment, in our time, and Rembrandt isn’t here. He’s passed.

RW:  It sounds like you’re facing some new questions right now.

Nathan:  Yes. New questions, and that’s where the tree comes in, but as I think about the tree, I think about people, figures coming into it in some way. I don’t know what that means.

RW:  That reminds me of something a friend said about trees. He was talking to a group of us and he asked, “How many of you realize that when you look at a tree, you’re only looking at two-thirds of it?” And of course, that relates to people, too. How much is always unseen and unknown?

Nathan:  They have lives underground. Also there’s this incredible sense of rings, of an inscription of so many years. Yes, certainly with people, we don’t reveal our lives. There’s so much about people you don’t really know.

RW:  This makes me think of Jung again and how we’ve lost touch with so much of ourselves and nature. He was a wise man, and why don’t we listen to him anymore?

Nathan:  There are a lot of wise men out there we don’t listen to anymore.

RW:  It leads to another question I was going to ask you.  Something like, what have you learned over the years? In a way, of course, you’ve been telling me this.

Nathan:  [laughs] That painting is still difficult as hell! But the one thing that I’ve learned about it is that the more you give to it, the more it keeps giving back to you. Not that it always provides you with great moments of ecstasy, but there is something about even the failures you have in painting that are important, that lead you somewhere. It has never failed to be something of real substance over all.
     Then to see other artists that I have a special fondness for, whether it’s contemporary artists, or—I think the painters of Pompeii are incredible! Or the Chinese painters! A student gave me a book on four thousand years of Chinese figurative drawing. Four thousand years! Well, you know, there’s a kind of allegiance I feel that this art has given me. It’s given me a kind of company that I feel wonderful to be part of.

RW:  Another artist I know said, if we don’t think art has something deep and true to offer, then why is it that some pieces of art made a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, why are they still alive right now? You can’t argue with that.

Nathan:  Absolutely. Again, looking at that beautiful ancient mask, she was so alive. Or you can go back to China, or Egypt or the cave paintings! It’s amazing that things from so long ago are still alive. But so is the writing. Those writers who wrote well and meaningfully, they’re still alive, too. So I guess that’s the connection. That’s what we have to do, try to do it. Whether we fail or not, that’s another story.
     It’s something I feel quite privileged to have been able to do, to have a career, in spite of my questioning what I’m doing now with these figures, I’ve been really privileged and blessed, in a way.
     When I started out, I was told you couldn’t expect anything as an artist, but I’ve had an incredible life. I’ve been shown all over the world. I’ve received all sorts of attention for my work. I’ve rubbed elbows with really significant people. It’s been a great privilege and an honor, and I feel that what I’ve done has been significant. I think some things, at least, will stay and hopefully will be looked upon as relevant in the future.

RW:  I certainly feel that.

Nathan: Well, I’ve taught here at Stanford and taught elsewhere. I’ve been given much. I remember the early days when it was so hard just to find a place to paint; painting in garages, and things like that. But I don’t have that problem now. And now it’s up to me.

RW:  You’re invited to give talks I’d imagine.

Nathan:  Sometimes. The Philadelphia Academy of Art has just asked me to come there and give a talk next year.

RW:  I wonder if you ever feel called upon to say anything to the younger people in the audience?

Nathan:  That I did at the New York Studio school. I told them to have faith in what they believe in and to pursue that. So many young artists are being told what to do and what to anticipate. I think that is the wrong thing to do. They really have to reach down within themselves. As I’ve been saying, this has been a great and wonderful responsibility, to somehow reach within myself and find whatever I am. The artists that I care a great deal about have done that as well. ∆

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 710618 views

The Dumpster      “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 130179 views

Remember to Remember - Nicholas Hlobeczy I had the pleasure of getting to know the late Nicholas Hlobeczy over a ... Read More 87831 views

A Conversation with Silas Hagerty I met Silas, a young man in his twenties from New England, at a ... Read More 56211 views

A Conversation with Taya Doro Mitchell Taya Doro Mitchell July 3, 2007 Oakland CA I heard about Taya Doro Mitchell ... Read More 110978 views


A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 710618 views

Interview with Bill Douglass—Jimbo's Bop City and Other Tales At the time I'd first gotten to know the widely respected jazz musician Bill ... Read More 359060 views

Greeting the Light It was thanks to artist Walter Gabrielson that I was able to get in touch with ... Read More 289306 views

Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman teaches music at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. ... Read More 178917 views

Interview: Stephen De Staebler John Toki encouraged me to interview his old friend and mentor, sculptor Stephen ... Read More 148756 views