We visited with New Orleans-based artist Cora Nimtz to talk about her connection to the south, color and the creative process.
Photo: Michael Tucker
Can you tell us a little about yourself? I know you describe yourself as a southern mutt – what does that mean to you?
Welp, I was born in North Carolina, and since then I have lived around my family in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. Saying I am a southern mutt is usually a lot easier than rambling off that list! While I don’t designate one specific city or state that I have lived in as home, I do have a strong connection broadly to this place – the south. That connection stems from me being really invested in conserving the parts of the south that make it special while also fighting to make it a better place.
Can you speak some to the influence of your family on your work, style, and way of life?
I guess being an only child and an only grandchild always made me feel like I was beyond the influence of other people, but it was funny that you walked into my house and asked if my Gramp’s painting was mine! So obviously, joke is on me. My mom and her side of the family has always been bursting with creativity. I spent a lot of time with them in Mobile, Alabama, where my Gramps had a salon style room that was crammed with paintings – and my Mimi seems to endlessly create national prize-winning quilts. I think I have adopted some of their bold expressive styles, as well as their need for stretches of solitude for creating.
Do you feel like that early autonomy led to early self-examination and your need for these stretches of solitude?
Yes! I think you can either grow to love being alone or fight it, and I grew to love it. It started with creating my own fantasy worlds and having a strong imagination. When I got a little older I loved exploring old barns or abandoned houses in my neighborhoods, and I think you can pick up on that in my paintings. I’m so curious about what gets left behind, and how our human thumbprint intertwines with nature after a while.
I know you spent a year or so in China, and that played a part in getting you to really dive deep into painting. What was that experience like, and how did it transform you and your art?
Leading up to living in Guangzhou, China, I had just begun to dip my toes into art. I was living here in New Orleans, and I was really anxious about leaving and expressing myself in general. When I got to China it was amazing, but at the same time I was dealing with isolation and depression. I didn’t think I made the right choice to leave and wanted to be back with the people I loved. That is when that anxiety of expressing myself finally melted away. I started using bolder images and colors. I thought, people might not look as closely at my black and white work, but they will spend time trying to sort out what is happening with all this color. It became my way to send secret messages to the people I love. Spending my time working on my personal art and being a calligraphy apprentice made art a clear choice as something I wanted to pursue more actively from that point on.
What do you feel the colors could say? What kind of messages were you trying to send?
I think there is a rawness to using colors for how they feel and not in conjunction with how something actually looks. And for the first time in my life (while I was in China) I was being very open and raw. The bright colors I use are speaking of anxiety, sexuality, and oddly, loneliness. Color, for me, is a way to bring someone in and lightly veil darker themes that can be explored.
What are you trying to evoke, or even process, with your work as you play on themes of environment and femininity?
My connection to place, and specifically the south, is something I am constantly working with in my art. I strive to create a world that is both dreamlike and distinct with place. I love the way our horizon looks here, and I am willing to see and work with all the grim and traditionally unsightly things that are also a part of that landscape. That environmental component of my art echoes my feelings about the south, how a place can be so beautiful yet troubled and in danger. By using feminine figures, I think I am able to achieve a lot more of human emotion. On the surface there is this raw sexuality, humor, and joy, but the deeper goal is to talk about themes of pollution, resilience, and uncertainty.
Can you walk us through your creative process?
I usually work from the figure outwards. I am not much of a planner, and almost never think too hard about what colors I will be using. What little vision I have goes back to those messages I want to say to someone specific or on a larger scale. I will spend a lot of time with my paintings adding very small details, until it just feels right.
How do you personally know when something is complete, or feels ‘just right’? What’s the sign?
I add a lot of layers to my paintings, and will add and subtract till it is this mixture of the right composition and elements that convey the message I have in mind.
What do you love about New Orleans – what keeps you here? What makes it special for you specifically?
New Orleans is a magnet for me. I will flirt with the idea of leaving, and sometimes do, but I always end up coming back. I am a pretty creative person, so I love the opportunity to make copious costumes during the year. In general, it is a great place for a creative person. There is a lot of room and opportunity to foster that creative spirit, and everyone that lives here seems to be on board with that. Plus, I hate the cold.
Any places you frequent around town?
I do love my neighborhood bars in Mid City, which is basically a continuation of why I love New Orleans. Everyone loves a good dive bar, right? I usually end up at Finn McCools, Twelve Mile Limit, and Banks Street Bar. I’m really lucky to live so close to affordable bars, plus Banks Street has a steady schedule of good music. When I lived downtown I was always at Sidney’s, Bud Rips, and R Bar. I’m always drawn to a place that I can actually have conversations with people inside, has bar food, and cheap drinks! I also spend a lot of time going on walks. Some of my favorite places to explore are the LGD, my neighborhood, Mid City, and my old neighborhood, the 7th ward/St. Roch.
There’s a certain meditative quality to walking isn’t there?
Yes, there is, and I think it is the perfect place to sort out your thoughts while also allowing the space for new ideas to come in. I guess it goes back to me as a kid, wandering around as a form of solitude but also the need to explore and know the world around me a bit more.
What would you tell an artist that’s just diving into things and looking to expand and improve upon their practice?
I am learning that you don’t have to share every single thing you create. Instagram is a great tool to grow as an artist, but can be limiting when you are thinking too much about keeping up with other artists you follow. Beyond that, I would encourage any artist to be kind to themselves and to above all make work for themselves.