An Interview with Nina Groth
by Heather Cruce
Nina Groth was born and raised in Humboldt County, in Northern California. She had the good fortune of being born into a family of fine artists. As a child, art and successful artist models surrounded her, her mother a painter, her father a sculptor and a brother, also a sculptor. Family friends included Robert Usher, a designer, and Morris Graves, a renowned painter. The Groth family had the unique opportunity to have four family members’ work exhibited at the Reese Bullen Gallery at Humboldt State University in the fall of 1997. Groth received a B.A. in both Art and Liberal Studies and a Professional Clear Single Subject Art Teaching Credential from Humboldt State University. She is one of the original founders of the Humboldt State University Children’s Art Academy, currently named the Studio School. Painting is her passion, to depict the fleeting moments, the intuitive connections as in a conversation. I had the lovely opportunity to sit with Nina in her Trinidad, California studio and ask her a few questions about her work.
How long have you been an artist?
I have been a serious artist since my early 20s. I grew up in a family of artists, so I was always dabbling. My parents always made it possible to do what ever I liked; never did they say, “Don’t do that!” I had some good breaks when I was young. My parents actually had a show in Los Angeles at a gallery named Ankrums. Joan Ankrum saw my work and she asked me to join a couple shows. It was also through Ankrums that some of my work had been loaned to the Los Angeles County Museum. That gave me the confidence to pursue it (painting) and I did. I felt like I found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Tell me about the naming of the Sojourn Series, how did it come about?
The Sojourn Series came about after I did a series called the Open Door Series. Open Door was about five years of work that was metaphorically about the open doors before all of us in life. Are we brave enough to go through them? If we do go through, naturally it implies change.
The Sojourn Series is about what we don’t see in this life. Not that which is tangible, but that which we feel. It’s about the part of our lives that we sense and react to with complex emotions. You know this when you see something really beautiful in nature and you have a sense of awe regarding its existence. Or you meet somebody and you have a sense of how you feel about them, not based on knowing him or her but from something that radiates from that person. I’m painting about those things that we don’t see visually but we do experience viscerally. And I put it into some kind of form that is a story. The story of the Sojourn Series is based on two characters. In each painting there is a character named Night Bird, a black bird-like shape, and there is an anonymous female figure. The female figure doesn’t necessarily mean she is a woman. I just use the female figure to represent a person who is interested in more than just what one sees; the figure represents both male and female aspects. Night Bird takes this figure on a journey to try and get a glimpse of another reality. The female figure doesn’t have an eye as she doesn’t yet see yet the reality that Night Bird does. The wave and the mountain-like forms in the background are symbolic of the natural world, that aspect with which we are familiar. There is an orb that randomly appeared in the first painting of the series and it will show up in many of the following compositions. It is symbolic of inner strength or motivation, having a center of hope in one’s personal existence. The orb therefore is a center to store and gather strength and inspiration for one’s lifetime. There is also an arc in front of her that will show up in many of the paintings. It is a symbol of protection for her during this journey. The crosshatching in the foreground represents chaos or other obstacles that will be a part of the journey. So the Sojourn Series is a progression through this journey. Even now, working on the last one, I wonder is she ever going to see as Black Bird sees? And I realize that no, this is something that one cannot see, but it is suggested within the heart.
Can you lead us through the nine paintings?
Can you explain the process of developing your ideas?
First I do drawings of my idea. I just do something quick to get a feel for balance and what it is I am trying to convey. I take photos of my paintings when I get stuck. It helps if I am having a block to scribble on the pictures and I will spend time with the picture meditating on it. I am spontaneous in the beginning, the theme is spontaneous and then I turn it into this elaborate grid of shapes and color with notes to remember how I got there. With this series, I am really big in practicing with my paintbrush before I put my paintbrush on the painting. (Groth shuffles through what looks like hundreds of pieces of paper piled on a table all with different lines, shapes, colors, textures.) These are all trial after trial that I hold up to the actual painting to decide if I like them there or not. It is a tedious process, which is okay because of the end result that I get. I was always attracted to Joseph Ablers and his color studies. I found it fascinating how he would select a single color and demonstrate how it reacted to other colors. It was really motivating as a young person to see his approach to the study of color.
Tell me about the use of color in your Sojourn Series.
The color is instinctual. The series is done in watercolor except the black is India Ink. Night Bird is purposely black as he represents that which we cannot see. Also in the first picture, the woman is black as they both are invisible to others on this journey. I have taken the color black out completely by the last painting in the series.
What I do with my color is I think I attempt to evoke feelings that we associate with color. So that when we look at it we may not understand it, but viscerally one may feel something. Whatever that is to each viewer, I am not sure. I like having the openness for the viewer to take it wherever they like. I will use colors to play off of each other. Other times the colors are symbolic of an idea. The color helps me to convey feeling.
How long does each piece take?
I will work for six months on a piece 2-3 days a week, 4 if I am lucky. I work as much as I can. Sometimes it’s only 2 days a week as life does happen and I have to get involved in something else.
What is your motivation to continue working on your art?
What keeps me going is the desire for my art to be a catalyst for people to go beyond what they are feeling and thinking, to maybe inspire or invoke something in them that they don’t even understand; but takes them a little farther on their personal journey. I think there are a lot of people who feel that there is more in this life than what we may see. It is a comfort to feel that there is more, that there is meaning beyond chaos and suffering. I hope to make art that may be meaningful or a guidepost for people on their own journey.
Nina Groth’s goal after the Sojourn Series is to work in complete abstraction. She looks forward to the balance that abstraction will bring to her life’s work. She is learning to work spontaneously. Groth is working on finding a space to feel comfortable with her spontaneous intuition. She draws inspiration from German Expressionism and in particular from Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky believed that the spectator could perceive feelings and moods in a painting, the focus being put on capturing vivid emotional reactions through dynamic compositions and powerful colors. Although her work now has representational elements, she reminds herself with a picture of her favorite Kandinsky abstract work, pinned up in her studio, of where she hopes her artistic journey will take her.
Heather Cruce is a student majoring in Art at Humboldt State University and an intern at HSU First Street Gallery.