In the 1970s, the SoHo area in Manhattan quickly became romanticized with artists transforming its industrial neighborhoods into creative enclaves. “It made the whole world want to live in lofts,” says Nava Lubelski who grew up there.
“In reality, we had rats in our bathtub and the soles of my feet were black all the time because there really had been a factory before we moved in. And it was super obvious—old sewing machine needles were stuck between the floorboards. The other floors in our building were still factories with sweatshop workers crowding into the elevator with me every day.”
Living in SoHo did have its advantages. “Art making was a very normal part of my childhood,” says Nava. “Everyone had at least one artist parent, and we made and invented stuff all the time. I remember finding some brightly colored electrical wires in a dumpster and my sister and I twisting them into shapes.”
She says hers, however, was not a “hippie” upbringing. She and her older sister were enrolled in Saturday morning music lessons when they were quite young. Nava also recalls a summer spent in Maine when she was eight: “Before we were allowed to play outside or pick blueberries … we had to produce a page of writing each morning that my father reviewed.”
Her parents hoped that she would be a scientist or academic of some kind or something with a real job. “Nobody wanted me to be an artist,” she says. Perhaps because of this, her artistic interests remained beneath the surface for many years.
In her last year of high school, Nava took a class in Russian and instantly fell in love with the language. She pursued that interest at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut—including studying for a year in Moscow—graduating with a degree in Russian literature and history.
So when did her love of art finally reemerge? “After Russia, I finished college and then traveled some more for a few years. When I came back to New York, it (art) started right away—it felt like the thing I’d been missing when I didn’t have a regular place to live.” That missing piece of her life manifested itself in a variety of creative jobs.
“I worked for years building sets and props and painting backdrops for music videos. That was kind of my ‘art school’ since I worked with a team and we’d puzzle through ideas of how to do something together.” One set, for example, was comprised of a dozen huge Rothko copies that she painted with one of her coworkers after lots of discussions about the colors and how much “brushiness” to put into the edges of the color fields.
She says she began exploring the possibilities of being a full-time artist, but found it hard to make it work in New York City. “I would run out of savings and have to pick up some kind of work again. In 2006, after visiting Asheville a couple of times, she decided to move here. “I thought it might work to just be an artist here, although I was afraid of being cut off from the wider art world. It seemed peaceful here, but not dull and I was feeling tired in New York.” In the ten years she’s lived here, Nava says, “I’ve managed it, but some years are better than others.”
Asked about her creative process, she responds, “My process is generally approaching chaos (in whatever medium) and trying to repair or order it without killing its essence. So I’ll start with making a mess or picking up some piece of old canvas that I’d used as a rag or a previously failed piece or a box of shredded papers—anything that seems broken or useless or unresolved. And I try to coax out its beauty, dignity, humor, and drama.”
She says it often feels like an “epic battle” to make some sense of the materials with which she’s working. As way of explanation, she talks about a couple of her pieces.
“Clumsy (above) is a sculpture created from a tablecloth with a red wine spill. The spill happened in 2007 at a benefit… I persuaded the caterer to let me keep the tablecloth and embroidered around the spill to repair and memorialize this seemingly insignificant mishap.”
Another piece, Electric (above), is made from an electric blanket she found in her grandmother’s apartment after she died. “I cut out the electrical wiring and sewed the blanket back up. The snarl of wires is stitched onto the center of the blanket. To me, it’s funny (how it) also references a Cy Twombly scribble and maybe something of ‘Robert Motherwell meets Agnes Martin.’”
Nava’s work is part of an exhibit titled Contemporary Southern Textiles running through the month of April at Blue Spiral 1 in downtown Asheville.
“This is the first time I’ve shown work at a commercial gallery in the area,” says Nava.
It’s likely to be the first of many.
To see more of Nava Lubelski’s work, visit navalubelski.com. (Photo of the artist by Paul M. Howey)