A Conversation with Background Artist/Illustrator Mira Prajapati, by James Scarborough
A Conversation with Curator Seth Pringle on the Occasion of the Exhibition "This Is Not a Chair," at the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art, by James Scarborough

A Conversation with artist Nancy Nieto, by James Scarborough

Nancy Nieto is a distinguished artist renowned for her vibrant fusion of Mexican folklore, realism, and American pop art. Born into a culturally rich Mexican American family, she was deeply influenced by her grandmother’s tales, which ignited her passion for art and culture. Initially pursuing modeling and acting, Nieto transitioned to painting, where she found her true calling. Her unique artistic style is characterized by a bold use of color and a blend of cultural motifs, reflecting her bicultural heritage.

Nieto’s work often features Skull Art, a genre she has both embraced and evolved, symbolizing her fascination with Mexican folklore. Her marriage to Rodolfo Nieto, a notable artist himself, influenced her art and personal growth. Through her journey, she has faced challenges, yet her resilience and dedication to art have been constant. Nieto’s career encompasses teaching and mentoring, emphasizing the importance of perseverance and innovation to emerging artists.

Nieto’s artistic legacy is marked by her distinctive style and her ability to weave cultural narratives into her art. Her work is not just a representation of her heritage, but a vibrant testament to the power of integrating diverse cultural influences into a cohesive artistic expression.

Below is a conversation with the artist.

JS: How did your childhood experiences and your grandmother’s stories shape your interest in art and culture?

NN: She often spoke of Mexico and that awakened a desire in me to visit the country of her origin. When I graduated from high school, my parents took me on a 6-week trip to Mexico. We visited Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, Acapulco, and Mazatlán. I was in love with Mexico when I returned from that trip.

JS: What inspired you to transition from modeling and acting to focus on your fine art painting career?

NN: I did Fine Arts studies for a Master’s Degree at Cal State University Long Beach. I was prepared to become a teaching assistant in the Art Department of Cal State University Los Angeles when my life gave a 180 degree turn which started a long career in modeling and acting. I was selected as Miss California for the Queen of the Pacific Beauty Pageant. It included a trip to Hawaii and Australia where the competition was located. A finalist, I was invited to participate in a goodwill tour in South America, modeling in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru. I settled in Mexico City where I lived for close to 20 years. There was no returning to study. Life had become my teacher.

JS: How have you integrated your American and Mexican heritage into your art?

NN: When I was living in Mexico City, I would walk through the Sonora market observing the flowers and ceramics that were on display. The vendors showed me everything that they had for the Day of the Dead celebration, including sugar skulls, hand painted ceramics, black pottery, incense, and miniature scenes in small boxes illustrating Day of the Dead. Color was incendiary! The brilliant orange cempazuchitl and the vibrant red pata de leon flowers announced the Day of the Dead celebration. Candy skulls and paper mache skulls were impressive and I bought enough to make my own altar. Soon thereafter I was painting them in my art. The skull symbolizes a person that has passed away but who returns in the form of invisible life to be with those who love and miss them. The Day of the Dead celebration is from November 1 to 2. This experience marked the beginning of my love for the theme and the body of work that I created around the skull, the bright colors, and the visiting spirits. My style embraces a realism that describes the phenomena. This was the beginning of the process behind my blend of Mexican folklore, realism, and the American Pop Art in my paintings.

JS: What led to your fascination with Skull Art, and how has this genre evolved in your work?

NN: Skull trees became a logical theme for me because everything that was ever alive on earth returns to the soil when it dies. Life comes out of that soil and it grows into Mother Nature. My skull trees evolved out of the altars and dancing skeletons.

JS: How did your relationship with Rodolfo Nieto influence both your personal life and your artistic development?

NN: Rodolfo Nieto was an extraordinary artist. Living with him was a constant lesson. I am very proud of the artistic heritage that he left for Mexico. Rodolfo and I went to art exhibits and visited museums in Mexico, the United States, and Europe.  Art was our favorite dialog.  We talked about his projects and dreamed up new ones. 

JS: Of all the artworks you have created, do you have any personal favorites? What makes them stand out to you?

NN:  I like the skull trees because their story is woven in eternity.

JS: How do you see the future of fine art evolving, especially with the integration of technology and new media?

NN: The more perfect that technology can make art, the more that an echo in the distance brings the beauty of the imperfect into focus and a yearning for handmade objects.

JS: In your experience as a teacher and mentor, what key lessons do you emphasize to emerging artists?

NN: I remember something that Rodolfo told me.  He said that it was essential to have an artistic style that is unique and doesn't resemble the art of anyone else.  Don't hitch a ride on somebody else's bus.  Copying is good for students, but a serious artist knows that individuality is the key to achieving recognition. 

JS: What advice would you give to aspiring artists, and how do you hope to be remembered in the art world?

NN:  When I was in Mexico and was just starting my career as an actress, working in several films.  A fellow actor Pancho Cordoba who also worked as an editor and a script writer gave me a bit of advice. He said that an artist should have a source of income that is independent from acting jobs because acting jobs don't happen all the time and often there are periods of time with no work at all.

When I am dead and gone, I would like to be remembered at a Day of the Dead celebration in my home with my friends.   Hopefully I will be remembered in the story of the development of art in the 21st Century.

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