Nancy Stahl Profile
posted: March 26, 2007
I trekked uptown a few weeks ago to meet with Nancy Stahl, where we sat in her living room overlooking the Upper West Side and she talked about the early days of digital art and what makes her tick, beside the artificial valve implanted during her open heart surgery nearly 10 years ago.

"I don't remember ever not drawing. One day I came home from kindergarten at lunchtime–we'd come home for lunch as it was only a block to walk–and I came home with a picture of 'my house'; you know, the usual 'my house' kind of picture, with the smoke coming out of the chimney. I remember showing it to my father over our tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and him saying, “Our house has a double car garage! That's not our house.” And he dragged me out front and  showed me all the things that I hadn't included that he'd paid extra money for: the brick along the bottom,  and shingles at the top ... he was so literal! I realized I was going to have to draw things more literally, for my parents to understand. And that's really had an effect my work: I thought it had to be realistic or it wasn't worth anything. It's been a curse: I'd much rather draw something more personal.

"In high school, I was known as the go-to person if you needed a poster for running for student office and that sort of stuff. I also realized that these people wouldn't invite me to a party normally but they would invite me to these 'poster parties' and then they would leave me in the living room, working away, and they'd go off and have a party. I started realizing I wasn't really that sociable and I really couldn't care less.

"I went to the Art Center in L.A. for two years, and after I came back to New York, I went to work for this company that made fabric for men’s pants. I did color combinations, mostly plaids, in gouache, for almost two years, but I freelanced on the side and I was going around on my lunch hour with my portfolio. I finally got it built up to where my freelance was interfering with my work; or really, my work was interfering with my freelance! So I quit and started freelancing, full time.

"I wound up painting in a very 1940's type of travel poster style, in gouache. A friend gave me a book of Ludwig Hohlwein's commercial work and I already had a love of gouache so it influenced me big time. J. C. Suarès (then AD at New York Magazine) was the first person I showed my new flat painting style to and he made a quick remark about Hohlwein's association with the Nazi party. I wish I could say I had become disenchanted with it then, but I couldn't believe that such beautiful work could come from an advocate of an extremely evil system. I simply sought out other examples of the look, like the English railway and underground posters by E. McKnight Kauffer.

"That's when I really began to catch on, as far as having a look, but after about 10 years I started getting really sick of my style: I'd put down a layer of gouache, and wait for it to dry and it was all I could do to not have tears drip on it because I was so, “I can't stand to paint another one of these. Really, really.”

"I began telling my agent about how sick I was of doing my style, and she said there was this company, Charlex, that wanted to take on some illustrators to learn the computer. These were big mainframe computers, and you were supposed to put your tape in the machine, and you'd go back to this hazmat type of room--you know, those computer rooms where the guys would wear white and it was freezing cold--one huge room, full of tapes, and you'd load your tape.

"They weren't paying me, but they'd let me go in at 7 o'clock at night, and I could work till 7 in the morning. There was no manual, no help, no nothing, so I learned by trial and error. The first time I was there, I worked until daylight. Because I was just immediately in love: I couldn't  believe that you could cut something out and then move it and stretch it ... it was like discovering a whole 'nother magical way of working! It wasn't work, it was play!  And when I came home after that first night, I fell asleep and I was having dreams where I was replacing friends' faces. And the next day, I called up, and I said, 'I GOTTA come back! Can I come back TONIGHT?'

"From then on, I just loved working digitally. It took me about two months to really learn the programs, and it was so painful for me to do assignments traditionally, while I was learning. And after I figured it out, I told my agent, 'OK, that's it. Tell all my clients I'm just doing computer; I'm not going to do the other stuff anymore.'

"And most of them didn't want digital art. People were afraid. They thought, 'Oh no, it's going to be computer-looking', either very pixellated or very air-brushy. And I really started promoting the heck out of myself, in annuals and all, and it worked.

"I didn't know it, but I had a congenital heart defect that was attacked by a simple virus, and something that would have been a nasty cold for anyone else turned into heart failure for me because of that weakness. So I had open heart surgery in '98, and my aortic valve is now a metal disc that swings back and forth from a center pivot point. You can sometimes hear it like the ticking of a watch.

"After the surgery, I didn't want to work at all. I'd worked so hard my whole life, in this apartment, alone, working all the time, into the wee hours. But I just didn't want to work again. So I thought, I've got to do something. And I went to MacWorld, out in San Francisco, and saw you could knit, using the computer. That really sparked me: I wanted to knit garments with my graphics as the motifs. The trouble is, along with constraints of machine knitting that I was yet to learn, I don't like strong images on clothing. So, I went a bit off course from my first imaginings and learned to knit plain garments because I love the shaping and three-dimensional working out of a jacket or hat and to save the imagery for scarfs.

"But the knitting was separate from my work. That was very frightening, because I've always been so passionate about my work, and to have that kind of passion for something else ... it suddenly split me. It was very frightening at first. But now I'm trying to find a way to merge both, the knitting and the illustration.

"When you're working, it's just your brain and that thing you're making, and to actually have a tangible outcome is really exciting. Sometimes, I'll wake up in the middle of the night, and I think, 'I just want to see it,' and I'll flip on the light and go look at it. I think that's why some people have to give birth, because that's when they get that feeling ... but we can get that from our work. There's some attachment, there's something about it that makes you want to go check on it, to see if it's the way you remembered, to see if you have the same feeling about it ... it's very much like looking in on your child in the middle of the night!

"I'd like to trust myself more: to trust my ideas, to trust my voice more, so it's less about fulfilling the assignment and more about me having an end result that I like. I don't want to be grandiose about 'assignments', because they are assignments and you have to fulfill the assignment, but I think I've shied away from trusting my sensibility by working so hard to accommodate the parameters that they've given me. I just wish I would try more; I think I've given up on trying to have it be mine. I don't even sign things anymore; I haven't signed anything in a long time.

"I do try to loosen up, but I don't think I'm ever going to do it. I think it's yet another curse: I think I'll always be tight, and I just have to find a way for that to be OK.

"Sometimes I think I identify myself too much as an illustrator. If you asked me to list what I am, it would be first illustrator, and then human being."