Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, January 3, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 3
Winter 2005

The Fabric of a Career
Cynthia Nixon ’71 has fashioned an unlikely life as an artist
By Barbara Snyder Stambaugh
Cynthia Nixon ’71 says she’s running out of lifetime.

It’s a simple bit of math for her: she’s already spent some years, so she has fewer left to spend, and she wants to use them wisely.

Nixon lives outside State College, Pa., on a stone-covered lane where a score of sugar maples grows in two straight lines. Her husband, an architect, designed their airy white farmhouse where they’ve raised two sons, both of whom have gone off to college.

The dog naps quietly by the door. There are no sounds but the wind through the trees. Serenity so permeates this place that you can almost feel it, soft against your skin.

Adjacent to the house is another lovely building—Nixon’s studio. It is exactly the kind of space an artist might wish for herself. Inside, the ceiling rises dramatically. The walls are white, the surfaces uncluttered. Tall windows overlook the fields, where meandering paths have been mown through grassy acres. For years, in this extraordinary space, Nixon has been making art and teaching it.

“I feel like I’m beginning again,” Nixon says, as though she is surprised by this gentle turn her life is taking.

She has spent her career as an artist working in mixed media—with enough fabric and sewing involved that her work has often been referred to as quilting … wild, edgy, beautifully fluid quilting with almost nothing but thread in common with your grandmother’s bed linens.

But Nixon’s work was never easily categorized, and now the art she creates has even less to do with sewing.

“There are things I want to say … and I want to say them with paint.” So she’s beginning again.

The last time Nixon was a beginning artist, it was the early ’70s. She had graduated from Dickinson with a degree in political science and had spent the better part of the next year hitchhiking around Europe.

“I’m not at all sorry that I majored in political science,” Nixon says of her undergraduate experience, which was deeply informed by the country’s social and political landscape. “I had always been drawn to art but, at the time, I felt that I was supposed to change the world through the social sciences. I went to the March on Washington. They were difficult times—everyone was so angry.”

But the museums she frequented in Europe drew her in and consumed her thinking, so she came back to Dickinson to take art classes with Dennis Akin and Eric Weller—both of whom she still refers to as great influences—and then went to Penn State for a master’s in art education.

“There was a big surge of feminist art in the ’70s,” Nixon says of those days, when women were taking ownership of the amazing but often marginalized arts and crafts their foremothers had been practicing for generations—like quilting. “It was a very exciting time.”

Nixon combined painting and stitching with gorgeous results, and her work caught on, selling at art shows, in galleries and through commissions. As her work developed, it was acquired by some of the most prestigious collections in the country—including the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, the White House and U.S. embassies, including Bangladesh and Turkmenistan.

On the far wall of her studio is Mirror, a striking piece that has just been returned from her one-woman show in Los Angeles. It’s based on the Renaissance painter Parmigianino, who created a self-portrait by looking in a convex mirror. Nixon’s self-portrait also is painted from a convex mirror and, by painstakingly stitching in tiny pieces of shiny Mylar fabric, she has created a gracefully mirrored effect in the background.

“It’s a very time-consuming process,” she says.
Nixon’s art, no matter the medium, seems both universal and personal. It draws on influences as old as Byzantine icons and medieval altarpieces and as new as American folk art and the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001.

Crash Quilt, a striking piece now owned by the Smithsonian, was created after Nixon’s back was fractured in a car accident in the early ’90s. It portrays a woman protected by graceful wings while the world around her tumbles in jagged chaos. Certainly, the work is informed by the accident, but it also speaks to something larger, to the calamities and comforts that all people experience.

This ability to face outward while looking inward permeates Nixon’s work. The state of mind she describes as being necessary for her to work is “quiet, like a pool of still water.

“It’s hard to describe,” she says, “because when I’m talking about it, I’m not there. It’s like meditation. Time becomes irrelevant. I might become vaguely aware that I’m hungry and later realize that I’ve missed a meal or two.”

Nixon’s Venus and Shell, which was influenced by Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus, represents the moment of transition between her old work and her new beginning. (See inside cover.)

“She’s free,” Nixon says of Venus in her painting. “She’s not just emerging from her shell, she’s stepping out of the Mylar. I just realized that this very second. She’s stepping out of the stitching. That’s what I’m doing, too.”

Now Nixon is focused entirely on painting. Her latest project is a series of 12 very large canvasses based on events in her life. As she creates them, each will hang, in turn, in her studio—floor to ceiling and wall to wall.

“Art is incredibly important,” she says. “We need truth and beauty. We have history books, but tomorrow’s art history is being created in little studios right now. People need art the same way they need food. They just don’t know it.”

For more on Cynthia Nixon and her art, go to www.cynthianixonart.com.


Dickinson College, PO Box 1773, Carlisle, PA 17013, 717-243-5121