Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Interview with memoirist Nancy L. Pressly

My special guest today is Nancy L. Pressly. She’s sharing a bit about her memoir, Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art.

I grew up in small rural town north of New York City. After graduating from Goucher College, I lived in New York City where I received a master’s degree in Art History from Columbia University, worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and met my husband, also an art historian. I subsequently held curatorial positions at the Yale Center for British Art and the San Antonio Museum of Art, where I organized several important exhibitions, most notably the acclaimed Fuseli Circle in Rome: Early Romantic Art of the 1770s at Yale. I served for eight years as Assistant Director of the Museum Program at the National Endowment for the Arts during the Mapplethorpe controversary and the Culture Wars. After a semester as a visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, I founded Nancy L. Pressly & Associates, a nationally recognized consulting firm specializing in strategic planning for some of the nation’s leading art museums. In the past five years, I have authored two books, Settling the South Carolina Backcountry (2016) and in Unlocking A Memoir of Family and Art to be published May 5, 2020. My husband and I live in Atlanta, Georgia, close to our son and two grandchildren. I love to travel, garden, and cook, and recently I took up pottery.

Welcome, Nancy. Please tell us about your current release.
Unlocking is not your typical memoir in that it looks at my life’s journey so far. It interweaves personal and professional stories, beginning with my childhood in a small rural town north of New York City as I slowly unravel family dynamics that had so long been obliterated from my memory. The memoir captures my life in the New York art world of the late 1960’s when I came into my own as a person and met my husband, a fellow graduate student, and we began our journey together as art historians. Throughout I discuss the importance of art and travel and how I look at and respond to art. Major themes include how I assumed the role of caretaker for my family, beginning with her husband’s near fatal illness early in our marriage; the challenges of being a working mother when the concept was still new; and how I finally overcame doubts about my professional worth and ambivalence about my more assertive side of my being that I kept partially repressed, allowing me to embrace a national leadership role in the museum world. It is also a story of resilience, determination, and optimism. Interwoven throughout is the importance of family bonds. The memoir is an intensely personal and honest account, notable for its candor, and I hope it leaves the reader with a deep appreciation for the power of empathy and the transformative power of art.

What inspired you to write this book?
While I was recovering from a near fatal illness, I discovered a treasure trove of family material in my attic, including citizenship papers, boxes of letters and old photographs, including one of my father’s brother, Max, who died at the age of eighteen, which I had never seen. As I looked at these photographs, some over a century old, I was astonished at the power of the image to unlock memories, to tell stories. I found myself overcome with emotion and suddenly felt a profound responsibility to try to create a narrative of my grandparents’ and parents’ lives before their stories were lost forever. For the next year I applied my skills as a researcher uncovering, in archives and historical documents, a significant amount of new information. I pieced together the facts and prepared a chronological outline with key events but did not venture further and try to write their story.

One day some eight years later, as I watched my grandchildren play in our backyard, I was filled with love and tenderness and gratitude for this gift. I was acutely aware of what a critically important role I was playing in their lives, as I helped my son, who was essentially a single parent, care for them. I thought about how random events or even comments can resonate deeply with a child, becoming an important part of what he or she takes forward into their adult life. I thought of how important my grandparents had been to me as a child and my mind wandered back to the photographs, I discovered eight years earlier. I realized there was unfinished business. I knew, in order to write my family’s story, I would have to summon the courage to dig deep into my own past, which had been locked away for so long behind a heavy veil of amnesia. It slowly dawned on me that I should write a memoir and incorporate my parents’ history into my story. This was my circuitous route to becoming a memoir writer, and it took me totally by surprise.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Being retired is an interesting state, so much more exciting than I ever envisioned. For me it has released a burst of creativity not only in writing but also in other things. A year ago, I took up pottery and throwing on the wheel and I absolutely love doing this. It is challenging but very satisfying when a beautiful pot emerges. So, for the moment my writing will be confined mainly to my Reflections page on my website, where I will write short essays on themes in the book including looking at art, travel, finding myself as a woman. Right now, I am writing a short essay on balancing our many roles as women whatever our age.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
For me that’s a hard question because I have always written for my work whether it was as a curator and scholar or a strategic planner for art museums. My publications have been well received as much for their scholarly contribution as for their style. I have become a much better writer over the years and have been told I write with clarity and passion. My most recent book, prior to Unlocking, was Settling the South Carolina Book Country which focused on my husband ‘s family and the Scot-Irish settling Abbeville and Greenwood county between 1768 and 1850.

Photo credit:
Atlanta Portait Photography
Do you write full-time?
I’m retired. During the period I was writing my memoir I worked on it every day. It was very important to me and occupied my consciousness even when I wasn’t writing. But the reality was, despite the fact I am retired, I had other responsibilities. Family is a central theme in my book, and our lives have been complicated so there were constant interruptions. Our son is mainly a single parent; I help with the children sometimes daily and this involves phone calls that could interrupt the rhythm of writing and times when the thoughts came fast and furious and I would have to stop to pick up the kids from school. Additionally, my husband has serious health issues, and this could interrupt writing for a month at a time and certainly occupied my thoughts and emotions. I am extremely disciplined and energetic, so I found ways to continue to write but it certainly complicated thought processes on more than one occasion. I was absolutely committed to this book and thrilled that I found the courage and inspiration to undertake a memoir.

If so, what's your workday like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I try to find a balance and keep my mind fresh. Exercise – I like to walk and do Pilates – was essential. I also enjoy gardening and cooking; both are important parts of my life.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I am very messy; there are papers everywhere in my small home office. I am also intuitive and empathetic and honest as a person and these attributes became my voice. I don’t know if that is quirky but for some it might be.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In seventh grade I had a crush on my science teacher and wanted to become a geologist. I was always interested in science and psychology, but in college I discovered art history and there was no turning back after that.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Writing a memoir was a complicated and moving experience and I found inspiration with the process, letting my own story slowly unfold. There was no outline; it evolved organically; major themes changed midway. It was so interesting to look at old photographs and try to decipher my parents and grandparents lives; to try to see and intuit meaning beneath the surface of the images as I so often had done as an art historian with works of art. Retrieval of memories was a slow journey. I had no idea where it would end up, but I trusted the journey and learned remarkable new things. No longer the analytic strategic planner or scholar prone to footnotes, I found inspiration in a new way of writing. It was liberating.


Thank you for being here today, Nancy!

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