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An artist at home in her museum
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An artist at home in her museum


The canvas curtains that long guarded the windows of Natasha Nicholson’s art studio in Schenk’s Corners, casting the inside in mystery, have been reproduced by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and now hang in its gallery windows on State Street.

Same curtain design.

Same intrigue.

But there’s a difference now: Strangers can see inside.

The exhibition “Natasha Nicholson: The Artist in Her Museum” draws open those canvas curtains to reveal one of Madison’s most unusual living and working spaces. On display at MMOCA through Nov. 8, the show is a careful reinterpretation of the East Side studios where the artist collects, ponders and creates. Those studios were visible, until now, only to close friends who were welcomed inside.

At the free-admission museum, “Many people come in and say, ‘I’ve been wondering what’s behind those curtains for decades.’ So it’s been interesting,” said Nicholson, whose own life, like her collections and artworks, has been temporarily transplanted to the museum for the show.

“Now they know everything,” she said. “No more secrets.”

Visitors to “The Artist in Her Museum” can take the title literally, because Nicholson is often on site in the gallery, rearranging a display, dusting one of her sculptures or reading a book while seated in an intricately beaded armchair (which she calls “one of my treasures”).

Her work is divided into four rooms, just as it is in the 2,500-square-foot space she uses as her private studios. There is the Thinking Room, where Nicholson places objects when they first come into her life. Next is Strata, her sculpture studio and gallery. Then the Studiolo, with carefully arranged objects, all yearning to tell a story. And finally the Bead Room, filled with Nicholson’s fabulous collections of beads from around the world.

Clues to her inspirations as an artist are everywhere — from color samples to magazine photos torn out to spark a creative idea. Much of the shelving Nicholson built herself.

“Several guests have asked, ‘Do you really live like this?’ And yes, I really live like this,” she said. “There’s nothing here that I don’t love.”

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, and longtime California resident, Nicholson moved to Madison in 1980 when her husband, Thomas Garver, became director of MMOCA’s predecessor, the Madison Art Center. In 1992 the couple bought a residential-commercial building, whose first floor eventually became home to Nicholson’s artworks and vast, eclectic, but highly edited collections.

She acquires interesting objects “wherever I go. I’m always alert, visually alert,” Nicholson said.

“When I see it, I have to love it, and it has to affect me physically. It’s very powerful. There’s very little in between — I either love it, or I don’t.”

The newly acquired objects go into Nicholson’s Thinking Room.

“This is the most private of all my rooms,” said Nicholson, who sometimes sleeps in her Thinking Room at home to see what ideas come.

“This is where everything starts. Everything I acquire comes into this room. I look at it for a few minutes sometimes — sometimes for decades. ... If it’s a question whether it goes into my work, my sculpture (or) whether it goes into my collection, everything begins in this room.”

Nicholson’s fascinating Studiolo room evolved from “Cabinet of Curiosities: Four Artists, Four Visions,” an exhibition that she was part of in 2000 at the Chazen (formerly Elvehjem) Museum of Art.

After that show, Nicholson began collecting in earnest to create an entire room that is a cabinet of curiosities.

“Through time, artists have been fabulous collectors,” she said.

“Degas had a phenomenal collection. Rembrandt went bankrupt because he was such a voracious acquirer and of course he said, ‘I have to have these things to paint them correctly in my paintings.’ Furs and pelts and armor. There’s a very rich history of the artist as collector, both in past times and in our own time.”

In the Studiolo room, Nicholson points to a small Egyptian sculpture of a cat.

“This is about life. It’s about many lives,” she said. In the case of the cat, “How did it survive? How many people loved that enough, and valued it enough, that it got to this point? And yet the culture that made that is gone. So it’s about many beginnings and endings.”

Stephen Fleischman, today MMOCA’s director, recalls visiting the Nicholson-Garver home while a graduate student in the early 1980s. Even then, he was struck by the fusion of artistic styles there and how the couple seamlessly integrated art into their personal lives.

Three decades later, Fleischman proposed a show — some kind of show — exploring Nicholson’s work at MMOCA.

The idea for a “poetic recreation of Natasha’s studio” came from arts philanthropist Pleasant Rowland, who knows both MMOCA and Nicholson well, the museum director said.

“Thinking back, it is hard to imagine the project going any other direction,” Fleischman wrote in the 120-page exhibition catalog for “The Artist in Her Museum.”

Linda R. James, who wrote the essay “Thinking Natasha” for the catalog and has lectured at MMOCA about Nicholson’s art, calls the show “a feast of things” displayed in an “egalitarian nature.”

“The sheer multiplicity makes it impossible to comfortably single out any one thing, or even a few,” James said in her essay.

Nicholson has spent much of her time in the museum exhibition since it opened in late August. (Her home studio, she points out, is pretty much empty at this point).

The personable artist loves to chat with museum visitors — she calls them “guests” — and hear the stories that her collections evoke.

“You fill in the blanks. And that’s what all this work is about, the guests filling in the blanks,” she said. “My story is only my story. I think it’s important for people to come in here and create their own stories, their own memories, their own ideas.”

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