A Conversation with Vernita Nemec

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday May 5, 2021

Climate change, environmental degradation, and sustainability are among the most significant topics today and have become important subjects in contemporary art. Artist, activist and curator Vernita Nemec, Director of Viridian Artists, recently curated the online exhibition, "Up-Cycling Detritus" for Sculptors Alliance, Inc. As it turns out, detritus has been the main subject of her art and activism since her formative years as an artist. She recently joined me from her Chelsea gallery for this virtual conversation. Above: Dolores Zorreguieta, from My Babies Frankenstein (detail), 2011-16

Peggy Roalf: What is your first memory of art? Is there something in your background, growing up and studying in the mid-West, that caused you to come to New York as an artist, and later, to gravitate towards the curatorial side of the art world?

Vernita Nemec: My earliest memories of art were watching my uncle George draw cartoons—some of which were published in The New Yorker, and looking at a painting on velvet of a moonlit night in my grandmother’s living room. Low beginnings but I grew to love artmaking even though I was discouraged early on by my mother; she thought teaching would be a more reliable profession.

Getting to New York City was a dream, and a miracle indirectly caused by my mother’s insistence that I become a teacher. Though I did major in painting at Ohio University, I minored in Art Education. At the time public schools were in desperate need of guidance counselors and I received a full scholarship from New York University for an MFA in counseling and psychology. As it turned out, that learning has also aided me immensely in helping other artists.

PR: You seem to be a producer as much as a curator. When one checks Merriam-Webster’s for the word “curator”, one finds, “guardian”, “steward”, “caretaker”, “keeper”, among others. What do you see as your primary roles in this position? 

VN: I have always thought of myself as first an artist. But somehow over the years, through my various day jobs, I’ve found rewards in encouraging other artists, to help give them the courage to “just do it”. For ten years I was director of Artists Talk on Art, organizing and hosting weekly panel discussions that served to connect emerging artists with critics and noted artists. 

PR: How far do you go in the direction of “shepherd”; or “manager”?

VN: As the director of Viridian Artists for 20 years, I try not to get involved with their creative and artistic choices (unless, of course, they ask me to) but try instead to help them in the presentation of their work to the public.



PR: Climate change and waste are two of the most significant topics today, yet these have been your concerns since you began making art in the mid-70s. What changes have you noticed in the way artists working in 3D have been using materials [particularly discarded material] since then? Sun Young Kang, In Between Presence and Absence 2, ongoing; installation: 2018

VN: I think the artists concerned with sustainability and the environment have come to make more grand productions and to “beautify” their detritus materials more, just as these discarded well-designed packaging materials have become more and more appealing. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine throwing away these beautifully constructed boxes, so we, as artists, feel they must become something of even greater value. I was amazed by the complexity and enormity of some of the projects submitted to the “Up-Cycling Detritus” online show that I recently curated for Sculptors Alliance, Inc. When I began curating the Detritus shows in 1996, we were concerned about the environment (the National Recycling Coalition was one of my first sponsors), but the resulting artworks were simpler, although just as direct in their approach to their impact on the environment.



PR: In jurying the exhibition “Up-Cycling Detritus”, what were some of the features of the virtual platform that influenced your selection process? Could you share your thoughts about co-working with other arts organizations, such as Sculptors Alliance? And on working remotely? Above: Penny Babel, American Robin in the Anthropocene, 2016 (left); Eastern Gray Squirrel in the Anthropocene, 2021

VN: Working with Marco Palli, President of Sculptors Alliance, has been a joy because I felt we complimented each other and were able to fill gaps that are always there when one works alone. We plan to continue working together and I think more and more art organizations will do that because of the need to share skills, find financial resources and spaces to show in-person. 

The digital world is complex and is constantly changing. And each platform has its own characteristics. Working remotely can be exhausting but it can also be a good thing because it detaches you somewhat from the artist/creator so that you can focus on the merits of the art itself. I especially liked the virtual platform that Sculptors Alliance uses because you can see the different works together and get a better sense of the show as a whole; but I wouldn’t be able to set this up myself. Many of the platforms only allow you to see one artwork or artist at a time, which makes it difficult to see how the art will look in the exhibition.

PR: The works in “Up-Cycling Detritus”, by 44 artists from around the world, express some of the most advanced creative thinking about what constitutes a work of art—not to mention what constitutes art materials. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to tell that detritus is involved. In what ways did evidence of detritus being present influence your selection process? 


VN: Firstly, it was extremely important to me that the art for this exhibit be made primarily by recycling detritus that would have otherwise gone into the landfill, incinerator, or ocean. The main premise of the show is: no photographs of trash, but instead the transformation of trash; making something valueless into art. The transformation was critical, but I still wanted viewers to realize that the art was not created from archival paper or carved marble, but instead created from paper that would have been thrown away or from broken bits, sewn or welded or however put together to make this new object with an important message. Some of the artists—who were mostly new to me—have accomplished this in a beautiful and grandiose way and others in a very modest, though meaningful way. Above: Kenichi Nakajima, The Life, 2014



PR: Art—particularly works in the 3D—is physical. How do you view the conceptual space of online broadcasting of exhibitions versus the space of a gallery, a public art or performance site, or a museum. Above: Jeanne Verdoux, Mr. Bones’ Artifacts, 2013

VN: They used to say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of looking at art, particularly something with texture and form, the reality of it is totally different than a photo. At the same time, viewing a virtual gallery is still better than not seeing art at all! Many new digital platforms are being developed that show online galleries in a virtual reality setting and I think that as we are more exposed to these platforms, our brains will become more accustomed to it.

PR: As an authority on the hybrid genre of Fine Art/Environmental Justice work, where do you see your next in-person Detritus exhibition taking place? And do you feel that major cultural venues, such as The Met, Art Institute of Chicago and the like, are ready to get more involved in presenting this important field of art? 

VN: I certainly don’t see myself as an authority, but I dream that we will be able to exhibit “Up-Cycling Detritus” and others like it in major venues and museums. I know that these instutions would be open to it (consider the work by the African artist, El Anatsui, currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who makes beautiful tapestries of bottle caps; or Jean Shin, who once assisted me and who recently had an exhibition in which she created an incredible landscape of cell phones at the Asia Art Museum in San Francisco), but we do need to persuade them!


PR: In your Artist Statement for a performance you gave at the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum (above), you describe your own artistic practice as being highly autobiographical. Could you tell the readers about how your own art practice, and feminist activism, influences your work as a curator?

VN: In my own work I struggle with how much to reveal and how to translate my revelations into art. I feel that the most exciting art is that which offers new visions, new meanings, and so I search for that in both my own artmaking and when I am curating an exhibition. I search for truth or honesty in the art I see or the art I create or the art that I select for exhibitions. I search for self-revelations and hidden messages.

PR: What are some of the things that bring joy to a day at Viridian Artists (below)? 

VN: I really enjoy watching people look at art. Some study it intently while others breeze through. I try not to disturb them in their looking but when it seems appropriate, I enjoy asking them what they think about the art they are viewing. I also miss the opening receptions, when friends of the artists come together in supporting and celebrating them. One of my favorite aspects of the job is designing and installing the shows, for it feels like I am part of their creations as I attempt to present the art in its best possible light.



PR: How has the Covid-19 pandemic influenced your decisions for the direction of Viridian Artists—and other art actions—going forward?

VN: We have just begun to have in-person exhibitions again in the gallery after a year of having our shows virtually on our website. During the past year, we cancelled all but one solo show and instead we had many group and invitational exhibits on themes relating to the reality of the moment. This enabled us to donate money to some worthwhile causes. Everyone is hoping for and looking forward to a return to normalcy, but it will surely be a new reality. I have scheduled the next season with many solo shows, some from last season that were cancelled. My hope is that our new reality will lead to new creative solutions, both in art and in life.

Sculptors Alliance will present a panel discussion with Vernita Nemec, Marco Palli, and artists represented in “Up-Cycling Detritus” on Friday, May 7th, starting at 6:00 pm. Info Join with Google Meet: Join by phone: (US) +1 530-414-9608 (PIN: 386833084) More phone numbers

Vernita Nemec has served as Director of Viridian Artists since 2000. Born (1942 in Painesville, Ohio), she is a visual and performance artist, curator, and arts activist based in New York City. Nemec earned her BFA at Ohio University in 1964 and has resided in New York City since 1965. She is also known for her soft stuffed sculpture, collages, artist's books, photographs, and installations. Nemec adopted the pseudonym "N'Cognita," a pun on incognito, as a way to honor artists who have not become well-known. See more of this Wikipedia entry here

Nemec is on the Board of Advisors of  Soho20 in New York City. Nemec is the creator of “Art from Detritus (AFD), and conceived the first AFD exhibition in 1993. The concept has received supportive funding from the Puffin Foundation, the Kaufmann Foundationk and the National Recycling Coalition, to name a few. AFD has been presented at the National Recycling CoalitionSears, Roebuck and Co.; the Puffin FoundationWestinghouse Electric Corporation headquarters; the 

American Institute of ArchitectsLinda Hall Library of ScienceRockhurst CollegeWriter’s PlaceHenry Street Settlement; Abrons Arts CenterGallery 450John Jay College of Criminal JusticeFairleigh Dickinson UniversityWAH Center and Viridian Artists.





No comments yet.

Sign in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join Now