Nancy Mims Hartsfield
ARTIST / PAINTER / DESIGNER
BFA Graphic Design ‘63
MFA Fine Art and Printmaking ’65
Read an interview with Nancy in the Design Alabama Journal Volume XXV
What are you currently intersted in and how is it feeding into your work? Since my retirement my work has shifted from graphic design to focus on the fine arts. I have had a gallery showing every year since my retirement and continue to enter juried shows. I have always believed in the symbiotic relationship of design and painting or any other application of the fine arts. The practice and knowledge of one discipline enhances the other.
Currently I have become interested in encaustics. This has been a liberating challenge. I feel that my graphics background has enriched my compositional skills and my understanding of color, texture, line and pattern.
Since encaustics is a relatively new medium for me, applying and controlling hot wax has been a learning experience. Most appealing is the intense color, transparency, texture and luminosity of this medium. Also the endless opportunities for manipulation in the application of the wax. These approaches can be both controlled and spontaneous. I find the contrast between these two approaches in my work to be both exciting and satisfying.
“The creative process has always been central to my life. I am indeed fortunate to have spent my entire life in an “art environment”, either in taking or teaching classes surrounded by talented collegues, mentors and fellow students. This is where I have chosen to be.”
Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking about design? I don’t know that there has been a single “big” influence on my way of thinking about art and design. The creative process has always been central to my life. I am indeed fortunate to have spent my entire life in an “art environment”, either in taking or teaching classes surrounded by talented collegues, mentors and fellow students. This is where I have chosen to be.
One constant mentor in my life has been my professor, now Professor Emeritus, Hugh Williams. Nothing is better than a day in Hugh’s studio looking at his new work and talking with him. Other significant mentors have been Dr. Taylor Littleton and Professor Maltby Sykes. I am so fortunate to have had the support and guidance of these three professors in my life.
You started a well known publication called DesignAlabama and have served as art director for the journal for many years. In your opinion how has the design community in Alabama changed? I see more integration, cooperation and mutual respect among the varied design disciplines. I see more collaboration. The internet has made it possible to have the designer, the copywriter, and the client easily in three different cities or locations and yet have instant feedback and communication.
The design community has become more sophisicated, challenging, and competitive.
You taught Art and Design at Auburn University for 35 years serving your final 4 years as Interim Head of the Art Department. With colleague John Morgan you were able to secure from Apple Computer the University’s first computer laboratory. How did teaching art and design change once computers came into play in the classroom? With the advent of computers, the classroom approach changed only in the fact that we had a new tool with which to explore concepts and the development of good graphics. We still placed the emphasis on working through projects beginning with a lot of good brainstorming and thumbnails. In other words just getting on the computer is not going to solve the problem.
The use of the computer has placed more responsibility on individual designers in the making of critical decisions about aesthetics, graphics and good communication. With the arrival of computers anyone who could type could declare themselves a graphic designer and produce a newsletter, a magazine or any other form of print. Now more than ever more emphasis needs to be placed on the study of typographics, layout and concept. Typehouses were put out of business by computers. That left decisions involving type choices, leading, letter spacing, line length and many other factors soley to the operator of the computer. These days the graphic designer alone is totally responsible for making good choices in all of these critical areas. First and foremost computers are no substitute for good designers and solid ideas.
Also, computers have opened up whole new communicaton opportunities such as website design.
As an artist, you paint a wide range of subjects and expressive styles from representation to fully abstract. Is there a series of paintings you are particularly proud of and would like to share details about? Thanks for asking. I am always proudest of the painting that is on the easel. I set out to produce a body of work with a concept or subject that intrigues and excites me. I enjoy a challenge and explore many different approaches to my work in subject as well as media. Like graphic design, painting entails creative problem solving.
One of my most challenging series of paintings is called ”Pictures at an Exhibition”, all of them abstract. In 1874, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky viewed a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg of drawings and watercolors his late young friend Victor Hartman had made during travels through Europe, and was inspired to create a memorial of his own, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a powerful composition in which Mussorgsky translated 10 of Hartman's sketches into music—with a recurring "Promenade" (the composers "walk") between some of them and to open the piece.
I have now re-translated the music back into pictures. Not literally, of course, but as my visual impressions of Mussorgsky's musical impressions of Hartman's pictures.
In the early years of the program was it more difficult for women to become “successful” in the art and design field when they graduated from the program at Auburn? I believe that women do sometimes have to go a little further to prove themselves. Maybe that was truer then than it is now. However good work and a good work ethnic speaks for itself. Things come together in the end. The cream always rises to the top. I have never felt handicapped in any of my endeavors because I am a woman.
While teaching at Auburn, were there more men than women in the program? What would you estimate the overall male to female ratio to be during your years at Auburn? Early on there was a higher ratio of men to women; when I started it was approximately 2 to 1. This was true throughout the university as well. Gradually I have seen it change to more females than males. This also is a trend in university enrollment.
What would you say your former students remember most about you and the projects you assigned? I taught many different classes during my career from basic drawing and design, art history, painting, graphic processes to typographics and graphic design. I hope that my students remember that my projects were interesting and challenging. Also I hope that they remember that I set very high standards.
One project that I assigned my graphic design classes in the late 80’s was prophetic to some degree. They were asked to name, design and assign attributes to a handheld devise that could do many things. For example, take notes, take photographs, give you the time and temperature, make mobile phone calls and manage many other means of communication. They were then to package and market this devise. There were many brilliant solutions to this assignment. The first official “smart phone” came out in the early 90’s.
“Somewhere along the way I earned the nickname of “The Velvet Hammer”. Hopefully for my high standards and a real concern for my students’ professional performances.”
I suspect you have many wonderful stories to share about the students and the projects produced in the art and design program at Auburn during your years teaching. Are there any particular stories you would like to share? I do have many great stories involving students. Students have a wonderful sense of humor and manage to laugh at themselves. I remember coming into the classroom area very early one morning some time before the start of the first classes for the day. A student who had been working all night had fallen asleep and put his head down on his pointilistic design project. He had drooled on the magic marker dots on his project and it was all running together. I woke him up and we both got hysterical laughing. Obviously he was headed for an F on craftsmanship.
My husband who headed his own advertising and marketing firm in Montgomery likes to tell the story of interviewing a recent graduate of the Auburn design program for a position in his firm. He asked my husband, “Do you know Professor Hartsfield at Auburn?” My husband said, “She’s my wife”. To which the graduate replied, “That Mrs. Hartsfield, she’s mean! She made me do my final project all over again!”
I feel so fortunate to have spent my career teaching and working with students who are passionate about their studies. I have loved it all. My expectations have always been high and I have always been very fond of my students. Somewhere along the way I earned the nickname of “The Velvet Hammer”. Hopefully for my high standards and a real concern for my students’ professional performances.
Designer responded to questions in 2017 via email.