It’s a familiar scenario: Talented student mentored by world-renowned artist launches promising career and then has children. End of story.
Or is it? For most women in the arts, particularly women of a certain age, motherhood has a tendency to insert itself between talent and mastery. Some give up the creative pursuit altogether.
That easily could have been the outcome for Nelda Haley. But rather than stopping painting when her children were small, she created a number of remarkable works while raising them. It wasn’t until later, in the early 1970’s, that she stopped painting altogether, a few years before she moved to East Montpelier and took a day job with the State of Vermont’s Office of Child Development. She didn’t pick up a brush again until 1996.
Once retired, though, Haley went back to work. Art work. She rented a space at Studio Place Arts in Barre and picked up where she’d left off, at the onset of abstract expressionism.
It’s evident from a posthumous exhibition of Haley’s 22 oil paintings and sketches in SPA’s third-floor gallery, near her old studio, that she never wavered from her commitment to the style she adopted as a young student and housewife. In 1952, Haley and her husband moved to Greenwich Village, where she studied painting with Hans Hofmann, a modernist German painter and the father of the abstract expressionist movement. Hofmann, who started his own painting school in the Village, was an influential proponent of abstraction who taught the likes of Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, Ray Eames, and another Vermont transplant — James Gahagan.
Haley also studied with Louis Schanker, a largely self-taught American abstractionist who experimented with cubism and lectured at the New School for Social Research in New York. His work is highly rational, geometric and delicately rendered.
If we judge from her art, Haley appears to have been more influenced by Schanker than Hofmann. Like the former, she eschewed the looseness and emotionality seen in the popular style of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Instead, she chose to create energetic, cubist-style works that bring color, spatial arrangement and form into a harmonic whole.
Haley had other, more ordinary influences, too. Her muses tended to be the objects she used every day: dish drainer, vacuum cleaner, washing machine — tools no self-respecting housewife could live without. Haley gives each item its own energy field. In “White Bureau,” for example, knobs and drawers spin from the conical vortex at the center into the brown background, as if hurled by centrifugal force. If the dresser is meant to represent order, Haley makes a mess of it. This is a celebration of chaos.
“Paper Burner” has a similar dynamism, except that the spinning geometric in the mid-ground is a cylinder. Here, Haley painted swatches of gold, black, white and brown that form a dizzying column of movement.
Though many of her works convey a mechanistic manic energy, Haley also painted serene abstracts or semi-abstracts that rely on intense juxtaposition of unusual color fields and compositions. Two black figures make their way up a deserted white thoroughfare in “Windy Street.” The horizon on either side is walled in by monolithic black skyscrapers. At the base of the image are two streaks of yellow, red and blue light. The setting is ominous, in part because of its anonymity. The artist gives the viewer only the sparest references.
Haley didn’t stay long in New York. Her family moved to Wisconsin in 1958, and there she got involved in local artists’ co-ops and exhibited in group shows. But, based on the quality of the work on view at SPA, dating from 1949 to 1965, it appears she never got the recognition she deserved.
Haley’s exhibit is a window on the New York art scene on the eve of the American expressionist movement. It’s a period you can grow to appreciate through this woman’s competent — and apparently underappreciated — work.