NICOLETTE JELEN: Expressing Joy Through Art

Robert Long | April 13, 2000

"It's like a ball rolling down a hill," Nicolette Jelen said of her career as an artist. "The more you do it, the more involved you are with it as a way of life."

Ms. Jelen is a printmaker of renown; her linoleum cuts, chine collees, mezzotints, aquatints, and monoprints appear in galleries and museums across the country.

Locally, her work has appeared at the Gallery Eclectic in Southampton, Elise Goodheart Fine Art in Sag Harbor, and the Nightingale Gallery in Water Mill, where she will have work in an exhibit that will open on May 6.

Always Moving Forward

Ms. Jelen, her husband, Daniel Hubert, and their sons ("I have two, but they feel like 12," she said in French-accented English) live on a quiet street north of the Sag Harbor business district. Her studio occupies a small two-story building next to their house. It is crammed with flat files filled with her prints, a press, and the tools of the printmaker's trade. Her work covers the walls.

"I don't know how to do anything else," Ms. Jelen said, rather modestly, of why she makes art. "I'm always dissatisfied with what I do and that's what propels me forward. I always seek a goal that I will never fulfill, and that propels me to the next thing."

A group of images from her Roman series hangs on a studio wall. There's "Icarus," in which the finely detailed etching of the figure is printed over a monoprint of the sky, all in pale greens, grays, and white. And "Three Centaurs," the mythical creatures intermingling in a nonspecific space with decorative elements like those on a frieze.

Too, there are more recent works: a series of intensely colored, nearly mannerist views of marshland with sweeping curves of reeds and small, tapered bushes. One print has just come off the press; a bright engraved copper plate bearing the colorless image of the marsh rests on the press bed.

Ms. Jelen will apply color to the plate, press the paper to it, clean the plate, and repeat the process twice more. These three separate impressions will yield a single multicolored mezzotint.

"It's an extraordinarily labor-intensive process," she said, perhaps more so for her because she employs so many different methods, uses an endless variety of papers, including dense handmade rice papers, and is always experimenting.

"On a good day, with an assistant, I can turn out 15 or 20 prints. It's a real workout. After that, you don't have to go to the gym," she laughed.

Childhood In Casablanca

Ms. Jelen grew up in Morocco and came to the United States 20 years ago. Her family - her mother is of Hungarian descent, her father, a U.S. citizen, is Slovak - arrived in Morocco courtesy of the Navy. Ms. Jelen still goes to Morocco annually to visit her mother. Her father now lives in Texas.

"My father served in the navy in the war. Afterward, he was posted in Casablanca. And my parents had a wonderful time there. You can imagine what Casablanca was like after the war." After two years there, her father, a radio engineer, was sent to Tangier to set up the Voice of America.

"Everybody in the world passed through there," she said. "I just caught the end of that era, when it was still an international city. It was very glamorous. There were incredible mansions that were abandoned, and as children we used to sneak into them and imagine there were ghosts."

Didn't Want To Copy

"I went to a French school, my brother went to an American school. We had German friends, French friends, friends from all over."

When she was 9, Ms. Jelen fell in love with a book of Gustave Dore etchings in her family's library. "I would copy them in pen and ink," she said.

"I came from an artistic family. Everybody on my mother's side of the family was an artist, including her. Growing up, we all drew and knew we were artists. But I didn't want to study art because that's what my older sister was doing, and she said I was copying her," she said.

"Ship Of Fools"

"So I decided to become a writer. I went to the Sorbonne and studied literature and linguistics. It was the early '70s, a bad time, just after the student riots of the late '60s." To be a university student in Paris then was to be automatically suspect. "I remember being stopped in the street and asked for my 'papers.' Who walks around with their papers?"

After graduating, Ms. Jelen returned to live in Morocco for a year, to figure out what to do with her life. She soon returned to her first love, New York to seek her fortune. "I did odd jobs," she said. "And then I visited some friends in Florida. I think they didn't know what to do with me - this kid who arrived at their house with a cardboard suitcase - because they found me a job as a secretary on a cruise ship to Alaska," she laughed.

"It was wonderful, a real ship of fools. I drew caricatures of everyone."

Loved Anatomy

On her return to New York, Ms. Jelen "got serious. I realized I loved drawing more than anything and wanted to study etching. So I went to a workshop and a year or two later, completely broke, I brought my work to John Szoke, a publisher of fine art editions. And he bought it! I couldn't believe it. That launched me."

Over the years, Ms. Jelen has continued to work "on and off" with Mr. Szoke, who has a gallery in SoHo, as well as with other dealers who distribute her work. "The art business is very difficult from day to day," she said. "You have to be very organized."

After her initial sale, Ms. Jelen "went to Pratt to learn everything about etching, took painting, etching, and other classes at the School of Visual Arts, and studied sculpture and anatomy at the Art Students League. I studied anatomy for seven years. I'm completely fascinated by it. We'd draw the clothed figure, then imagine it without clothes, then without skin. I loved it."

Eclectic Taste

An experience she deemed extremely important was time spent at the Printmaking Workshop in New York with the printmaker Bob Blackburn. "It's a wonderful institution. And everyone in printmaking knows him. And everybody passes through there, a mix of people from all around the world."

Ms. Jelen's taste in art is eclectic. She says there's no one artist she admires above all others, and says what all artists say, that her taste changes over the years. But she did admit to a fondness for Gustave Moreau.

"And I love my contemporaries - Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Donald Sultan, Jennifer Bartlett. Anything that has that wonderful life and feeling of joy. And I'm always surprised by what David Hockney is up to next. Sometimes I like it, sometimes not."

At The Met

When asked what art she would head for first if she were visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she immediately responded, "The German primitives. My favorite thing in the Met is a 16th or 15th-century painting commissioned by a family that wanted to be painted standing next to Jesus Christ."

"The family members who paid the most," she said, laughing, "are the closest to Christ. And the in-laws are farther away. It's so wonderful. First of all, it's a beautiful work of art in itself. But it also conveys everything about the family."

She also likes to take her sons ("One is 12 and one is 10; one wants to be a rock star or an artist, and the other wants to be a banker - I hope") to see Greek art at the Met after telling them stories from Greek mythology.

"Element Of Surprise"

"One thing about prints," she said, "is that you never completely release your work - you always have it, it's never gone forever," unlike a painting or sculpture. "And there's an element of chance to printmaking. There's a kind of dialogue" between the artist and the press itself. "You can't completely impose your will on it. I love that element of surprise."

"Art is about trying to capture something - the quality of light, for example," Ms. Jelen said. "Really, art is about joy."