Sacred Shrimp: Nancy VanDevender

“Much of my studio practice is about my life trickling into my art and using domestic space, specifically the dining room, as a platform for storytelling.”

Nancy VanDervender
“Much of my studio practice is about my life trickling into my art and using domestic space, specifically the dining room as a platform for storytelling.”

Nancy VanDevender is an Atlanta, GA based artist and designer with Mississippi roots. I met Nancy years ago during our time in Detroit and have the best memories of times we shared. Recently, while touching the base of circular skirt, my memory jogged to a cross country road trip where Nancy filled the back of my car, floorboard to window rim, with long strings of ruffles she was hand sewing. Nancy’s beautiful porcelain face and bright red hair bobbed atop a buoyant pile of feminine history. It was quite the image from a rear view mirror. 

Nancy embodies a love of maximalism filtered through a strong Southern perspective. She collects objects and images from her life such as hair, teeth castings, and tattoos that strike potent visual memories. As an artist she is known, in part, for large installations in which she covers large surfaces with wallpaper depicting intricate digital motifs that seamlessly meld design, personal narrative, and Southern economic and political culture. Like her home, these designs are lush, multi-layered stories saturated with beauty and conflicting experiences of past and present.

Nancy’s home is one of the most imaginative and fascinating domestic spaces I have experienced.  Curated and designed as a site for entertaining and staging the workings of her creative mind, in Nancy’s home you may find half broken antiques lovingly presented on altars, a bed in the dining room, and historical oddities that literally run from floor to ceiling. Textiles, photos, and original art spread over floorboards and walls, reseeding in closets where clothing and beds are quietly nestled in this memory garden. Like the prolific kudzu vine of her childhood home, her ideas and aesthetic leanings blanket a space, wrapping its inhabitants in a spectacular display of thought. 

Nancy VanDevender Home In California Hotel
Home In California Hotel

Abbie Miller: I remember your house so vividly. It had a huge impact on me, and it felt like something I could visit over and over and still discover new treasures. Have you always designed your home as an ongoing installation?

Nancy VanDevender: Well, Steve (my husband) and I got married young. At first it was more of an impetus to do whatever we wanted with our space. We had inherited my grandmother’s furniture, so we already had some older pieces to work with. We just designed the home to suit whatever we were doing most, like the dining room table and the bed were in the living room.

AM: Did you guys like to eat in bed?

NV: Ha, not so much, but we loved throwing dinner parties with the interesting and colorful friends we had. We were very social and a lot of artistic people would come by, andsoon enough things just evolved into an event. I never planned how I wanted to decorate a room, it’s just become a reflection of what’s going on in my life and studio.

AM: Do you think of your home as a living photo book or documentation of times in your life?

NV: Well, my home is sort of curated. I don’t plan or decorate in the traditional sense, but I’m constantly moving objects around. I move them around so I can see them more clearly.

AM: Are Steve’s teeth and your daughter’s hair still displayed in your stairwell?

NV: My dad was a dentist and made a lot of impressions over the years. I have collected them and saved a lot. It’s a documentation of his life as much as mine. Lately I’ve been weeding stuff out. Much of my studio practice is about my life trickling into my art and using domestic space, specifically the dining room, as a platform for storytelling. I spend a lot of time in the dining room and put most of the junk I want to look at in there. Recently, I found two very beautiful and primitive clay heads my daughter made when she was a child. They are five inch unfired busts of each of us with braids; they are really impressive, and I put them on the table.

AM: What do you see as the difference between your studio and home, considering they are both ongoing installation sites?

NV: It’s really not my studio flowing into my life; it’s my life flowing into my studio. My home is my studio to an affect. A dining room table is always in my studio because I always want to have people over to eat. It became a part of my art practice. For instance, at the Lemberg Gallery in Detroit, I projected a dinner party video I had shot in my studio onto the gallery window. Viewers could participate in the happening from outside on the street level.

Nancy VanDevender, Feast Truth Or Dare
Nancy VanDevender, Feast Truth Or Dare

AM: Going back a long time ago, what have been the most memorable moments around your dinner table? Or the most important food or theme you’ve hosted around?

NV: Well, the most important dish in my life is gumbo. Growing up my mom always asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I would always tell her four quarts of gumbo.

AM: Why four quarts?

NV: Because it would serve twelve people and that was enough for a party. I’ve thrown a Truth or Dare party with gumbo that was made before Hurricane Katrina. We froze it, and then offered it to guests. It was very special to me because it was made with shrimp caught before the waters were polluted, but I wasn’t sure who would eat it.

AM: Wait, I remember this. How long did you have that stuff frozen?

NV: Well, I actually still have some frozen. So about ten years!

AM: Is anyone eating this stuff?!

NV: No, not really anymore. But we did serve some to you at the dinner party in 2008.

Nancy VanDevender, Wicked Games With Bjork Studios
Nancy VanDevender, Wicked Games With Bjork Studios

AM: Oh yes, I remember now! That was an intoxicating party. It’s how I imagined salon parties with Picasso or Gauguin or the Fitzgerald’s would be. But with less alcohol and dysfunction, and more spectacular collections. I have a lot of nostalgia for the few wonderful times I’ve spent in your home.

I feel like you should display the frozen gumbo.

NV: Yes, I’ve thought about displaying it.

AM: Yeah, like just plugging your freezer in at the museum for people to open and view the sacred shrimp. It could be a bit like the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

NV: Yes, I have to figure how I’ll use the last of the pre-Katrina gumbo. It’s very important to me. I don’t consider myself sentimental, although I’m sure I am. For me, all of this is more about collecting and saving things I love so I can recollect from the attachments I have to them.

AM: For me, food is the most amazing memory trigger, and coming from Italian descent I totally relate to your connection to food, ritual and community. It’s funny that just recreating the gumbo dish recipe is not enough for you. That this soup with untarnished shrimp was also made by your mother, and that’s not something you can recreate.

NV: Gumbo is a tradition, it’s a whole process and is very special to me. Last year I was teaching in Mississippi and actually did a video of my mother very specifically going over the steps and preparation in making Gumbo. It was a very detailed and intricate account. We were both ready for bed, she in her nightgown, and the sharing became part of the art. During this time when I was home she gave me a little batch and said, “It’s got all the crabs in it if you feel like picking them out.” So I tired to save the crab claws. I had them soaking in bleach water for days before I finally said, “no”. I do like giving significance to things that are personally and culturally potent.