Nancy Belfer is part of the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. A transcription of the interview conducted with her is available here.
Nancy Belfer is a fiber and mixed-media artist. She received a diploma from the Albright Art School, a Bachelor of Science from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and a Master of Fine Arts from the School of American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is professor emerita at the Design Department at Buffalo State College.
Belfer is the recipient of many honors and awards, including the State University of New York 1982 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 1981 Crafts Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. Her work has been in numerous regional and national exhibitions, including Objects: USA, at the Smithsonian Institution, Stitching, at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, and Embroidery Now at the Denver Art Museum. As part of the US State Department Arts in Embassies Program, her work was included an exhibition at the American Institute in Taiwan from 2003 to 2004. Most recently she has exhibited at the Indigo Gallery in Buffalo, the Adams Art Gallery in Dunkirk, NY and the Buffalo Arts Studio. Befler has also been included in numerous exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and was a juror for Art in Craft Media 2013.
In a statement for that exhibition, Belfer observed:
“My research into historic textile traditions has always been a great influence [on my own creative practice], especially the resist-dye processes of Asia and the Americas, along with the application of complex surface detail through stitching and embroidery found in the textiles of many indigenous cultures. Through experimentation and intuition I have tried to adapt some of these traditional methods to my own work: to find a kind of vision or projection of what is possible and then figure out a way to make it happen.” 
 Nancy Belfer, juror’s statement in Art in Craft Media 2013 exhibition catalog, Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Nancy Belfer is a part of the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Read the transcription of her interview below.
Transcription of Living Legacy Peroject interview with Nancy Belfer
Date of interview: July 24th, 2012
Transcribed by Heather Gring and Nancy Belfer
Heather Gring: Nancy, what made you decide to go into a career in the arts?
Nancy Belfer: I always loved drawing. I love to paint, and do simple embroidery. Yarns, fabrics, and threads seemed to inspire me and became an important aspect of my work My goal was to be an art teacher and I pursued this by enrolling in the Art Education program at Buffalo State College. I am very grateful I had access to a program like this right in my hometown.
HG: When you went to Buffalo State, what was the program like?
NB: The program, as I saw it, was quite wonderful. Of course, I had nothing to compare it with, but to me it was fantastic. My studio classes were across the street from the college in the Albright Art School. I had wonderful teachers there- including painter Seymour Drumlevitch and his wife Harriet Greif...also Don Nichols. At the college, where we studied the philosophy of art education, there were also some very fine people. Dr. Stanley Czurles, the director of the program, was a mesmerizing personality himself, very inspirational and completely dedicated to the importance of the arts in education. Professors Kenneth Winebrenner and Clem Tetkowski, and Howard Conant, who later became head of the new Art Ed. program he developed in New York City at NYU.
After graduation I obtained a high school teaching job in Rochester and my husband and I moved there. Shortly after, in an exhibition held the at the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery....the “Rochester and the Finger Lakes Exhibition” I entered a painting and at the opening I encountered for the very first time the work by faculty and students of The School For the America Craftsman, a part of RIT. . I had absolutely no knowledge of the school before coming to Rochester, so I was thrilled to see these gorgeous tapestries, woven panels, patterned fabrics, with beautiful colors and textures, open weave wall hangings, all different kinds of work in textiles... and it really related to me. It resonated. I knew right away this was something I wanted to do and I was determined to take a class there to learn how to weave,,,,,which I did the following summer... leading eventually to the completion of my MFA. So when I saw that first show, it really did make quite a difference.
HG: How many years were you an art teacher?
NB: I was a high school art teacher for about eight years. During this time I was also working at my art. Professor Kenneth Winebrenner from the college asked me to supervise student teachers. The Art Ed program at Buffalo State was growing, so they had to place the student teachers as far away as Rochester. Ken also encouraged me to write. He was editor of an instructional art magazine which went all over the country called School Arts. In the years that I was in Rochester, I wrote a great number of articles for him as I was exploring various techniques in my teaching. I began to exhibit large embroidery panels in a new direction from the previous traditional restricted way that embroideries were done and I also became very interested in textile history and began studying and working in batik. Because of that. Ken thought I should start thinking about writing a book on batik and tie-dye. I became interested in writing and completed three books on various aspects of textile techniques
I came to the college initially to supervise student teachers in the area schools and I did this for several years. In the meantime I was sending out my work to various exhibitions. There was a very fine museum in New York called The Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and since my husband was from New York, we made very frequent trips there. We were familiar with all of the museums and we saw some fantastic shows. I always felt very fortunate that my pieces were accepted in NYC galleries. My first inclusion in a national show was at The Museum of Contemporary Crafts. That show then toured the country for two years. I sent work there for several exhibitions and was grateful to be accepted. These shows also toured to various museums...including OBJECTS: USA, which opened at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. and toured nationally for two years. So, I was very encouraged to keep working.
When the weaving professor at the college, Ruth Karcher, retired, I applied for that position. Dr. Czurles was encouraging and wanted to develop a full degree program...from beginner to advanced levels.
This meant building a curriculum and learning more techniques. I became interested in a number of different ways of working. I saw an exhibition at the Metropolitan on Indonesian textiles. This extremely intricate, unbelievable imagery could be achieved by tying bundles of the yarns and applying the dyes before weaving. Well, I wanted to do this but I knew I couldn’t do it in that exact same way. I had to figure out how to simplify and adapt these things. Then I thought, too, that this would be fascinating technique for the students to learn how to do! So that was an additional motivation.
I kept experimenting, working with the dyes, tying yarns in a different ways. Eventually, I did figure out a way of handling it and I made a series of large floor-to-ceiling wall panels. One of which is here in the collection. I call the whole series a “Sentinel Series” because they were symmetrical and very tall, very stately, and in some ways reminiscent to me of the notion of a guardian. I realized that by tying the bundles of yarns in different ways and by pulling them, I could achieve the illusion of movement--of a sequence of colors that just wasn’t flat in one area, but I could divide up the threads so I had numerous steps, like the step-gradations in music. Later I would paint and embroider over these pieces to further enrich their surface...these became the “Odyssey” series.
After a few years, I had many leftover end strips of woven fabric from my own work. I never threw anything away. So, I had quite a few of these strips in various colors. And I looked at them and tried to figure out how I could utilize them in my art. I began to play with them and experiment with them looking for some magical interplay or idea hat would happen with these. From that came the 'shield 'series..... various kinds of fabric sewn together like a huge, textured quilt with layers and embroidery superimposed. Some areas were painted and there were numerous, almost obsessive details.
I also did a lot of work with non-traditional quilts. Using various kinds of discharge bleach -out techniques on fabric manipulated with ties and clamps. I would cut the fabric into strips and work them into quilts and those were shown as well.
HG: How did the various media you work in influence what the scope of your career is? Were you inspired by a technique or the medium you wanted to manipulate?
NB: The two go together. My work is very oriented from the process itself. I would explore and really learn what was happening within each process and technique that I worked on. Ideas come when you’re actually dealing with the process.....you begin to see the possibilities of what you can do and what you can’t do, and of course, I like to try to figure out a way to go just a little bit further and beyond what I thought of initially. I try to bring it into a realm that other people can look at and then begin to interpret emotionally and expressively to find things that they can relate to their own memories, thoughts, what they have seen, and what they know, so it isn’t a one way street. The purpose is exactly this, this is the way art communicates, through the observer.
HG: I completely agree. It’s interesting because it’s true in art and other things like literature.
The creator may be trying to express one thing and the observer can find so many different things in the art that perhaps were not intentional.
NB: I think the artist can be working with certain kinds of ideas during the actual creation of the work but those ideas can maybe just fall away when the viewer faces the work because the viewer brings in their own background, past experience, memories and life. That’s where the meaning is still in the work. Most likely it’s not obvious. I know in my pieces I don’t want to make things too obvious. I want to keep things a little bit mysterious and create in such a way that the viewer has to stop and look and contemplate. That’s when I feel that I have done something successful.
HG: It’s so subjective
NB: Yes, completely.
HG: It seems like you have been working in some traditional craftsman and fiber techniques, but it seems like you interpret it into a much more contemporary movement. Do you feel you do that?
NB: Yes. All of the fiber techniques have all of their roots going way back into history and going back into ancient times. One of the things that interested me was tracing some of these historical roots which I did when I was researching the batik book. Then I subsequently did one on basic weaving as well so I did the same. The research can give you ideas. It’s inspiring. Peruvian textiles are very inspiring as well as Indonesian. Japanese shibori which is basically what we call tie dye and binding off of fabric and yarn is also inspiring. This is very much a part of what I do.
HG: Is there anything else you would like to say about what inspires you to work with fiber art or in this avenue as opposed to any of the other mediums that you have learned?
NB: I feel I have touched so many different media over the years. I do have this love for yarns and the way yarns can be used and the textural qualities of fabric. It just fascinates me and I do keep coming back to it, even in my current pieces which are combinations of collage elements with the structure of stitched and manipulated fiber.
HG: also, both are very tactile.
NB: Yes. And the idea of color interaction and imagery in the details.
HG: Could you talk about your career in the arts? You mention you exhibited nationally. How did you start exhibiting?
NB: I stated exhibiting by sending slides of my work to various shows. If I saw an exhibition listed in one of the art magazines and I felt what I was dong might be appropriate, I participated. Some were juried and some were invitational.
HG: When it came to building your career closer to home did you exhibit locally as well as nationally?
NB: Yes, as far as possible. In the early years we had an organization here in town called the Buffalo Craftsman and we organized many shows. Of course here on campus we are very fortunate with the Burchfield-Penney. I had a solo exhibition in 2001, when the gallery was in Rockwell Hall. My work was also included in many of the “Art is Craft Media” exhibitions. The Albright Knox used to have the Western New York Exhibition and also a collector’s gallery so I had several of my framed mixed-media collages there over the years. Buffalo is an area with numerous small galleries that are very receptive to artists. I show frequently at The Indigo gallery on Allen Street in both solo and group exhibitions. There are several galleries, including the Western New York Artist Group Gallery and Art Dialogue.
HG: It’s true this region is so receptive to artist and it really is a major part of the community.
HG: Craft art is generally considered, by some, to be outside of the mainstream of fine art. I know that was partially a challenge for Sylvia Rosen when she came to the region with her background in ceramics. Do you feel you experienced any sort of resistance?
NB: I personally saw no resistance to my work on that basis but I know what you’re referring to.
HG: You have had a very long career in the arts in this region. Is there any advice you can give to emerging artist?
NB: I would say find something that you really love to do. Then learn how to do it really well. Make yourself an expert at it. Be patient with yourself and think about how you’re going to support yourself. It can be a problem if you don’t have a benefactor or inheritance. It is necessary to give it some thought. Go with what means a lot to you. If your heart is telling you its time to change approaches, then change. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to fail .I have a failure drawer too, that’s pretty full. Basically, that summarizes what my advice would be. First and foremost, make sure you really love what you’re doing.
HG: You’ve lived in this region your entire life, more or less. Can you talk a little bit about the Buffalo arts community and what it has means to you? How has the Buffalo or Western New York Art community helped support your art?
NB: We have a wonderful art community here in buffalo. I belong to the Buffalo Society of Artist and we are a very large and active group. We all support each other, we are friends, and we all like each other. I think Buffalo is a good place for art.
HG: Thank you Nancy Belfer for participating in the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.