Solo Shows

Nancy Powhida: At home in another world

Nancy Powhida, Menagerie, 1987, graphite on paper, 39.5 x 75 inches

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Nancy Powhida, age 80, has just had her first solo exhibition in New York, curated by Kristen Jensen at Essex Flowers. Titled a deceptively straightforward “Oh Dear! Our Life was Like a Horror Show! (No Wonder You Had to Learn to be Resourceful),” the show comprised six graphite drawings and one oil painting, each piece an unnervingly moving revelation.

Nancy Powhida, Dread, 1987, graphite on paper 23 x 23 inches

Powhida’s signature device is to lightly anthropomorphize and activate dolls, stuffed animals, and pets, and cast them alongside real people, with no telegraphed distinction, in the drama of her interior life. Some drawings superficially involve routine play – a child, as one would, commiserates with a doll or converses with a teddy bear – but in Jensen’s deft arrangement these tableaux segued to eerier things: a vaguely baleful dog in a trench coat standing over a stricken girl (or doll); a small boy sitting on a couch next to a headless seamstress’s mannequin flanked by one small dog and one preternaturally big one; a crowded domestic room of humans seamlessly interspersed with animals. Alice in Wonderland meets American Gothic.

Nancy Powhida, Motherhood, 1987, graphite on paper, 28.25 x 40.75

There is nothing cloyingly precious or whimsical about this stratagem: it is not an aesthetic shtick but rather a hard-nosed means of coping, the dolls and animals as serious as a heart attack. The drawings, in turn, are titled with single, richly connotative words: Warmth, Confrontation, Concerns, Dread, Motherhood, and, perhaps inevitably, Menagerie. Powhida made the work when she was in her forties, contending with life as a practicing social worker and a single mother of two teenage boys – one of them the noted artist William Powhida, who has chronicled the social and political travails of the twenty-first century with a kindred brand of acerbic wit. Her drawings feature thick, compulsive black strokes, abundantly shadowed. These qualities, with the pictures’ sweetly warped content, lend them a haunted yet grounded vibe — Maurice Sendak moving towards Max Beckmann.

Nancy Powhida, The Family, 1988, oil on canvas, 45 x 54 inches

Powhida seems at home in another world, vitally linked to the real one, in which subtext cannot stay buried and earthly boundaries fall away. She still struggles for primacy as the adult human in the room: the painting, called The Family, depicts an enthroned woman surrounded by children and animals, none overtly predatory but none unambiguously benign, either. The deep, gritty, not uncheerful paint may intimate her acceptance of that tension and her station. Her proclivity is to depict dourly outré social scenarios that conjure the proximity of domesticity to strife. Like Beckmann, she subdues comfortable preconceptions in favor of honest and sometimes painful emotional assessments, employing gently jarring images that burrow and nestle in the mind. What emerges from her solemn zoo is a portrait of offbeat humanism, quiet bravery, and enduring love, improbably articulated and thus all the more extraordinary.

Nancy Powhida: Oh Dear! Our Life was Like a Horror Show! (No Wonder You Had to Learn to be Resourceful),” Essex Flowers, 19 Monroe Street, New York, NY. May 27 – June 25, 2023.

Related posts:
Conversation during lockdown: Alexis Granwell and Aubrey Levinthal
William Powhida on Biden: A man for this season
Abby Lloyd’s interview with her Aunt Nancy
Cecily Brown on motherhood: “You’re forced to be more conventional”
Artists under duress: Max Beckmann


  1. I knew Nancy personally in the early 80’s and I can attest: this woman was a force. The Poster Child for going it alone, if you will. Single Mom, Public Servant. VERY strong, very determined, undeterred. I see now, what she might have been dealing with; I wonder how she ever found time to stretch those creative muscles. She was/is an amazing woman.

  2. I have known Nancy Powhida since 1985, in both a professional capacity and personally as a dear friend. She is truly a strong, wonderful woman who expresses herself through a myriad of art mediums and this exhibit clearly demonstrates her ability to give us a rather haunting depiction of her single-motherhood life in the 80’s. As a non-artist, I truly appreciate and admire Nancy’s creative, gifted and imaginative energy that continues to emerge through this talented artist.

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