Artist and Curator Extraordinaire
Internationally renowned mixed media installation artist Nancy Gifford arrived in Santa Barbara in 2008 and immediately dove into the local contemporary art scene. Her art—everything from paintings and drawings to wall relief constructions and videos—has appeared at Sullivan Goss Gallery, Westmont College, the Museum of Contemporary Art, UC Santa Barbara and other local venues. She has also curated numerous exhibitions and special events at Lotusland, Arts Fund Santa Barbara, Art from Scrap and other venues. Looking back at her many accomplishments a decade after she moved here, it’s obvious that Gifford has made an indelible and lasting impact on our arts community.
Gifford didn’t begin her art career until she was approaching 30. She grew up on a farm in Ohio and attended Kent State, and was midway through her psychology studies when the infamous shootings took place in May 1970. She left school and found work as a temporary receptionist at a company in Atlanta, where a Spanish photographer, a talent agent for the Ford modeling agency, “discovered” her.
Gifford spent nearly a decade modeling in Europe, then moved back to the U.S. and began her art career in the early ’80s in Los Angeles, where her evocative political and environmental work catapulted her onto the world art stage. She won many emerging artist awards and her works have been shown in various museums in the U.S. and around the world. In the 1990s she and her British-born husband moved to London, and spent another decade shuttling between England, France and Florida.
Gifford began a new phase of life when she and her husband Michael moved to Montecito. “I came here on a wave in 2008,” Gifford recalls. “Within a year of my arrival I connected with all these like-minded women, very much focused on contemporary art: Gwen Stauffer at Lotusland, Julie Joyce, the contemporary curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Judy Larsen had just arrived at Westmont, Elise Gonzalez at UCSB, and Sarah Cunningham at Atkinson Gallery. It was a beautiful opportunity,” says Gifford. “I decided to dive in and roll up my sleeves and get involved. It got me out of the studio.”
Though extensively involved with various projects outside the studio, Gifford continued to create new works in her “crazy art house” for local and international exhibitions. She describes her art as primarily narrative. “I use a lot of text in my work,” she says, adding that the narrative derives from her own history, literature, poetry and world cultures.
Soon after Gifford moved to Montecito she curated her first show for Art from Scrap. Since then she has curated or co-curated numerous exhibitions. At the Arts Fund Santa Barbara, she started the Community Gallery Program and initiated the Funk Zone Art Walk. She serves on various boards and volunteers for many nonprofit programs.
She also curates all three major art exhibitions at Lotusland, working closely with chief executive officer Gwen Stauffer.
Regarding Gifford’s impact on the local arts community, Stauffer says, “There isn’t a single person in Santa Barbara’s art community who has not been touched, in some way or another, by Nancy.” She adds, “Artists often find inspiration in nature, and Nancy’s own artful expressions are rooted in the simple beauty of the grid pattern of crops growing around the home of her youth in rural Ohio. Nancy instinctively recognized Lotusland as art, with living plants as the principal media arranged in exuberant and dynamic beauty. Lotusland actively conserves endangered plant species. We wanted to generate more public awareness of what the earth stands to lose, and Nancy understood that. Through our collaborative efforts with Nancy as curator of the art exhibition and Lotusland as curator of the accompanying messages, we were able create a stimulating and powerful, sometimes fun and sometimes sobering experience, and link that to a compelling call for citizen action.”
In Gifford’s view, “The decade has really been a fortunate expansion and growth of contemporary art. It’s been very rewarding in that respect.”
Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.