Few Alabamians are known by only one name, but then very few can command the international reputation of the artist Nall. Born Fred Nall Hollis in Troy in 1948, he has been creating art in a variety of genres for more than 50 years, from paintings, mosaics and line engravings to sculpture, glassware and jewelry. He grew up in Troy and earned a degree in art, political science and abnormal psychology from the University of Alabama. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was mentored by Salvador Dali. His work has been exhibited in France, Italy, Switzerland, New York, Miami and many other museums, and he has been an artist in residence at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Miami-Dade College and Troy University. After living several years in France and setting up his N.A.L.L. Art Foundation for students, he returned to Alabama, where he now operates out of his studio in Fairhope. He has a permanent art gallery in the International Arts Center on the Troy campus, where the current exhibition, “Alabama Art Inside Out,” features a portrait series by Nall and the work of 14 fellow Alabama artists, through Nov. 9. We were able to talk with Nall, who was recovering from recent back surgery, in between art projects. – Lenore Vickrey
Your work is well known to many Alabamians who’ve seen it in the hotels and properties of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Do you still supply new artwork to the RSA hotels and buildings?
Working with the RSA has been a great part of my career. It gives you a lot of exposure. People go to five-star hotels much more than they go to museums. I met (RSA CEO) David Bronner through (Troy University Chancellor) Jack and Janice Hawkins. It’s all (like) a family. They’re wonderful, super people. I did all the pieces at the Grand Hotel, and loaned them in 2002 when they did their last major renovation. They gave them back, 1,500 pieces, so now when I go to someone’s home I take a little piece of art instead of a bottle of wine. Everybody won! (For the Grand’s latest renovations, Nall has created large camellia prints for the reception desk wall. Other new pieces will be in guest rooms and elsewhere.)
At your studio in Fairhope, do you still work with apprentices?
I’m still working with them, using a lot of students from the high school mostly. Every now and then I’ll get one who wants to apprentice for three or four months. That’s what I’m looking for. They’re helping me, and that is learning (for them) because they’re in a professional environment. We paint and frame, learn about inventories, giving interviews with the press, how to make yourself available. I’m teaching them everything I know about everything. How to be a teacher is taught in school. How to be an artist is not. There’s a world of difference. First of all, you can’t count on any income when you’re 65. That’s essential to know when you want to become an artist. You follow your own rules, and express from your heart, not your intellect.
You’ve worked in so many different media. Do you have a favorite?
All are my favorite at the time I’m working on them. When I’m working, I’m so concentrated on that, it’s absorbing. I have a wonderful ability to have a one-track mind on whatever I’m doing. I can be working and talking on the phone and doing something else at the same time, and still be right there with the work. It’s a gift.
Frames have been an important part of your signature look.
Absolutely. It’s the framework on the pieces that really makes some of them. Whatever you see, you see the framework with it. So, if you put an 18th-century gilded frame around a drawing, the drawings are going to look a heck of a lot better. And if you put a drawing or little painting with tacky little frames, you wouldn’t want it. It’s an important thing I try to teach my kids. What you’re giving the public is an image. The image is inseparable from the frame around it. If you want to have a filthy house with the bed unmade and the curtains ragged and falling down, the house might be great but people who are going into the house will say, “This is awful.” It’s the same thing with a painting or somebody’s clothes.
You’ve had some health issues with your heart. How are you doing?
The heart issue has moved down to the feet. I have peripheral neuropathy. The hands aren’t working like they used to. It’s all part of the disease called O.L.D. I’m writing about that in my memoirs. I’ve got three books going on. It’s wonderful to be able to change and concentrate on something else. The N.A.L.L. Foundation is going to publish my memoirs. Plus, I’m building a museum down here in Fairhope. I’ve been told by a spiritual advisor that if you write your memoirs, it’s the best way to increase your memory. If I’d known that, I’d have started them 10 years ago!