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Nina McCoy never made a painting until 1997. Fifty years old, she had no formal art training and had been paralyzed from the neck down for almost her entire adult life. The moment she started, however, “it was like ‘oh yeah.’ This is absolutely my passion.”
In the years following her automobile accident at age 24, McCoy had earned a masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, did consultation, facilitation, and training for nonprofit staff and boards of directors, taught conflict resolution, and was Executive Director of the Indianapolis Resource Center for Independent Living (IRCIL).
In 1997 McCoy was part of a group of friends studying avenues for developing their intuitive capacities. Motivated by reading Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, they invited artist M.K. Watkins, a friend, now mentor of McCoy’s, to work with them. “We just sat around my kitchen at card tables and we painted.”
Growing up in Indianapolis and participating in the public schools' gifted students' program, “I was programmed to be an academic, an intellectual.” However, McCoy nurtured an inner passion for the creative arts and was never without avenues for creative expression: dance and repertory theater in high school and college, writing (as yet unpublished) children’s stories. “I always knew that inside of me was an artist. And my grandmother, mother, a brother, aunt, and uncle had artistic talent.”
McCoy works in acrylic paint on canvas. Occasionally she paints on paper, using the acrylic more as watercolor, or using actual watercolors. She describes the subject matter of her paintings as eclectic, united by her deeply spiritual orientation. “I do love to paint people.” “I’m always trying to convey the inner light of that individual.” The pervasive Afrocentrism of her artwork is especially evident in her early paintings. “It’s not exclusive, but it’s a very fundamental and very important part of my work.” Inseparable from her paintings is the inspiration she finds in the creative arts. She attends weekly open mic events with drumming and other musical performance, poetry and spoken word.
Supporting her fellow visual artists is more than lip service for McCoy. She values and invests in her artist friends. “I admire their work and purchase their work.” Although her artwork is her primary passion, “I’m a people person. I invest a lot of time in other people. And that’s not on a superficial level; I’m working with people to help them to reach their highest potential.”
She just wrapped up an intensive six months working on a major fundraising effort for the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The new Leon L. Jett Minority Family Admission Fund was created by the Eiteljorg to provide free memberships to minority families who wish to visit the museum and participate in its programs, but who cannot afford to pay.
In creating the annual fundraising event, Mc Coy increased opportunities for diversity and minority involvement at the Eiteljorg, while honoring a friend and professional collaborator lost to an untimely death: Leon Jett worked to include the voices of African-Americans in telling the history of the American West, from Black Indians to Black Cowboys.
The Eiteljorg project and McCoy’s volunteerism have spawned another brainchild. “I created a fundraising committee for the arts in order to do the fundraiser that I did. Right now I’m in the beginning stages of incorporating it as a 501(c)3. One of the things I would love to do is to find some money to support struggling artists who really cannot afford to buy their art supplies.”
I'm a big cheerleader for other artists but I tend not to do that for myself,” she admits. “I’m not in any way what I would call an artist business person.” “Half the time I don’t remember to bring my business cards!” On the other hand she acknowledges, “I am highly organized and I know a bit about applying for grants” and the many other skills she acquired developing a nonprofit organization (I.R.C.I.L.) from its existence “on a piece of paper, to being in an office space, having a staff and programs and policies and a board of directors.”
She prefers to sell giclee prints of her paintings rather than the originals, because she is so attached to them. McCoy has sold work by participating in artist markets (such as the Circle City Classic), art fairs, and similar opportunities. Indy’s Art Bank gallery on Massachusetts Avenue now shows her paintings. She also sells work through word of mouth and some of her clients live in other states. “My work is very well received, but [marketing it] takes a lot of time and energy. I need an agent,” she says with a smile. She says she would love to take a workshop on creating a business as an artist. In the meantime, “my intention this year is to have a website created for me, and to promote myself and to try to sell utilizing a website.” At this point her art sales have helped offset expenses for materials, but have not reached a level where she worries about competing with her SSDI (Social Security benefits).
McCoy has not pursued formal art training. “I always thought it would just be too difficult, because of my disability, to be in a class and be expected to do the technical part of being an artist. There are lots of things I absolutely cannot do. So I’ve just tried to do what I can on my own.”
In addition to being self-taught, she’s invented solutions to her physical challenges. “I’ve had to find little ways to adapt.” Working at her table, McCoy might place her canvas on a lazy susan, or prop it up against a stack on books. She uses glazing as a technique both because she loves the effects and because she otherwise has trouble “pushing the paint around" (heavy-body acrylics). Her son pours the paint into her palette. “More and more I find myself sticking my paint brushes and pencils in my mouth to paint or draw, because I’m encountering greater and greater limitations in my arms and hands.”
In her typically positive outlook, McCoy sees her new, looser, more flowing style as “a natural progression”, allowing her great expressive freedom. McCoy recognizes there are many things she would like to do that are impractical or impossible for her. “I’d love to travel everywhere and anywhere, to art institutes, museums, to observe, to look at art…to be part of various exhibitions, and I’m not free to travel.”
These impediments haven’t stopped McCoy. Fascinated by The Black West, a book that documents the history of African Americans in the U.S.’s westward expansion, she contacted its author, William Katz. “I asked him if I could create paintings from the photographs in his book and he gave me permission. He asked me as I do these paintings to send them so he can use them in his lectures.” A major project was born. McCoy is soliciting photos from families such as her own whose backgrounds include Native American heritage. “My mother’s father was 50/50 Cherokee and African-American.” As an offshoot she’ll be working with the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California on a stage production they’re mounting about a Black Seminole man. “That’s a history that’s really been suppressed.”