“It was literally my dream come true,” says Deb Nehmad about being at the opening of her first solo exhibition in New York City. Friends from all over—Idaho, Washington, D.C., Maine, Ohio, and, of course, New York (she’s originally from Long Island)—converged at the Kim Foster Gallery on April 9 for the debut of Nehmad’s Wasted. And plenty of big-city gallery-opening hoppers filled the space too. Nehmad, who besides being an artist reaching new career heights is one of our dedicated docents, had taken a big tub of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts with her, and “it was gone by 6:15,” she laughs.
The self-described obsessive mark maker—she is known for her labor-intensive works featuring thousands of burn marks on paper—is also a former lawyer, who was politically active. Since the Iraq war, her art and her politics have melded, resulting in beautiful, very much issue-driven work. After projects that spoke to Darfur and George W. Bush, she now addresses gun violence with Wasted. Tiny holes burned into handmade Nepalese paper represent the yearly average of adults and children killed by guns from 2009 to 2013. Red crosses represent homicides, black X’s suicides, and holes left bare are accidents or of unknown intent. The holes stitched over in red and black are deaths by police intervention.
The day after she returned from New York, Deb took the time to tell us about her waking dream, and how it was the result of years of work and persistent communication.
What was it like having your first solo show in New York City—and specifically in Chelsea? That has to feel amazing. What a milestone.
It was a buzz. It was so gratifying to see people just spend time with the work. There are a lot of galleries in one building, and I’ll take a peek and decide if it’s worth the effort to go in, before moving on to the next one. [At my show], anybody that came in the door spent a lot of time there. And the dealer was very happy with the opening-night crowd—and they weren’t all friends and relatives. [laughs]
How did you connect with the Kim Foster Gallery?
Eight or nine years ago I was going to Hui No‘eau to work with Paul Mullowney and Hui Press, and I saw he was bringing in the well-known woodcut artist Rebecca Salter. I asked Paul if he would put me in touch with her, because she’s got New York gallery representation and I wanted to ask her if she if they would at least see work. I wrote to Rebecca Salter and sent her images of my work, and she wrote back and said, “My gallery is not looking at new artists, but from looking at your work, you should get in touch with Kim Foster.” When you look at Kim Foster’s website you know why we hit it off.
I put together a hardcopy portfolio and sent it to Kim. I followed up and said I was coming to New York, and would she be able to meet. The reason she did agree to meet me is because she liked some of my work, but also because I had taken the time to put together a hardcopy portfolio. She says, “I get so many emails saying look at my website.”
I liked her immediately—she was very direct, said “I like this, this isn’t to my liking.” At that point, what wasn’t to her liking were my more successfully commercial colorful collages. I was starting the political work then. Kim explained that, “The problem is I’m a businesswoman, I’ve got to sell.” I visited her a couple more times. I came close to getting another piece shown, about the Bush administration, and she responded, but it didn’t happen. Shortly after it was the  downturn and like so many galleries, she was staying open by skin of her teeth. Then in June I was in New York and showed her two of the three gun violence pieces and she loved them, but again she was running into financial issues. I said I got it and went back and put together a Powerpoint of six of the strongest pieces I’ve done. My work is so hard to photograph—I’m careful about it and having images that show details. I’m going to give [photographer] Brad Goda a plug here. Then Kim asked to see the most recent pieces I’ve done. She said she had in unexpected opening, she had a really successful fall and an even more successful winter, and she said, “My husband and I decided it’s time to do something politically correct. I want to show these pieces they’re really strong.” I also showed her work I’d done with Paul [Mullowney]—the Black and Blue series, and she liked those also. So on view are the three Wasted pieces, and the suite of Black and Blue series.
Here in Hawai‘i, we’ve come to know you for your work addressing important, global issues. Never Again, which was in Finding X at Spalding House, comes to mind—it was incredibly impactful physically seeing the fatalities of Darfur on paper. Also the labor intensity of the work was mindblowing. Now you turn your eye to gun violence—what brought you to explore this issue?
I used to be quite politically active. When my law career got cut short and I turned to art, I wanted to merge my interests but I knew I couldn’t force it. I had to wait for it to happen naturally. The first successful one was about the Iraq War—Collateral Damage. I found my voice in terms of this obsessive mark making. But these pieces are a big time commitment. When I finish one piece and I’m trying to find the next, it has to be something I’m passionate about. After Collateral, I did the piece on Darfur, the senseless genocide. Then I did the Bush pieces because he made me crazy. The next piece, even before Sandy Hook, it was the senselessness, of finally having a president who would push gun safety measures and have the NRA take over the world. It drove me crazy as a mother to see children get access to weapons, with Columbine and Aurora, these young men. And then I remained crazed with tit with babies killing babies. I want to move on but my next piece will also be about gun violence.
It’s not like it’s therapeutic—I don’t make it and then feel better. I use art as another way to reach people with the issue. In Darfur, 200,000 people were killed. That’s a six-digit figure. People read it and pass on, but when you take the number and surround the viewer with fields of columns of handwritten sequential numbers from 1 through 213,434, portraying visually what cannot be adequately expressed through the abstraction of a six-digit figure, they stop and think. The approach I’ve taken with this, I want to make people who are looking at art stop and think about these issues I care about and start a conversation.
One of the three Wasted works was in Hawai‘i Art Now (at the museum in 2012), and was interesting to see people read the label and react to it. Some people got upset [after reading the label], and had liked the work up until then. Kim Foster made the decision that there would be no lables. She wanted people to engage with the art on their own. It’s proving that the art speaks for itself. They’re responding to the art. One woman in the gallery was moved to tears—she had just lost a friend to gun violence—and she hadn’t even known what [the work] was about.
The three Wasted works are done on handmade Nepalese paper. It is finely wrinkled, like elephant skin. How do you achieve that effect?
I coat it with beeswax, then crinkle it—I’ve never heard it described as elephant skin, I was thinking of my hands. Then I rub graphite in the outline of the circle then in each gray area I’ve taken a dull matte knife and striated a puka, so it’s like the striations of the bullet. Then I heat a titanium screw and burn it, and stitch over the holes. So it’s really worked.
You’re the “burned paper” artist—and you seem to find new ways to use this technique with each project. Can you tell us how you arrived at the idea of using burned woodblock prints in the Black and Blue series?
I did them with Paul [Mullowney] in San Francisco. When I’m burning the Nepalese paper, I’m working on a piece of plywood, because I’m a printmaker. So I have a library of pieces of wood with burned holes on them. I sent them to California and Paul and I printed them in indigo on Japanese paper. Just in indigo it wasn’t strong enough, so we needed to do something else to enrich it. After experimentation we arrived at printing the backside of each print…we had these uninteresting indigo prints and painted the back with sumi ink. The black is absorbed into the fibers. Then we screenprinted the cross hairs on them. Each indigo dot represents a gun death.
Wasted is on view through May 9.
Kim Foster Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., New York City
Deborah Nehmad will have a solo show in the museum’s Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery in January 2016