Nancy Mims Mines Minutiae of a Daily Walk to Create Beguiling Photos

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Austin American Statesman

June 12, 2016

After celebrating her birthday recently by having dinner out with her family, artist Nancy Mims got to pick the post-meal activity.

“I asked if we could just walk the alleys in a neighborhood near the restaurant,” Mims says. “I love alleys. And I’m obsessed with walking.”

Walking is an art form unto itself for Mims. She relishes her morning perambulations around her Hyde Park home.

Mims mines the minutiae she sees. The small and seemingly quotidian visual moments intrigue her: an iridescent spot of motor oil on a driveway, a single bloom among many flowers, puffy cumulus clouds reflected in a rusty-colored puddle.

She finds beauty in the inevitability of change and observes the order in nature’s disorder.

“I’m always looking to see what goes unseen most of the time,” she says.

Those small visual moments become the subjects of her photo-based art, currently featured in the solo exhibit “Beheld” at Photo Méthode Gallery through June 25.

Mims captures images on her iPhone, posting plenty to her Instagram feed (@nancymims), but chooses only a select few to continue working with. She edits using basic in-phone filters, isolating simple forms and features. She then sends her images to be printed on linen fabric, the imperfections of the cloth’s striations adding a beguiling texture.

Yet Mims doesn’t always leave well enough alone after printing. With some prints she cuts the fabric in strips, only to weave the image back together, the rough edges of the fabric unraveling.

“I like taking an image apart and trying to make it whole again,” she says. “I think it’s something we do in our minds as a way of understanding the world — take it apart and put it together.”

She might also stitch on her images, creating an intricate embroidered geometric pattern that augments a cluster of clouds or perhaps adds an aura to a flower.

“I think we also add in imaginary things when we look at the world, fill in what we don’t understand or don’t know or don’t like.”

Though digital in their origin, Mims’ artworks are patently tactile: rich ink on heavy linen, embroidery stitches layering texture on the linen, the linen stretched into a worn vintage frame. Her largest images are bannerlike, printed on fabric about 5 feet wide.

The current exhibit is also the first time many of Mims’ photos, collected outdoors, have been exhibited indoors.

For the past two years of the East Austin Studio Tour, Mims used the intriguing landscaping and greenhouses of the private Utility Research Garden for thoughtful temporary installations, lining pathways with her giant fabric photographs or creating surprising settings for her woven images.

In February, as a part of the Print Austin art festival, Mims installed her series of large, bannerlike flower portraits on the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum. She also set up a trio of large string looms between the trees for a weekend, inviting visitors to weave strips of photo-printed fabric together. One flower portrait remains on the Ney grounds long-term.

In the gallery, she points out the fraying on one of her banners, the edges of thick linen all stringy.

“This happened in the wind at the Ney,” she says. “People were concerned. But I like what the wind did. I’m curious about what happens once I let go of something.”

Growing up in northern Florida, Mims, 45, had planned to go to medical school. But she took a detour after college, eventually landing in Austin to get a master’s degree in art history at the University of Texas.

Next, Mims worked at a gallery in Los Angeles for a few years. After a designer friend saw her artful doodles, Mims embarked on a career as a textile designer. Mims’ talents were quickly recognized. She sold more than 1,000 different patterns to manufacturers.

After returning to Austin in the early aughts, Mims started Mod Green Pod, a company dedicated to designing organic upholstery fabric and vinyl-free wallpaper.

She still designs on a freelance basis. But now the studio behind the house that she shares with her husband, Rodney Gibbs, and their children, Clara and Atticus, is devoted to her artwork.

This spring Mims got involved in the effort to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Hyde Park, nominating “Wheeler’s Grove,” the former name of Eastwoods Park, a greenspace not far from the school.

She began taking some of her regular walks in and around the park, which was once the first public space in Austin where the city’s African-American community gathered for Juneteenth.

“All that history of what Wheeler’s Grove once was has disappeared from current memory,” says Mims, whose views on the subject appeared in the American-Statesman editorial section.

Mims is still wandering in the former Wheeler’s Grove, the park now in the path of her mindful meandering, with her imagination fired to disassemble what she sees in order to reassemble it.

“There’s much I’m still hoping to discover,” she says.