Nancy Edell was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1942, and died in Halifax in 2005. She moved to Nova Scotia in 1980 and was a part-time teacher for many years at NSCAD University. She became a Canadian citizen in 1981. Edell’s work has been included in numerous national and international exhibitions, including the nationally touring exhibition Art Nuns organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 1991. In 2004, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia mounted a retrospective exhibition, Nancy Edell – Selected Works: 1980 – 2004. She has numerous works in public collections, including those of the National Gallery of Canada, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Edell was a multi-talented artist who worked in the media of animation, drawing, printmaking, and painting, but it was her use of the traditional media of rug-hooking that moved her work into a new and influential direction. When Edell arrived in Nova Scotia hooked mats were an established part of the folk culture of the region, though one that had not been turned to the purposes of visual art. Of course, by 1980, when Edell first encountered hooked mats, the use of traditional domestic crafts in the so-called “high” arts, was established. Joyce Wieland, for instance, had used quilting in her work since the mid-1960s, and in Great Britain Kate Walker had used embroidery since the early 1970s. With her hooked art of the early 80s Edell joined these pioneers as someone central to the introduction of so-called “women’s work” to the conversation of contemporary art.
In her 1991 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Edell introduced the theme of the “Art Nun”. This theme occupied her for most of the 1990s. Art Nuns lampoons the late-modernist cult of art, the notion of art replacing religion as the source of spirituality in a secular age. The “Art Nun” is also a form of self-portraiture, as are many of the female figures in Edell’s work. However, the narratives in her work do not allow for straightforward autobiography. Her self-portraits are more akin to references to personal and universal attributes. She placed versions of herself into the work, avatars rather than images, representations of aspects of her personality.
Woodcuts, monotypes and drawings would be a major focus of Edell’s work for the balance of the 1990s. The ambition of the Art Nuns series continued through the work of the later 90s, culminating in her last works. The narrative is less cinematic in the later works, reflecting an over-all sensibility rather than the right-to-left reading of the earlier work. The imagery became much more dense in these later works as well, everything is floating, as if the scene is suspended in fluid rather than taking place where gravity holds sway.
In the early 1970s Nancy Edell was acclaimed as one of Canada’s foremost animators, though she preferred to be considered an artist. Edell says that most of her early film work was a form of self-therapy, a response to growing up in the 1950s in Nebraska, the “rigid sex-roles” that defined her life and the violence she associated with sex. “Dirty jokes were my basic childhood reference to sex. Sex is dirty, that kind of stuff. Men grabbing at women and leering. I was just working this out.” Edell’s animation works were screened in numerous places throughout the world including Edinburgh, Oberhausen, Chicago, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Montreal. Edell has won awards for her film work from festivals in Paris, France (1972), and Edinburgh, Scotland (1969) as well as the First Festival of Women’s Films, New York City (1972), and the Canada Council. Edell had amination commissions from the BBC, CBC, and also Sesame Street. Her first two film animations, Black Pudding and Charley Company, were created using cut-out drawings and lithographic prints. The characters in these films were made from detailed drawings with moving parts that were filmed moving to create the animation.
Edell moved away from work in film animation after the 1980s. However, residues of her animations can be seen in her still work through the “sequencing and fractured narrative structure” and the way she reused and repeated background images, as one would in cell animation.
Black Pudding (1969) was Edells’ first film which she directed, wrote, and animated. The video is 7 minutes long in colour film. It was created during her studies at Bristol University, in England. During this time, many adult-orientated animations were being produced in Europe which spoke to questions of sexuality and social norms. Black Pudding features “a giant vagina belch[ing] out strange, surrealistic, creatures in an endless stream.” It is described as an “experimental…dark surrealist fantasy, full of bizarre often erotic imagery and feminist themes.” Edell herself explains the creating of Black Pudding as a “really gut things and I just spewed out everything I wanted to say”. The name “Black Pudding” became overtime, a reference to a woman’s insides and sexual organs. When Edell looked back on Black Pudding in an interview with Brian Clancey for Cinema Canada in 1976, she said she finds the film embarrassing. “Now, when I look at it, it’s embarrassing, because it’s so crude. It’s really raw stuff.”
Charley Company was Edell’s second film and was created in 1972. It is a 9 min, colour animation. It was inspired by anti-war sentiment. The film featured a civilian army of sexual-sadistic civilian soldiers “walking up Uncle Sam’s ass”. Jana Vosikovska, in the program for the film series Canadian Women Filmmakers, describes these characters as “[a] procession of fantastic creatures from the worlds of H. Bosch, R. Crumb and T. Dine.” The film also features hermaphrodite like characters, which Edell attributes to her interest in “dual aspects” and siamese twins: when two things are joined together in impossible ways.
Edell’s third film Lunch, made in 1973, is a 4-minute colour animation. She received a grant from the BBC. Lunch is a film about a waiter, a chef, and the customers. The idea for the film was initially submitted by a BBC producer, and was about the contrast between the atmosphere of the dining hall and kitchen in a restaurant.