Radio Maine Episode 39: Nina Fuller

 

12/5/2021


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle. Today, you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. I'm here with artist and photographer, Nina Fuller, who works with the Portland Art Gallery. She has created this lovely piece behind me that actually is now mine. So thank you very much for being here today and also for making possible this wonderful photograph, Three Lambs, that is up on my wall. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

First of all, welcome.

 

Nina Fuller:

Thank you for having me here. It's beautiful here.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Thank you. I want to talk about these three lambs because they really spoke to me. I love your work. It's very farm-based, which makes sense, because you have a farm in Hollis but in particular, there was something about these lambs that just really spoke of joy.

 

Nina Fuller:

So, Three Lambs is one of those photographs where, obviously, they're moving. They were coming out of the barn. A lot of my photographs are very still, they’re in the barn. It was that light coming through and I'm looking at it and I'm thinking, oh my gosh, this is what I do here. This is perfect.  There is a space where it's dark in the back of this photograph, which a lot of my photographs are, which I also like the white and then the black, black, black in the back. But they're moving. So it's oh, it's oh my gosh. Click, click, click, click, click, click. And then you don't really think because they're coming out which happens very fast. And then, I think, oh, this is going to be great. And a lot of times, once it gets onto my computer, it's like, oh, wow,  I thought that was going to be really great but it's not. This is one of those pictures that was like, yes,  I got it. And these three sheep, these three lambs, it's not the breed that I raise, you know raise Scotties but these are a Cormo Scottie mix. So if you look at all my work together you'll see this as an unusual sheep lamb compared to the rest of them But maybe no one noticed.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, now that you've told me this, I'm kind of interested because I have paid attention to your work. And if I was looking, what would I look for

 

Nina Fuller:

The other sheep, the Scotties,  have horns and black faces.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And, these sheep clearly do not know.

Nina Fuller:

And even when the little lambies are born they have black faces. They're white with black faces and the rams are born with little tiny horns and the females don't have any horns. That's why, you know, right away when they're born, it's like, oh, it's a ram. But at this age, if they were rams, you'd see little horns, and they would have black faces.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So as I introduced you, I said, artist and photographer, but I left out the whole artist photographer and, I guess, farmer.

 

Nina Fuller:

Farmer. Yes. Sheep farmer.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Which s a big part of what you do as these animals ended up appearing as subjects in your work.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yes, for the last 10 years I've been photographing sheep because I have the sheep and they're, I think, just fascinating. And I wonder if,like 10 years from now, will I still be photographing sheep? I don't know. I mean, the whole journey, I've been a photographer for over 50 years, which seems crazy. And, and each part of that time, there was a different thing going on. Most of the time I was raising my children as a single mom. I was doing commercial work and that was that. I don’t do a lot of that now.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it paid the bills.

 

Nina Fuller:

It did pay the bills.I did the LL Bean catalog. I did the Land's End catalog. I did the Dover Saddlery catalog because I photographed horses. I photographed a lot of horses. I write and I've written a lot of travel articles too, for Boston Gobe mostly, but of course the Portland Press Herald and other horse magazines. And I started doing that mostly because I wanted to go on horse trips and that was a way to do it without paying a lot of money. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So there's a kind of a practical element to not only the work that you've done as a writer and a photographer, but also the work you chose to do in commercial photography,

 

Nina Fuller:

Well, the LL bean catalog and the Land's End catalog, those catalogs also involved a lot of travel, which was fun. So I was really fortunate to be able to do that.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You're not originally from Maine.

 

Nina Fuller:

No, I'm originally from New York.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, how does someone from New York… I think you moved here in 1972. This is what I read in Off the Wall, our art gallery publication from a few years ago. How does someone from New York end up coming to Maine and then deciding,I think I'd like to have a farm?


 

Nina Fuller:

Well, I was born in the Bronx and lived in Long Island, Queens till I was eight. My dad worked in advertising in New York City. He was like the Mad Men guy. So we moved like the guy in Mad Men, we moved up to Westchester when I was eight years old and we had a farm. It was like a gentleman's farm. So we had a lot of animals. My mother loved animals. And then, the sixties happened and sort of back to the earth. And I started reading Helen and Scott Nearing and wanted to just escape. So I was married, we were very young, and we moved up here in ‘72 and bought a farm in New Gloucester. And the whole theory was, you know, back to the earth, raise all our own food, all around everything make our own.

 

Nina Fuller:

I mean, we did. I made our own soap, my own everything. And then that dream exploded. I got divorced and moved into town. That was ‘76. I lost the farm. So it really took from ‘76 to 2004 to get back to a farm. Not that I was trying that whole time because I was really having a blast doing other things, but I always knew, and I lived in Cape Elizabeth, I raised my kids in Cape Elizabeth. And I mean, I always knew in the back of my mind that I would, I got to get back to a farm. I got to get back to a farm. I just had to do other stuff and get it out of the way. So, then I went back to the farm.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Helen and Scott Nearing were known for their book “Living The Good Life.”

And that was something that drew a lot of people to Maine during that time frame, this idea of going back to the land, and really becoming self-sufficient and digging in and having access to tangible things.  But my understanding is that you aren't the only one who had that dream explode. Because the good life is not so easy to obtain. I think at least not the way that they laid it out.

 

Nina Fuller:

I know it was kind of ironic living the good life and it did explode.  I think now, I mean, we were a wave, you know, that was a thing you did then, but it wasn't in the whole organic theory. You know, there was a big group of people that were like, oh, it's a bunch of hippies and it's not really real. And now, people know it is, it is real. And now people are able to actually make a living doing it and people are doing it and the whole farm to table idea. And yes it took a long time, it took a really long time. But it's more accepted now, more mainstream now. I mean, Whole Foods came and you know, all that. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, you were just ahead of your time.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yeah. Me and all the other hippies.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you were kind of laying the foundation.

Nina Fuller:

Yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it's good. You were able to come back around and make it back out to the farm.

 

Nina Fuller:

It was really good. Cape Elizabeth, you know, it's nice, but it's Cape Elizabeth. To have a farm like I have now in Cape Elizabeth would have been impossible.  My photography career was successful but not that successful. I couldn't do that. I just wanted some more space. I wanted space, I felt closed in and I wanted to walk out my door and be alone with the animals.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And that's interesting too, because Cape Elizabeth itself was historically a farming community.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yes. And, for a while, I lived out on Jordan Road, on the Sprague estate.  I had horses. And, I lived in this little, I rented my house, so I moved my kids to this farm so we could have the horses. And yes that was really beautiful. Actually living out there made me realize, oh, okay, I need more space, that I wasn't going to live out there. I couldn't have my own farm out there. 

Have you ever been out there? 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. It's beautiful. 


 

Nina Fuller:

Really beautiful. Yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

But you're right. There is a dichotomy between Cape Elizabeth, suburbia; they have a wonderful school system, they obviously have Shore Road. It is a beautiful community but somehow the farming, agricultural aspect of it is separate. 



 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yeah. I would think less attainable for many people who haven't farmed there for generations.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yeah. I didn't have a farm passed down from your family.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So now you're out in Hollis. And my understanding is that in addition to doing photography and having a farm, you also do some counseling.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yes. 10 years ago, I went back to school to get my master's in counseling psychology. I had found out that... I've always had horses, and my kids were raised with horses, and I understood the value of being around an animal like that, in growing up and mentally. I found out there was a program that taught equine assisted mental health. And I was like, oh yes, I already know about that. I'm going to go back and get my master's and do that. You have to write a thesis, which is, you know, horrible. I thought, how am I going to do this? It's just not... I'm an artist, I'm a photographer. That’s not the way my brain works.

 

Nina Fuller:

So I knew I had to develop something that I was really interested in researching otherwise it wasn't going to work. So I created a workshop called Equine Assisted Photography Therapy. And I held some of the workshops. I took a lot of photographs to fill up a lot of those pages and then I graduated and all that. But the workshop turned out to be really great. I've given it a lot of times. I've given it out in Colorado and, you know, yeah. It turned out to be great.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Explore that a little bit. For me that's a lot of different elements to put into one very fascinating program.

 

Nina Fuller:

So photography therapy is an actual thing. I didn't really even realize that until then but how the workshop goes is we sort of think about what the issue is you're going to want to work on and take photographs. We'll go out on the farm. And sometimes, you know what that issue is you want to work on, but sometimes you don't know until you visually see it. And you think, oh yes that would be a good photograph to work on. And so you take these photos and then you show the photograph and talk about them. Like, say it's a pile of wood, some wire, and really a messy situation or a falling down fence, or, you know, we have a lot of those in on the farm and you say, you know, my life feels like this.

 

Nina Fuller:

It feels out of control. It's feeling messy and chaotic. And so then we take that. So sometimes you don't even know exactly how to voice that until you see it. Until you are able to hold it and process it. So then we'll take that issue and go out and work with the horses with that specific idea in mind. But then we do that therapy with the horses. This is over several days because we then come back and work on the photograph, changing it. We have, you know, colors and sparkles or this or that or anything or just a pencil and, and say, clean it up a little. Change the photograph to how you're feeling after the therapeutic experience, and then talk about that and then show that. And yes that's how it works. So it's a visual thing where you can, if you don't have the words, which right now I don't have the words, but you have the feeling and you can put it down like art. Does that make sense?

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It actually makes so much sense to me really because when I deal with patients in my family medicine practice, we do often get to a place where you can tell there's really strong emotions around a subject and sometimes words don't really capture those feelings very effectively. So I can imagine that working with an image or something external that kind of brings things to the surface a little bit more would be very powerful.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yes, that's it. And the equine work, I mean, 90% of communication is non-verbal. So that's, you know, where the equine work is very helpful because you're working with a big animal. That's not really saying any words. And art's the same way, I think. I mean, sometimes it's just really hard to put into words how something is making you feel. So they go together. So I was able to combine my photography with my equine mental health work.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I mean, that's really powerful. I think we spend a lot of time struggling with how to help people rewire things or reframe a narrative, or do things that we don't necessarily feel like we have the tools to do, but what you're describing are actual tools that are very usable, that can really have a positive outcome for people.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yeah. Yep. It's good. And it's fun too. I mean, it's fun in a group. It's fun because we do it with phones, you know. I started out doing it with little cameras and I would teach actual photography, do photography therapy with kids at a residential treatment center I used to work at and we had to collect cameras. I'd put a big sign up at the photo shop, “is anybody have cameras?” You know, it was a whole thing but now we just use the phones and so it makes it fun because it's not like you have this big camera. I do photography workshops as well, but this is different. It's not about, oh, we gotta make a pretty photograph. It's just about wanting to photograph a feeling. So there isn't pressure about having it be art, but then they create the art around it. They colored it and they turned something that maybe had a negative feeling into something really beautiful. And then that feels good!

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

There's a doctor that I work with and she also essentially has a farm and rehabilitates older horses. So she actually has a kind of a range of she's always coming in and telling me about this older animal, or she has a dog that came in with the puppy and the dog has breast cancer, which I didn't realize was a thing in dogs. But, you know, she tells these stories about her animals. And this doctor is clearly wonderful also with people, but there's a richness to the conversation when she talks about her animals. And I always leave the conversations, thinking, there's a whole other story. There's a whole other world. She could be writing children's books, but even as you and I are talking, I mean, it's really not just children's books. I mean, this is a rich and powerful dialogue that I think does take place that we don't necessarily consider. 

 

Nina Fuller:

The animals. I mean, you know, they speak volumes without speaking at all. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I would say my little dogs, I feel that way. I'm pretty sure the neighbors overhear me talking to them and probably wonder exactly what's going on, but I'm alright with that. I'm comfortable. And I think that's why when I look at your work I do think it evokes these feelings that maybe we don't have the opportunity to tap into as often. I mean, there is something deeply peaceful about some of the images that you shoot.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yes. I'm usually going for peaceful.  Even the sheep in the running towards me in the fall when their wool is long and the dog is hurting them - the photograph is just stopping it so you know you're not hearing those huffs hearing me yelling at the dog “down!” Even that's peaceful to me. I mean, when it's going on and especially when I've stopped it and I'm staring at it and I'm like, oh man, this whole sort of thing that may seem chaotic if you were watching it, I'm stopping it in a peaceful moment and this is why I do it. Because this makes me feel this certain way,  just to stop it and have someone else look at it and go, “wow!” So there is this peace within this chaos…the sheep.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think that that's something that people are looking for in this kind of crazy chaotic, challenging world that we live in now, is that opportunity to go back and have some sense of peace amidst more of a natural chaos?

 

Nina Fuller:

Definitely. I mean, for me anyway. It's like when you look at the Wyeth paintings of the animals in the barn and that pig, you know, or with the light in the barn, and that is that. And I like to have this in my photographs. Also where it could be 200 years ago -it could be at any time, you can't tell that you're in this time, you can't tell that chaos is going on in the world. There, you could be anything. I mean, think of the chaos that went on 200 years ago, trying to survive, but when it comes to the barn and the animals, they're the same, they're just the same. And my breed of sheep, it's a heritage breed. So it's they've been the same for a very long time. It's a rare breed because the wool is about rug wool. You know, the wool is very fine. I have a couple of Kormos, which is fine. Those sheep are, those lambs are half Cormo.  There’s a peacefulness of not being able to tell when it was, except that it's a photo.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm thinking about some of your photographs and the sheep, and there's an interesting texture to them. They're not these classical sheep that you think of with, you know, the bright white wall. And I mean, they're kind of a rough and ready. They look like they could cantor out of the Scottish countryside or something. I think that's horses, but I don't know what sheep do exactly when they're running, but they're that textural element to them is appealing in an interesting way. 

 

Nina Fuller:

I'm usually trying to go for that in my photographs to show the texture of their wool. It's amazing to me how beautiful it is and then when the light is right, it's not. So you think of like, if you're going to draw a sheep, it'd be the fuzzy be this round white ball.  And that’s texture. It’s  the wool of the Scotties that is long and wiggly and it's amazing to me. So when the light is right, you can show the depth of  their wool,  and also their horns which have these lines on them that’s a lot of texture. I mean, you know, it's just, I'm obviously obsessed with photographing my sheep. That's a good thing though.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

The conversation I had with Martha Burkert about her art and her conversation with me about flowers, for example, I feel the same way. I mean, I don't have sheep. I have small dogs. And my small dogs I actually find them quite fascinating in the fact that one of them, her fur grows a certain way. And it's this bright red kind of ready to take on the world, fierce little lady that she is and the other one is this Dark Lord. You know, he has this just smooth, dark fur. And then I think of the flowers and the flowers that grow in these various patterns. And it's amazing to me that nature creates these things. And I just want to say, how is it that we have this growing all around us from a little tiny seed or a little tiny bit of life that starts up. And that's what I'm thinking of when you're talking to me. 

 

Nina Fuller:

Yeah. The flowers are pretty amazing.  When I stare at a flower and I'm staring at it, I think  how did that ever happen? Spirals and spirals and spirals, and yes I've photographed a lot of flowers actually right close up.  And I'm like, sort of Georgia, O'Keeffe sensuality like, wow, this is just, this is just crazy. There's so many things that when you go down, down, down, down, down, down, down to the tiniest little thing, it's like when you're flying and you're looking down at the earth, the whole earth looks in so many places, just like that tiny little space in the flower, you know, it's just fascinates me. It's all connected like that.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it's good that there are people like us in the world that understand this about one another. So, I mean, I, I don't think that it's an unusual feeling, but I don't think it's a feeling that people necessarily talk about just to say, flowers are really amazing, or sheep are really textured or complex, but it, but it is so.  I mean, there's something very real about it.

 

Nina Fuller:

Well, that's, what's, that's why I photograph and show people, look at this, look at this.  And people, you know, sheep. I used to photograph horses, like I said before, and they're beautiful. They're classic. I mean, you know I would go on these trips and make the horses look as beautiful as possible, which is not hard because they're so beautiful, but they do have to be in a certain way. And when they're running, it's really gorgeous - the main is flying and all that and people have seen that.  I mean, they know that they're like, “wow, that's a powerful animal”, you know, but to look at a sheep and go, “wow, how beautiful is that?” It's a little more unusual, I think. But yes I love the sheep.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've had different phases in your life, which you kind of alluded to earlier. I mean, obviously you started out in New York, ended up in Maine, but along the way, you've gathered a degree here and experience there, which I think is really interesting. Some people, they stay on one straight path and they're there from beginning to end, and they're happy with that. And that's good.  You started out as a painter and you were at art school.

 

Nina Fuller:

I painted in art school and I graduated from George Washington. I went to Silvermine College of Art. I was listening to one of the podcasts, Jean, Jack who said she had a show at Silvermine. I liked that she said it was the famed Silvermine School of Art. I liked that. Then from there, I went to George Washington University and I studied at the Corcoran and I studied printmaking with the graphs. And, but at Silvermine I started studying photography because we took everything, painting, photography, sculpture, you know, how you do that. And the photography teacher was a guy named John Cohen. And he was just so amazing. Some people just did a documentary on John Cohen life - he died recently. But he was, he was an artist and a photographer and a documentary filmmaker and a musician.

He was part of the whole beat generation thing, photographed all those guys and hung out with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg and all those burrows, you know? And so I was in school with him and then, and I was 19 and my father died and that was in the summer. And so everything just dried up, like when that happened. And my mother was like, well you got to go get a job now and you can't go to school anymore. And so I went to Silvermine and tried to get a scholarship.  I brought all my work, my paintings, which weren’t very good and some things, and Dean Gray said “no, you're not.” So I'm at home feeling pretty bad, my dad died and  I wasn't in school and I'm just sitting around.

 

Nina Fuller:

And it's about three weeks into class and Cohen said to a friend of mine, “Where's Nina?” And the friend said, oh, she tried to get a scholarship, but she couldn't get it. So he went to the Dean and I think I'm going to cry saying this one. He said, “if anybody does anything with photography, it's going to be Nina Fuller. So call her up and get her back here.” So three weeks into classes the phone rings and it was Dean Gray saying, “Okay. Come back.” So yes I owe a lot to John Cohen.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And that's just a fantastic story in the fact that you had somebody who was willing to really be your advocate in a huge way. I mean, he literally changed the course of your life.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yeah. That was amazing. And when they did the documentary on him this film crew came from France and came to the farm and stayed there for a couple of days filming me because I knew him in school, I guess, to represent his teaching part of it. And actually they were packed up. This seems crazy. They were packed up and I started telling that story and they're like, oh my gosh. And I remember them getting all their stuff undone and going back out to the barn. But it did end up on the cutting room floor, but in the CD of this film, which is now in all the festivals and getting a lot of attention -  it's in the extra’s, you know how they have the extras.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well sometimes it's good to be extra,

 

Nina Fuller:

Extra,

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

But as I'm listening to this, it just reminds me that you can go into something and think that you've got an idea of what you want to do. Say be a painter, but maybe that's not really what's meant to happen. Maybe there's something else going on out there that there's some other path that you're going to end up following. And there's just no way to know unless you kind of trust.

 

Nina Fuller:

Yeah. And, and, and I think not making really firm plans about anything is important so that you can flow. But photography. I mean, ever since I was a little kid, I had a camera and I photographed everything. I see pictures that I took when I was 10 of like the horses and the dog, a lot of pictures of my dog, and I had them in little albums and I just never thought that you could actually make a living taking pictures. I’ve  just taken pictures, but I always liked taking pictures. And I always had a little camera. And so when I got to Silvermine and it was like a class in photography and then I met John Cohen and I'm like oh, coo, this is perfect because this is what I have always liked to do is take pictures. I had a little light, dark room, chemical thing when I was a little kid. And, you know, it's always been there.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

As we talk about different iterations of your life, you're now allowing people to create  a writer's retreat on your farm, which, I mean, it's just  when I think about the sheep that you photograph and the texture of their wool, it translates into for me this almost a blanket of your life that you've woven. And here's another kind of set of threads that are weaving into your life with this writer's retreat.

 

Nina Fuller:

Well, there's so many things, I really don't want to miss anything. And there's so many things, which is why I went back to school. I mean, I was 60 something when I went back to school and it was hard because  I didn't, you know, it was really tough because it was so exact with where you had to put the dot, you know - who cares really where the dot goes when you're doing the references.  I mean, that is not the way my brain works.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And like APA formatting for your  bibliography. Oh, yes. I can relate to this. 

 

Nina Fuller:

Actually the hardest part I know I'm like, really, who cares? 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Fine. I'm very familiar with this. Exactly.

 

Nina Fuller:

I would have to redo it and redo it and redo it. And apparently somebody really cared. I'm like, really is this, isn't like just helping people the most important part. No, that dot. So, yeah. But it was fascinating to me that, that that type of therapy existed. So I wanted to learn about it. You know, it's writers coming to a beautiful spot. I have a beautiful farm and when people come there, I don't think it's just me. They say, “wow, this is, it's just a different feeling.” And we walk in the woods. I have a grateful string that hangs, a braided rope that hangs from a tree. And I go there three or four times a day to the banshee. I have a bench in the back. And when anybody comes to the farm, we go to the bench and I take a picture of us on the bench and I have this whole blue bench project of people sitting at the bench. And I have a couple of Airbnbs. So people show up at the Airbnbs and go, “can we go to the bench?” You know? So anyway, but the grateful string, we just stop and we say what we're grateful for. And it's just, yes that's great. That's a good thing. So there's a lot of different elements to that farm and to my life.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Oh, I think you said it well. And you said, I don't want to miss anything. There's just a lot of world out there to experience. So why limit yourself? Well, I've really enjoyed our conversation today.

 

Nina Fuller:

So have I,  thank you.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've learned a lot about you. I'm sure there's much, much more that we could talk about because clearly there's just a richness to the life that you have lived. And I appreciate your willingness to come in and talk with me today. 


 

Nina Fuller:

Thank you. This was fun. 


 

Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artists and photographer and writer and farmer and counselor, and so many more things, Nina Fuller. You can learn more about Nina through the Portland Art Gallery, you can see her work at the Portland Art Gallery. You can visit their website. I don't know if you want to take a class with her or you could go do her Airbnb. So many things. Nina's so many things. And it's been my pleasure to talk with her today on Radio Maine. Thank you, Nina. 


 

Nina Fuller:

Thank you.