Queen of Camp
Claude Monet would have been appalled.
School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA) alumna Samantha Nye, BFA '10, was recently installing her first show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A key piece of her exhibition, a circa 1990 heart-shaped tub, wouldn't fit through the museum's front doors. So she and the show's curator had to use the back door instead — and wheel her prize through a room devoted to the oil paintings of the revered Impressionist.
"It slowly dawned on us that we were taking this tub through a Monet show," Nye said. "It was an amazing moment where something so trashy and wonderfully camp met this incredible, highbrow painter. We couldn't stop laughing."
Nye's show, My Heart's in a Whirl, was postponed due to COVID-19 but is now scheduled to run from June 12 to October 31. It features Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema, a series of three videos that are homages to Scopitone films — short musical films that played on video jukeboxes in the 1960s. The twist? Nye's videos star a cast of women aged 55 to 92 to highlight aging bodies and celebrate queer kinship.
From Massage Therapy to Painting
Art was a constant in Nye's life growing up, thanks to parents who had artistic interests and nurtured hers. One of her earliest memories is having a painting party to celebrate her third birthday. Throughout a childhood spent in South Florida, she was always drawing or creating books or toys.
By high school, she was working in ceramics — making, in her words, "very bad art — embarrassing figurative sculptures of goddesses." After graduating early from high school, she earned a degree in massage therapy and eventually taught at a massage therapy school.
In 2004 Nye moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, which she had heard was a "queer mecca." (As it turned out, it wasn't.) She subsequently enrolled at Greenfield Community College, where she developed a passion for painting.
"I was excited about what I was learning technically," she said. "I remember the first day I was taught to mix flesh tones. Mixing colors felt so physical, which I hadn't anticipated. At that point, I knew I would be a painter, and my interest in the human body has never subsided."
Pursuing New Directions
While at community college, Nye recalls, she kept hearing from students and professors about SMFA. She decided to go see it for herself and fell in love right away.
"I remember walking into a building full of artists," she said. "Someone was doing a performance in the hallway. There were installations all around. So much energy, so much subversive art on display. I remember taking that tour and thinking, 'This is where I need to be.'"
Upon entering SMFA, Nye was primarily a painter. But the interdisciplinary nature of an SMFA education challenged her to pursue new directions, such as video, installation and performance art. Along the way, she grew close with professors like Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Laurel Sparks, Patte Loper, Tina Wasserman and Gerry Bergstein, who introduced her to Scopitone films.
Her classmates made a strong impression on Nye as well.
"The environment was everything. I'd paint in my studio most nights until 3 or 4 in the morning, and many of my peers were doing the same things," she said. "We were all extremely rigorous and always reading or in critique or discussion around our work."
'So Queer They Couldn't Hide It'
The first Scopitone film that Nye saw was "Calendar Girl," a 1966 promotional clip for a Neil Sedaka song. She was fascinated by this and other Scopitone films, which she said were "meant for a mainstream audience and had this heteronormativity but were so queer they couldn't hide it."
A few years after graduating from SMFA, Nye was making videos that starred her mother, her grandmother and their friends and explored issues of
sexual identity and seduction. She decided to feature the same cast in her re-creation of "Calendar Girl." The production involved building a set, hiring makeup and hair, developing choreography and directing the 15 performers (including herself). "It was a huge undertaking that taught me a lot," she said.
Nye completed "Calendar Girl" in 2014, followed by two other Scopitone remakes, "Silencer" (2016) and "Daddy" (2018).
While earning her master's degree at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Nye applied for a Traveling Fellowship, which SMFA awards to 10 alumni each year. Her proposal detailed a trip to Italy to meet queer elders who may have seen Scopitone (known in Europe as Cinebox) films in their youth. She received a 2017 fellowship and spent two weeks in Italy in summer 2018, interviewing subjects in cities including Rome, Siena, and Palermo.
Nye was later selected from a pool of Traveling Fellows to have her work shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. My Heart's in a Whirl will include her beloved heart-shaped tub — which she bought for $50 from the owner of a rural western New York resort — along with an installation for patrons to view the Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema series.
Besides preparing for her upcoming show, Nye keeps busy as an assistant professor at Kutztown University and working out of her in-house studio in Philadelphia. But her experience at SMFA continues to influence her today.
"SMFA felt so alive," she said. "A lot of my work now has its roots in what I was doing then."
Lead image credit: Still from Daddy, by Samantha Nye, video installation (Image courtesy of artist)