Nicoletta de la Brown takes care of herself so no one else has to. The shaman, self-care enthusiast, and performance artist is a master of all things ritual bathing, meditation, and breathing. Fresh off performances this summer at the Walters and the Smithsonian, de la Brown explains that her sometimes nine-hour durational performances are energizing and feel like meditation for her. “When I am finished, I am recharged,” she says. “I’m not really in my body at that time.” She continues, “I consider the performance I do to be therapy for myself, 100 percent. Everything I do, I am doing for the 15-year-old girl inside of me. When I speak to people, I’m speaking to her. What [audience members] are asking me for is affirmation, confirmation of value or self-worth. I’m not asking people to confirm that I am valuable, I am doing that for myself when I am talking to myself. What that 15-year-old needed to hear I probably need to hear too.”
She has been performing for her young self for years on a subconscious level. But de la Brown noticed it three years ago after she was hit by a car and had to take nine months off from her regular life to recover. It was while her body was healing that she started talking to and making space to hear her younger selves. She explains that when she is performing, “I’m talking to the 15-year-old but I’m listening to the 7-year-old. The 7-year-old didn’t need anything—she’d run around in a tutu, happy. I listen to her and I speak to the 15-year-old.” About her accident, de la Brown jokes that she went through the recovery so no one else has to, and summarizes: “You can pause your life at any moment, everything is going to be okay.”
De la Brown first conceived of her recent performance at the Walters as a way to take up space that doesn’t represent her visually, and historically wouldn’t allow her entrance as a Black Latinx woman, but it evolved into a more public-facing “spirit art” which will change with time, letting other people rest and reconnect in public space. Growing up in New York, de la Brown went to Catholic school, which was a magical place for her. She moved to Baltimore to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts and visited the Walters frequently. In her performance there, she wanted to connect with the women in pain represented on the Gothic Altar in the gallery. “Women are spiritual leaders,” she wanted to remind her audience. “We do connect with things that are bigger… because we’re nurturers in general, people forget that work is being done.”
Nicoletta de la Brown, “Bañera de Flora,” durational performance, August 8 and 10, 2019 at the Walters Art Museum (photo by Michael Soong)
In person, de la Brown radiates positive energy, which is something she cultivates. “I set my intention not to be positive but truly to be authentically happy,” she says. “I’m not always this positive but when I’m not, you don’t see me. When I don’t feel great, I’m doing whatever is needed to feel better.” What she’s doing typically is self care, which she considers the foundation of her art practice. She carries around a self-care kit with her everywhere she goes and regularly checks in with herself to make sure she feels balanced. It’s a practice she has worked to pass along to students at the Baltimore School for the Arts and MICA, where she was a professor in the Community Art Program. She would ask students how they were feeling every day as a way of taking attendance, and as a result, students felt like they could be themselves in class and process their own traumas. De la Brown believes artists especially need to take care of themselves. “Our work is about vulnerability, we see things that others do not see,” she says. “All artists would benefit from having regular conversations about how we’re doing.”
A mother of four children, and also one bunny, Luniverse (Luna + Universe), de la Brown cites her children as her greatest role models and teachers, who remind her daily that “living is a gift” and our goal each day should be to be happy. We chatted about the power of performance to move people to tears, meditation as a daily practice anyone can do, and the rewards of truly listening to yourself.
SUBJECT: Nicoletta de la Brown, 38
WEARING: Sequin romper, gold pumps, wide-brim black hat
PLACE: Mount Vernon
Suzy Kopf: What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best?
Nicoletta de la Brown: The best career advice I ever received was when curator Ashley DeHoyos told me to just make art. She explained that I didn’t need to know where it would go or how it would show up. She encouraged me to just experiment, explore, and create. To think about what I want to say. She said that after I understand myself as an artist, and make things I am passionate about, everything else will come together. She is right. As a performance artist it is not always clear how my work fits in the traditional art world. Since taking her advice, I have unexpected opportunities to share my work, my practice has grown so much, and surprising sources to fund my work always pop up seemingly from nowhere.
The worst advice? I don’t even remember, intentionally.
We spoke about self care and the accident that led you to the practice of self care that you now follow. Do you have any first steps or suggestions for someone trying to start their own self care ritual who maybe feels a little overwhelmed by it?
I would encourage others to be tender, patient, and kind to themselves first. Start slow, and build self care practices that feel good to them. My path since being hit by a car has been a three-year journey of building self love into my life. Self care started with small practices like learning to say no often. Thinking about, if I say yes, how does this contribute to the life I am creating for myself? Listening to my feelings and honoring them. Here are 5 things I do daily to have a healthy relationship with myself:
- Live day-by-day (I always live in the moment)
- Every morning, set an Intention for myself for the day (before I get out of bed)
- Pause in public space and say something to myself about how amazing I am (I keep a list handy)
- Find a “healing” space wherever I am (everywhere should feel like my personal sanctuary)
- Every evening, make a list of small things I appreciate (before I go to bed)
Did you have a favorite toy as a child? Do you remember what happened to it?
My absolute favorite thing was my Crayola 64 box of crayons. My mom told me that when I was four I would lay on the floor and color for hours. She would have to remind me to take a break to eat and tell me to stop and go to bed. I could create a magical world, no matter where I was, with my box of crayons. I used them, and the many boxes that followed, until they were all gone.
What is the art-supply/business-related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much?
My favorite place to shop for my studio work is a hardware store. It’s like being in a candy store for me. But I should buy loose faceted crystals in stock. I use them so much. After I perform people find small pieces of me everywhere in the form of gemstones.
“Every weekend I look at the week ahead and plan a schedule that is kind to my mind and my body.”
Who do you admire? Why? Do you think they know they’re a role model to you or would they be surprised?
Each of my four kids are my role models. They show me something new everyday that leaves me breathless and pause to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” Yes, they know. I tell them all the time.
What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?
I am known for my hugs. My love language is touch. I love people so much and a hug is a simple way to connect with someone. Hugs can communicate so many things like: I missed you, I love you, I see you.
I was living in NYC when Marina Abramovic did her piece at MoMA, The Artist is Present, a durational performance where she asked the public to sit opposite her. While I never got to sit with her myself (the line was always too long), I observed that some people would sit down and begin crying pretty much immediately. What is it about performance art that elicits that kind of response, in your opinion?
From what people tell me in letters I’ve received after my performances, most of it is body language. They felt that something about the environment is holding space for them to be safe. I am holding a giant space for them and they feel like they can release whatever it is they have been holding in. It’s like exhaling and what comes out is anything they were holding inside. Sometimes people are in a space of joy and so there will be some people dancing and there are some people holding pain and they are releasing that too.
What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order?
I love super fresh light seafood, so I go to Clavel as often as I can to order ceviche.
Do you consider yourself an artist? Have you always? Was there another career path you could have pursued? Do you ever wish you did?
I have always been an artist. I didn’t always know it was a career. When I was little I just knew that I loved to create and loved connecting with others through things I make. I learned that art could be a career while I was a student at Baltimore School for the Arts, and since then that is all I wanted to be. Before attending BSA I thought about being a medical doctor or an anesthesiologist. I wanted to help people feel better. Funny thing is that I get to do that now through my work, my performances, and as a shamanic healer.
Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?
I want a Gustav Klimt in my home. I have a print of The Kiss, but I would love to see the gold luster sparkle everyday. I would love to have an Amy Sherald painting too. I am excited to see her new body of work in her solo NYC show. I want to wear a piece of Christian Siriano couture, any of his beautiful, delicate tulle gowns. I would love to wear it with the intricately constructed Bishme Cromartie Stingray Bomber Jacket and dance in the street all day.
If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the show/performance series you’d curate or the series of work you’d make.
With unlimited funding, time, and resources I will create an underwater performance series. I will have a giant tank to perform in. Inside of a room wrapped floor-to-ceiling in LCD screens streaming underwater video art captured in bodies of water all over the world. The floor will respond to guests as they move throughout the space. Large, cloud-like pillows will invite others to lay down and gaze up at beautiful moving images projected on the ceiling. Sound art will fill the space.
Nicoletta de la Brown, “Bañera de Flora,” durational performance, August 8 and 10, 2019 at the Walters Art Museum (photo by Ana Tantaros)
What are the last three emojis you used?
The unicorn, red heart, and rainbow.
Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t or do you thrive on change?
My routine shifts often because I travel so much. I love that I don’t have a typical day. Everything I do in a day depends on if I am home in Baltimore, across the country, or planning an international trip. I love that I can shape and balance my life as a mom with being a professional artist. Every weekend I look at the week ahead and plan a schedule that is kind to my mind and my body. People often ask me, how do you do everything that you do and remain so calm and peaceful? I practice being kind to myself and do whatever makes me happy, literally.
Does your astrological sign match your personality?
Absolutely, I am 100 percent a pisces. I am an empath. I am a heart with legs.
Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?
I think about Miami is Nice, curated by Michelle Ivette Gomez. This show was bigger than an exhibition, it was a whimsical multi-day event. It keeps me thinking about how we celebrate big, and small, moments in our lives. It makes me think about what art is, what its function can be, how it can gather people together. It reminds me that life is art. I am art. One day when I get married again I want my wedding to feel as magical as this exhibition.
If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
I wouldn’t change anything about myself. I am kind. I am powerful. My spirit is soft. I love who I am. I am always learning, growing, changing. During moments of self doubt I just pause and say to myself that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I look at all the things I have done and I know that there is so much more for me to do. Life is a journey, a beautiful one.
What would your teenage self think of you today?
My teenage self would say, “Wow, is that me?!” She didn’t always know how beautiful she was. She didn’t always know her value. She didn’t always know that her art was important. She often hid in plain sight. The 7-year-old me on the other hand would say, “Yup, that’s me. I can do anything!”
Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?
My first job, at 16, was a lifeguard. I loved it. I loved the idea of helping others stay safe while enjoying the water. I have always loved swimming so it was perfect for me. I remember feeling powerful while sitting high up in a lifeguard chair. I loved tending to the pool and making sure the chemistry was right. I love science as much as I love art. This job connected me with other people and gave me lots of time to just sit in the sun and daydream. It was great!
What have you learned recently that made you think, “Oh, shit, how did I reach this chapter of life without knowing this?!”
Recently I realized the power of asking for what I want. I noticed that when I am clear, focused, confident, and feeling strong I can have anything. I have had so many recent experiences where I asked for really big, dreamlike things and a quick yes always follows. People are excited about being a part of making big things happen. It makes us all feel powerful when we are able to say, “I was a part of that.”
What do you hope your children have learned or will learn from you?
I hope my children have learned that they are my teachers. They teach me every day how to live life with joy. I hope that I remind them through, the way I live my life, how to continue to be vulnerably authentic. I hope they see in me that passion is my guide as I do everything with purposeful intention, kindness, and love.
Nicoletta de la Brown, “Bañera de Flora,” durational performance, August 8 and 10, 2019 at the Walters Art Museum (photo by Ana Tantaros)
Nicoletta de la Brown has art on display at IA&A at Hillyer in LabBodies’ Reverb, on view through December 15.
Except where otherwise noted, photos by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas Issue 05: Home