Cora Nimtz: Unlikely Hunter at The Aquarium Gallery and Studio, New Orleans

By April 25, 2024
Cora Nimtz, Unlikely Hunter, 2024. Photography by Stephen Lomonaco and courtesy of the artist & The Aquarium Gallery and Studio, New Orleans.

Cora Nimtz’s Unlikely Hunter explores how memory, imagination, and materiality interplay with Southern traditions, stereotypes, and romanticism. Spanning religion and gender, addiction and fishing, quilting and tall tales, the overwhelming intricacy of Nimtz’s textile-based assemblages creates an appropriately deft vehicle for bearing witness to nostalgia in the Deep South. She confronts her identity and place of origin with a wink and a nod, crushing on the rosy parts and dark parts alike.

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I visit Nimtz as she prepares for her solo show at Aquarium Gallery and Studio in New Orleans. She’s created a series of pieces using her trademark thread painting, assemblage, and quilting, spinning portraits of half-realism-half-surrealism that feel drawn from some of my own most precious memories. In some ways, this isn’t surprising—we’re both white girls of the same generation raised in the Deep South—but I’m taken aback at how carefully she’s built a library of feminine, rural imagination, one rarely seen in a formal, gallery setting. 

One of the first pieces I’m drawn to is Onwards. An antique saddle is upholstered with a pastel green and pink baby quilt, conjuring a strained image of both girlhood and womanhood. The delicacy and discipline used to create the object feels reminiscent of strict gender norms, the pressure to become a certain type of Southern Woman — but there’s a simultaneous playfulness to the piece that I know also characterized my childhood. Running barefoot in the woods, tomboyish and brave, embraced for all my contradictions in a culture that’s always ready to buck anything too fancy or self-serious.

“I felt a lot of times like it was this wall I kept approaching. The world felt so big and so fascinating, but being a woman, you would hit walls or hit realizations that maybe something wasn’t meant for you. I know I’m not alone as a demographic for that, but it’s just kind of the realization that we’re supposed to behave and act a certain way when you weren’t really aware of that before.”

So much of how it feels to be a Southerner is avoiding certain stereotypes or presumptions, even when you want so badly to explore them for yourself. 

Cora Nimtz, Wild Goose Chase, 2024. Photography by Stephen Lomonaco and courtesy of the artist & The Aquarium Gallery and Studio, New Orleans.

Take the piece, Wild Goose Chase. Lottery tickets, gathered over a year, none of them winners. A nursery yellow, beautifully pale, gender neutral. Then pinks, subtly emerging, sewn in permanently. A droll and peaceful palette. There’s no focal point for addiction, only trying, trying, trying. Fold into yourself, forgetting or not being asked, dress up and put a smile on with quilted perfection, we’ve got company coming.

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“I think for almost all of my pieces, they become these fragments. I’m never really kind of putting them in the environment that they’re in. And I think that’s to allow people to have their own perception of it, and to take them somewhere else. It doesn’t become so tethered to reality or faithful to reality as much as it is trying to depict a feeling.”

Then there’s the fish, so beloved. More icon than creature, one with the water and the everyman’s gift. My head spins trying to figure out where fish romanticism came from, those slimy, blank-faced creatures, but I guess I get it. Wrenching something completely unseen from the impenetrable depths of our surroundings, a magic trick of the simplest, purest kind. I’m overwhelmed at what it took to sew this piece into perfection, a trick in itself, a boyish flag that Southerners wave both with and without regard for gender.

In the piece, Get Right With God, Cora joins a long tradition of artists entranced by the billboards and painted barn roof messages strewn throughout the South. A crushing weight  — think of perhaps the most famous one, “Go to church or the devil will get you,” or maybe a 30-foot wide message lit up by stadium lights about how life begins at conception —  how are you supposed to move forward? In Nimtz’s piece, the soft, sea foam, quilted background places the phrase into a displaced and calmer atmosphere, turning the thing that frightens you into a vision of your own agency. The reclaimed wooden frame nestles the barn into a quiet moment of control, still referencing and respecting its material origins. A horseshoe is placed atop the frame, as if poking fun at the certainty this slogan tries to decry.

Cora Nimtz, Unlikely Hunter, 2024. Photography by Stephen Lomonaco and courtesy of the artist & The Aquarium Gallery and Studio, New Orleans.

‘Unlikely Hunter’ also marks a major step for Cora into the world of sculpture and assemblage within her textile work. The objects she’s harvested hold multitudes, from a vintage industrial thread spool to bullet casings, a jigsaw, and pin cushions. There’s a delicate balance to utilizing regional symbology, for what if someone doesn’t recognize the thing you’re working with? In this case, the world she nestles her objects into carries a strong enough sense of place, time, and purpose to transcend specificity. I might not have known just exactly what a certain tool was used for, but I immediately understood that it had an intended use, perhaps nefarious or sweet, as well as a brand new life in the care of Cora’s mind. Addendum: it’s always nice to have a show made for Southerners by a Southerner. 

At an art opening in New Orleans, you’ll have pretty good luck (and a pretty good convo) asking the artist just what they meant by this or that. Something I’m still thinking about after Cora’s show is how a few of her pieces employed a traditional quilting pattern with specific regard for its name. ‘Wild Goose Chase,” the lottery ticket piece, is quilted using a pattern that’s quite literally called “Wild Goose Chase.” Both “Storm at Sea” and “Call for Prayer,” installed next to one another, use a pattern called “Storm at Sea.” Emblematic of the dark and lush nature of a Southern storm (and perhaps also religious intensity), Nimtz ties the two together with a swirling, amphibious, blue-green grounding. And then there’s prize-winning buck antlers placed atop of the pastel colors of the Wedding Ring pattern, nestled above the gallery’s built-in combination fireplace fish tank (hence the name). These titles give the pieces an extra melody, like how the street names in New Orleans float through you and slow you down. An added flare and bounce that might not have been necessary, but that’s never been the point. 

“I don’t think that I’ll ever not be exploring my Southern-ness. It just seems like such an important part of who I am as a person. I don’t intend on really living anywhere else in my life, it’s the place I’m from and the place that I continue to choose to be from and to fight for. Much like my work, I try to acknowledge the past and approach the future progressively.” 

Cora Nimtz, Unlikely Hunter, 2024. Photography by Stephen Lomonaco and courtesy of the artist & The Aquarium Gallery and Studio.

My aunt is a fabulous quilter, and her house in Tennessee is covered wall to wall with Southern ephemera. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. Cross stitched slogans, hand painted quotes, delicately illustrated china, an embroidered pillow that says “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from Mississippi.” I never had the urge to learn much of anything about sewing, put off by its quaint and girlish tinge. But in high school, my older sister told me about Gee’s Bend, and it sparked a jumping off point for learning about the unbelievably rich history of sewing, quilting, and textile design in the deep South. It’s an art of patience, spinning everyday experiences and necessities into bold, transcendent beauty, intimately tied into legacies of Black liberation and women’s rights. There’s a specific sort of ecstasy to realizing you were wrong—what you thought was one way was actually another, not limiting and finite but expansive and raw. 

For several reasons, walking into Cora’s show feels a little like walking into your family’s living room. It’s not just the aged, loved-on hardwood floors of Aquarium Gallery or the floor to ceiling New Orleans-style windows, but the way each piece sits around with each other, holding onto secrets and gossip, waiting for their turn to speak. A self-guided walk around the space lets each moment capture you, the sheer disbelief of the thread painting pulling you in time and time again. I’m captivated by not just the weight of this technique but by Cora’s delicate arrangement of each item, the trace or her hand both completely invisible and forever present. 

I have a crush on the South. But I’m from here, so maybe I shouldn’t say it like that. I’m no longer afraid when people sit with the complexity, wondering how this cradle of evil could hold so much good. It’s not confusing to me anymore—I love her and I hate her, and I’ll never let her go. They say you should always have a crush on your partner, even when you’re a hundred years old. 

Cora Nimtz : Unlikely Hunter is on view at The Aquarium Studio and Gallery in New Orleans through May 5, 2024.

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