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Artist Check-in: Natalie Frank

21c Museum Director and Chief Curator, Alice Gray Stites, and 21c Assistant Curator, Amethyst Rey Beaver, recently spoke with New York-based artist Natalie Frank whose work is currently on view as part of The Future is Female at 21c Durham.

Natalie recently closed a double-gallery exhibition, Crossdressing for the Battlefield, at Lyles & King and Salon 94. A survey exhibition of her drawings, NATALIE FRANK: Unbound, just opened at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (on view through October 3, 2021) and will travel to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City in January 2022.  21c caught up with Natalie for a conversation about her new love of ceramics, her love of stories about bold women who hold their own power and complexity, and her recent collaboration on an animated opera, Jar Full of Bees.

Follow the link for video selections from the conversation: LINK HERE to YouTube.

To watch Natalie Frank’s stop-motion animated opera collaboration, Jar Full of Bees, follow the LINK HERE.

Below is a selected transcript of the conversation.

Alice Gray Stites (AGS): Natalie, this is, I understand, an early foray into ceramics?

Natalie Frank (NF): Very early. Everyone did something radical during COVID and I started ceramics. I had always wanted to try it and I just had a blast. I went to this studio in Williamsburg, Choplet, and just sat there and taught myself how to do stuff and watched stuff crack and explode and melt and tried to figure it out. I had a really good time, and I have been taking a wheel throwing class too, which I (laughs) am not as adept at. I had never made ceramics before so it was wonderful to be able to show them in a two gallery show at Lyles & King and Salon 94, Crossdressing for the Battlefield.

Installation at Salon 94; image courtesy of the gallery.
Installation at Lyles & King; image courtesy of the gallery.


AGS: Yes, I love that title.

NF: I was thinking of Joan of Arc, but I was also thinking of a place where these different women could come together and be in a communal space. Women from different centuries, female warriors, burlesque dancers, and dominatrices, and take the table off the wall and put it in the center of the gallery for the ceramics. I included just a few install photos.

This was one of my favorites which for some reason did not sell! I don’t know why people are so scared of dominatrices.

Woman with Crow (dominatrix), Photo by Farzad Owrang

ARB: So gorgeous.

NF: I went to Dieu Donné for about two weeks and made these paper pulp paintings. Again, all handmade paper, hand pigmented, and then I paint with the paper pulp like it is paint with brushes, and pouring, but there is no paint.

AGS: Oh yeah. Wow.

Woman, Blue; Photo: Farzad Owrang.

NF: And this was one that was at Salon 94.  Each gallery was a slightly different feeling of a show, Salon’s was a more straightforward presentation. I didn’t make wall vinyls for the Salon grouping of paper paintings, but I would like to. The beauty of this body of work is that I did all of the paper paintings not thinking that I would show them or make bodies for them and later I tried to figure out what they would look like if they have bodies.

AGS: So, they all started as just portraits.

NF: As portraits and then, something about moving, making these books, working in performance design, I wanted to expand the world off the page. Wall vinyl is a really an interesting tool for me and it feels like something really new and exciting, and it is a way to combine painting and drawing and theatricality.

I made a series of these women with animals. In a lot of the fairytales, women have animal companions that are stand-ins for men, or just stand-ins for companions, or for themselves as they often shape-shift to show these power transformations. When I made these I was finishing my last book of 17th-century French feminist tales of the Baroness Catherine d’Aulnoy (1692-1698). I worked with Jack Zipes, the scholar I have been working with, and he translated eight of her tales, one into English for the first time. I did all of the drawings and marginalia, and that had been much on my mind as I was making these paper paintings.

This is a woman and her owl. And again, I see this and I think, “God, I wonder what her skirt would look like and would she have an owl lasso?”  How do people catch owls? I don’t know.


Woman with Owl; Photo: Farzad Owrang.
Woman with Iguana; Photo: Farzad Owrang.


AGS: I have to ask you. Who is the character with the iguana?

NF: You know, I was thinking of a kind of 1950s movie star. Does she remind you of someone?

AGS: No, I am just curious because I was thinking that I need to look up if there is some kind of particular symbolism or metaphor for what an iguana represents.

NF: In Marina Warner’s book, From the Beast to the Blond, she talks about the representations of women through storytelling, specifically fairytales and iguanas are these dragon-like, powerful, female figures that share some commonality with the horror and terror of the female genitalia. They are slimy and scaly, but they also have these long, powerful tales, so I thought, you know, put her on her head! (Laughs.) Have her wear it as a headdress.

AGS: Yeah, it works as crown.

NF: Thank you. That is what I was thinking. So, these are some of the ceramics. All of the painting is done after the first firing, before the second, and through each firing it changes. A lot of the lighter colors burn off, and what is interesting is that unlike paper painting, which is so additive where whatever you put on top you get, the memory of this under-glazing on ceramics is kind of incredible. Whatever you put down will show. There is no way to conceal it and there is no forgiveness. So, you may think that you put white down and it is going to cover the black, but the black will come through. So, you sort of have to have this memory of what you have done. And it forced me to work pretty quickly, which I think is good for the looseness, and you can really maintain the brushwork that way.

I kept thinking of painting these women somewhat costumed and they are all really strong, kind of feminist images of women, powerful women, juxtaposed with these slight disturbances of clay within the images. These little decorative flourishes, flowers, or bits of clay that are disturbing the surface.

AGS: Yeah, it really makes it come alive, and makes it feel like it is still in transition, or that there is a metamorphosis that is still taking place.

NF: That’s right. Thank you.

And everything reacts so differently. This is yellow crawl, I think the kiln was heated a little too hot and it really became more textural and sculptural in how it cracked, which I liked.

Woman, Yellow Crackle II; Photo: Farzad Owrang.
Harlequin; Photo: Farzad Owrang.

AGS: It’s like snakeskin.

NF: Yeah, I think that is why I liked it.

This is a little harlequin figure and this, on the right, is palladium. I had a lot of fun experimenting with metal glazes. You never know how something is going to react until it comes out. The crawl reacts differently based on how long you keep it dipped. There is no exact science, if you put it in longer it gets chunkier. And I would put wax resist on the figures after I had fired them, before the dipping glaze, and you would put wax on it and dip it into a bucket and hope for the best. (Laughs.)

ARB: Fingers crossed!

BLUE BIRD I, (from Madame d’Aulnoy), Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper. Photo: Farzad Owrang.


AGS: So, Natalie, thank you for doing your series about Madame d’Aulony. I, like many other people, learned through your write up about your work that she was the person who came up with the word, fairy tale or conte de fées in French.

NF: She was really an amazing woman and I wrote a preface to the book and Jack (Zipes) wrote an amazing introduction about her and her life. She was really a hardcore feminist and she tried to set up her husband for treason. She didn’t care for him, she was married off when thirteen against her will. He was a much older man who just gambled and drank and was abusive, so she tried to set him up for treason, failed, and was excommunicated and had to go to Spain with her mother. But before she did that, she worked with her best friend who was married to an abusive man, and actually, they killed him, (laughs) they had him killed. She was a daring woman and she was one of the first to sign the frontispiece of her work and take credit for her authorship. A lot of the characters in the stories are these very forward-thinking feminists, like Belle Belle, who in order to save her father’s kingdom, wears men’s clothing, cross-dresses, and eventually both the king and queen fall in love with her, but it is revealed in the end as her shirt is ripped off as they are about to burn her at the stake, after she has slayed the dragon and done all of these feats, that she is actually a woman. The stories feature bold protagonists, some of the female characters are writers and authors and artists, and there is a lot of shape-shifting between women and animals, or women falling in love with animals who have to prove their fealty to the women, which is a nice change, (laughs) cause its usually the other way around.

AGS: With so much happening right now and increasing awareness of social issues, race issues, gender issues, inequalities, all of it, is there anything you are particularly focusing on? Do you see your work engaging with certain topics more than others?

NF: That’s a wonderful question and something I have been thinking about a lot and frankly I have always been thinking about. I think for me, it’s not about what the story is. It’s about giving dignity to the individual to tell their own stories and that’s why I have been drawn to fairy tales. It is not the fairy tales that interest me, it’s the fact that they were all women’s oral tales and really how groups and communities—for me, primarily women—have subverted the system through the centuries and used their voice to talk about what their life is like, what their desires are, what their hopes and dreams are, and fears, and strictures. I haven’t seen my drawing survey show yet—I am going in August to see it all together—but just from photos it feels kind of exciting to have all of these voices in one room from different centuries. The Grimms was from the 19th century. Madame d’Aulnoy was from the 17th century. The Story of O was from the 20th century. And The Sorcerer’s Apprentice really runs through 2,000 years of literature. So, this idea of using storytelling and giving a voice to women has always been my interest in art since I was young and discovered Käthe Kollwitz, and Paula Rego, and these amazing female artists. That is what drives me every day.

ARB: I was reading the article in Sculpture magazine, and you mentioned having synesthesia and its really amazing seeing your ballet and seeing your opera and how it is all really coming out in your work and I am just curious, when you are reading these stories are you also seeing them in colors? It just seems that all these stories that are coming through your lens—which is so unique.

Jar Full of Bees, [Still]; Photo: Farzad Owrang

NF: Yeah, it’s a weird feeling. I didn’t really discover what it was until I think I started the Grimms fairy tales and I remember sitting and watching an opera or ballet and seeing these images and colors and thinking, “well that’s really weird. I wonder if other people have this feeling too? It is very distracting.” But when I started the Grimms and in a lot of the literature, I think that there is something in these short stories that is so distilled and simple, but so complex, complex in their ideas but very straightforward in their language, that promotes this kind of image creation. It was an interesting thing working on this opera because we started with the music and the words and it was very immediate what the images should look like and how it should be divided.  In the first section, with video transitioning into stop motion painting and her in this landscape with a center portion that is this kind of white, milky landscape with this figure moving and almost trying to get out. And then, in the end, I worked with this amazing claymation artist and animator, Erin Pollack, and she did the clay portion of it and I did all of the painting that went over and behind the clay. And, it just seemed to make sense, it just had to be that way. It is just fun when you start a new project and you just have to fill in those blanks and I think I have been coming back to oil painting thinking about making these discrete images but then the synesthesia kind of tells me what the environment they are on should look like. So, I am excited to follow those worlds.

ARB: It was also interesting to me in terms of your interest in collaboration. You are clearly working with ballets, with operas, and with bookmakers, that has always been a part of your practice. And then also firmly rooted in a personal practice where you are having your own relationships with texts. I am just curious about your thoughts on collaboration and how that drives you and inspires your work.

NF: It has been a really exciting development of the past few years. Working with Marian Bantjes on designing the books is definitely a collaboration. When we are working on a book—which we are about to start a new one—it’s everyday, you know. 10-20 messages back and forth. It’s me drawing, sending her the drawings, her saying “this is terrible, redo this” or placing it on the page and sending it back to me so I see what it looks like, and making more drawings. Marian is—when you find someone that you work on the same wavelength and it’s so effortless, it is kind of the dream collaboration. And I have been lucky to find Marian and Jack Zipes who does all of these translations and just hands them to me and says, “now it’s your turn”. There is no, “here’s what this should be, here’s what that should be, here’s my interpretation.” And that’s kind of, I found, the beauty of collaboration in the ballet and opera as well. You get together this talented group of people and everyone is a specialist at what they do and then you each take your turn and you share it and you really come to something with someone else’s perspectives in mind and create something. And when it is great people it really magnifies the possibility. It’s also very nice to be back alone in the studio, I have to say. Working on the ceramics was a nice medium during COVID because it was a studio full of people, everyone is so lovely there—potters are really nice people. Everyone was sharing knowledge, but then you would go and work in your little area. And you didn’t have to talk to people, but you could be around people.


Artist Bio:

Natalie Frank (b. 1980) is an interdisciplinary artist whose gouache and chalk pastel drawings, paper paintings, work in artistic design in performance, and ceramics, focus on the intersection of sexuality and violence in feminist portraiture. Frank’s portraits of women draw on overlooked stories and storytellers in literature that spans erotica to fairy tales. She engages with contemporary discourse around themes of SnM, female authorship, fantasy, and shifting societal power structures. Frank has produced a number of books, including O (Lucia Marquand, 2018), which visualizes tales from the sex positive feminist and revolutionary 1954 French erotic novel, Story of O; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Princeton University Press, 2017); Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Damiani, 2015) and The Island of Happiness: Tales of Madame d’Aulnoy (Princeton University Press, 2021). Her drawing survey show, Unbound, co-organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (WI), and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, (OH) will open 2021-2.

Recent museum exhibitions include: Never Done: 100 Years of Women in Politics and Beyond, Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY; In the Collection, Yale Women Alumni, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; Dread and Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, curated by Emily Stamey, The Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, travelling to the Grinnell College Museum of Art, Grinnell, IA and the Akron Art Museum, Akron, OH. Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm at the Drawing Center, New York (NY) in 2015, which traveled to the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin (TX) and University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington (2016).

Frank’s work is represented in numerous collections, including Ackland Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago; The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin; The Berger Collection, Hong Kong; Beth Rudin de Woody Collection; The Bowdoin Museum of Art, ME; The Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY; The Hall Art Foundation; The Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; The Kentucky Art Museum; Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, CA; Montclair Art Museum, NJ; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; The Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MA; The Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC; The Whitney Museum of Art, New York, NY; Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA.

Natalie Frank’s work has been covered in national and international publications and media outlets such as Art and Auction; Art in America; Art Review;; Artnet News; BOMB; Flash Art; The Huffington Post; The Los Angeles Times; Modern Painters; New York Magazine; The New York Observer; The New York Times; The New Yorker; and The Wall Street Journal. She has been a visiting artist at Brooklyn College; Cranbrook Academy; Hunter College; Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art; The New York Academy of Art; The New York Studio School; New York University; Pratt; The School of Visual Arts; and Yale University.

Learn more about Natalie’s work on her website: or follow her on Instagram @nataliegwenfrank