Davis Desk

Celebrating People with Disability Pride Month

By Karl Cole, posted on Jul 13, 2021

July is Disability Pride Month! This annual observance is used to promote visibility and mainstream awareness of the positive pride felt by people with disabilities. To celebrate this important month today we share artist Nell Blaine (1922–1996 US). Nell Blaine was a courageous woman who fought back from a paralyzing disease to become an abstract realist painter with ties to both Abstract Expressionism and the colors of Fauvism. With residual paralysis from polio, she created a body of work depicting nature that belied her condition and revealed her true joy in color and how she saw it in nature.

Celebrating People with Disability Pride Month, Artist Nell Blaine
Green Wall and Yellow Table Still Life, 1974, oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm Private Collection, Image courtesy of the Artist, © 2021 Artist or Estate of Artist (16963)

Although there is a French essence to Blaine’s work in the brilliant colors grounded in Impressionism through Fauvism, her work is unmistakably American in the energetic brushwork reflective of Abstract Expressionist action painting. Because of her academic training in Richmond, she respected the traditions of structured composition. Her work recalls not only Abstract Expressionist brushwork and Fauve color, but also French Impressionist interest in light, and a respect for the interplay of shapes seen in many of the Post-Impressionists.

Nell Blaine was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. At a young age, she showed a talent for art and in high school, she began selling her artwork. She studied at the Richmond School of Art (1939–1942) but left when introduced to modern art. She moved to New York where she studied with pioneer abstractionist and mentor of the Abstract Expressionists Hans Hofmann (1880–1966). From Hofmann, she learned to emphasize color and stress the 2D surface rather than worrying about traditional concepts of space. She once declared that she enjoyed color more than anything else, remarking that when she looked at a sign or billboard, she first noticed the color rather than the message.

Blaine became the youngest member of the Abstract Expressionist group, painting hard-edge geometric abstractions à la Mondrian. They were mostly black and white with touches of brilliant color. When she visited France in the late 1940s, she admired the work of French Realists from the 1800s and took up figure painting in an abstract style. She was also fascinated with the landscape and light in France. After meeting Jean Helion (1904–1987), an abstractionist who had returned to realism, Blaine became obsessed with painting nature as directly as possible. The style she developed—short, quick brush strokes influenced by Abstract Expressionism, and brilliant color influenced by the Fauves—became her signature style the rest of her career.

In 1959, Blaine developed polio. Although she spent months in an iron lung, she beat the disease. The result however was a paralyzed right hand. She subsequently taught herself to paint with her left. After recovery, she developed a studio in her Riverside Drive apartment in New York and divided her time between the city and Gloucester, MA. She painted directly outdoors from her wheelchair.

Celebrating People with Disability Pride Month, Artist Nell Blaine
Riverside Drive and Park, 1970, oil on canvas, 71 x 76 cm Photo courtesy of the late artist, © 2021 Artist or Estate of Artist (16956)