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Nilsson and Nutt, in her studio on the third floor of their Wilmette house, with stored works by the couple and other artists in the background.
The setting for the first life-altering exchange between the Chicago artists Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt was less than romantic, but their attraction triumphed over harsh lighting and pale food. They met in 1960 in the cafeteria at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I was entering the lunchroom, and I looked to the right,” Nutt recalls. “Gladys was all the way in the back, and she was looking right at me.”
“Were you aware of that?” I ask Nilsson.
“Oh, yes, I was waiting for him,” she says.
“Maybe you had been pointed out to me before,” Nutt explains, “because for some reason I realized that was you.”
Perhaps it was the color of her hair. Red, she says. Auburn, he insists. (This is an ongoing debate between these two accomplished colorists.)
“In any case,” Nutt continues, “I got something and then walked straight back and introduced myself, and we immediately sat and talked. My memory is that there was a little spotlight or highlight on her face, and the look on her face, as I’ve learned, was a very typical smiling look.”
Nilsson, 20, was a third-year student. Having transferred from other schools, Nutt was required to retake courses; he was 22 and a first-year student.
“I was sort of intrigued by him, and I thought he was cute,” Nilsson recalls. “We didn’t have any classes in common, but I was hoping to run into him at some point, and there he was.”
“Do you remember what the conversation was about?” I ask.
“Unfortunately, yes, we do,” Nutt says.
“Oh, it was so coy,” Nilsson admits.
“Well, I had this little nugget of information about a study that had been done about carrots and eyesight,” Nutt says. “It was commonly known that carrots assisted your eyesight. And apparently, in studying this with truck drivers, what was discovered was that it wasn’t so much the chemicals that gave you good eyesight but the indigestion that kept you awake.”
“This is such a seductive story,” I say.
“As it turned out, it really worked,” Nutt explains. “She was just the right person to share this with.”
“Because I ate a lot of carrots,” Nilsson says.
“It was also probably an example of my social skills after moving every two years,” Nutt says, referring to his family’s peripatetic lifestyle.
“One or the other of us had a plate with terrible-looking chicken legs that were boiled, as opposed to crisp,” Nilsson says. “So it was this paltry skin, mashed potatoes, and carrots. And I think it was the carrots that started the conversation.”
And what happened after that first meeting?
“We started seeing each other immediately,” Nutt says.
Six months later, on July 1, 1961, they were married in a small chapel on the campus of Northwestern University. Nilsson wore a white dress with pouffy sleeves and a square neckline; Nutt wore a gray-green summer suit.
Did they consider living together and not getting married?
“That was not an option,” Nilsson says. “Not with my parents. No, we wanted to get married. He proposed, and I said yes.”
Nilsson and Nutt finished school and, in 1964, began to exhibit their work in large group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, where they taught children’s classes. The following year, Nutt suggested a show with fewer artists and more works to Don Baum, the center’s exhibition director, and the raucous, irreverent group of six known as The Hairy Who took hold. Propelled by wit, wordplay, and talent, the artists—Art Green, James Falconer, Nilsson, Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—became a sensation both locally and nationally. As one critic observed, New York artists might be cool, but The Hairy Who were hot. After five exhibitions, the members went their own ways and achieved significant careers in their own right, but for each of them, that time remains extraordinary.
For Nilsson and Nutt, 2011 is a landmark year. From January 29th through May 29th, the Museum of Contemporary Art presents a retrospective of Nutt’s work entitled Jim Nutt: Coming into Character. Nutt is now 72, but those who know him well would say that he has always been a character. Last spring, Nilsson’s 70th birthday was acknowledged with a retrospective at Chicago’s Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. In July, Nutt and Nilsson will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary—all reasons to check in with the couple, review some scenes from their lives, and generally be nosy. And in Nutt’s portraits of women, the noses are large.
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Photograph: Anna Knott