Nancy Rosen has the enviable—but challenging—job of being the creative life force behind comedian Lily Tomlin’s character Frankie Bergstein, of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.
The Lincolnwood resident, who works out of a West Rogers Park studio, creates the visceral, colorful artwork featured throughout the series, perhaps most memorably in “The Art Show” episode, just released in season three. Rosen’s personality is not unlike her artwork, which features bold colors, thick brush strokes, and a certain level of humanity that comes from longtime artists like her.
It’s an aesthetic that the show’s creators chose to embody Frankie’s character—a hippie art teacher whose life is thrown into turmoil when her husband announces he is gay and intends to marry his lover, the husband of Jane Fonda’s character, Grace.
We sat down with Rosen last week, before the third season premiered, to discuss how she was chosen for the gig and how creating art for a fictional character is more creatively challenging and rewarding than one might expect.
How did Netflix get in touch with you?
One of my oldest and dearest friends, and how I know my husband, is Robbie Tollin, and she is the executive producer of the show. When they were looking for Frankie’s art, everyone from the show threw their friends’ art in the pile, and she threw my art in the pile. And then she called me.
I’ve made art my whole life and then all of the sudden this comes up. And so it’s like morphed now.
What is it like to create art for a show versus art for yourself?
I go to my studio, I think, and I make stuff. It’s always a Hollywood emergency; they need everything in days. When season two was done, they called and said Frankie was going to have a one-woman show, so that means Nancy Rosen is having a one-woman show. And it’s a big show—I mean, it’s big. Every time I thought it was done, they’d call and say, “Oh wait, one more thing—we need a nine by nine-foot painting of Estelle Parsons stitched together.” So I took it on.
For that particular piece, how long did that take you? Three days?
Yes. And I had to call in help to stitch it together. It’s been the most wonderful and challenging thing I’ve ever done. It’s fucking Lily Tomlin.
I was going to say!
I’ve met her a couple of times, and she’s so lovely and so wonderful. For Frankie’s solo show, my friend Robbie called me up and said, “So, wanna come to LA and be an extra in ‘your’ show?”
I was an extra in my own solo show that was my dream solo show. It’s my dream as an artist because I got to pull out all of these old pieces that haven’t been shown, and they hooked right into that. I’m an extra for four days, getting paid to look at my own artwork that was Frankie’s. It was a trip.
What’s it like to have a fictional character that’s sort of you but also not you?
When this whole thing started happening, they asked a lot of me. They asked if I have any art supplies. You know, brushes and stuff to make Frankie’s art studio look more authentic. So I just went around the studio and filled up a 60-pound box of all my stuff. I’d send the pens. I’d send all my little scraps. I sent the rags that I was using, I sent my aunt’s old stool. Just things to make a studio authentic. So the studio on the show is actually modeled after my studio. When I watch the show, I see some of my favorite, favorite things. To see Lily/Frankie doing that is kind of even better than seeing my art, because it’s the things that make art.
What other things have they asked of you that’s unconventional?
[Series creator] Marta Kauffman is tough. She’s brilliant and she knows what she wants. My husband David and I were going to a road trip to Montana and I got a call saying they needed one more thing to wrap up season three, so I quickly did six paintings before I left.
During the road trip, they called me and said, “OK, no, they don’t like anything.” I told my husband we had to stop. We got to North Dakota and thankfully there was a nice little space next to the bed. I got all my art supplies out, I made the thing and took pictures and sent it from a FedEx they chose. They got the painting and that was that.
Is it weird to work under such crazy pressure or constraints?
I love it. It’s so fun. I know all the pieces of the puzzle to get things done, and it’s with the most lovely people to work with.
Now I ask, “What would Frankie do? How would Frankie do this?” It’s been really fun to collaborate.