LOVING IMAGINATION AND INTELLIGENT REBELLION
FOR THE SAKE OF MAKING REALLY GREAT ART
In a frog and scorpion world, Nicole Natale chooses frog every time.
By: Tony Felice, Ashlee Singleton
he world outside of the protective walls of Nicole Natale’s home may be in turmoil, but inside the only turmoil is in Natale’s whirlwind brain, where thoughts flutter about like bits of paper caught in a maelstrom. It’s 6:45 a.m. and the sunlight that peeks through the window frames her face like a cherubic metaphor for a light bulb going off. Natale’s wake up call is often her latest creation.
Some people collect memorabilia, some collect friends, still others collect experiences. Natale collects ideas and turns them into things. A prolific writer, producer and visual artist, Natale is the creator of more than 28 individual pieces of work: from documentary films, to books (some under a nom de plume) to Facebook groups set up to advance ideas about family, holidays, travel and food.
Famously reclusive, even before the global pandemic of 2020, Natale is less of an eccentric artist and more of an old soul, easily exhausted by minutiae, small talk, or insincerity. If you are one of the rare people who gets to meet Natale in person, you’ll find her a fascinating mix of stunning creativity peppered with small amounts of bravado, an obvious kind heart and one of those rare artists who can easily draw their boundaries and stick to them. One is reminded of Stanley Kubrik, also a famous reclusive and like Kubrick, Natale is more than the sum of her personality parts: easy to misunderstand her boundaries for ego, when in fact it’s an artist's sensibility. She knows that her creations, like all great ideas, are precious things that must be protected from the ill informed, the jaded or worse, the skeptical fool. Her creations are literally manifestations of her multiple dimensions as a human being, as a mother, as an artist, but more to the point; as an observer. While her creations are infused with humanity, there isn’t a lot of syrupy sentimentality or naive angst in her work. Natale is refreshingly honest, but equally as vulnerable. This lends an air of agelessness to her. Admittedly a francophile with a keen interest in pre-war Paris, Natale’s personal style feels timeless. Think French Vogue meets the Mad Hatter Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland.
In recent years Natale has withdrawn from more public life, in favor of concentrating on an artist's life as well as being a mother at a time of significant unrest in America. Her own childhood was a story of contrast. Up until this point it was really okay and fantastic.
Her hands flutter as she brushes hair away from her face when she frowns slightly when telling the story of what began as childhood disappointment. “Talk about a desert, the city we moved to was a cultural desert, barren of anything interesting whatsoever.”
The only culture taking shape at that time was the construction of the city’s first mall. Ballet, art classes, all were out of reach for being physically too far away. And then there was the matter of fitting into an environment that tried to define her in blunt, racist terms. Natale’s mother is Puerto Rican. Other kids told her that she was denying her Mexican heritage and ridiculed her for knowing nothing about Mexican food or culture. Kids would see her mother pick her up from school and ask blunt accusatory questions like “what are you?”
“I think that it's important that whenever something is communicated about my identity that the hispanic or latino aspect is included. Although I’ve had very conflicted experiences (not within my own family but with extended family) because I am so fair. There’s been the imposter syndrome associated with that. Living in Spain and learning about my heritage helped me gain clarity about where I come from.”
Her favorite childhood memory is being given a commemorative Disneyland tea set. She remembers the 4th birthday in the park as well as the decor and smell of the hotel. A unique combination of clenzer, air conditioning muskiness and shag carpet.
Her favorite childhood pastime was, quite obviously: reading. Reflective of her personality, Natale chose authors and subjects both different and strange in ways that are fascinating both in terms of darkness and light. This rings true when you consider authors like Hemmingway and Conan Doyle, and the short happy life of Francis Macomber. “They have this trope of the wife being domineering and the husband a coward, when he goes down to shoot that lion.” Such are the phrases that come from Natale, never just a straightforward boring answer. Always a clever, interesting and unexpected twist. Like pointing out tropes that stand in contrast to events themselves.
Her regimented upbringing fueled her imagination and her hunger for intelligent rebellion which she found in the characters and stories she was attracted to. She could often be found hiding in a closet or bathroom engrossed in a book. Quite like the classic story, Alice in Wonderland, her mind is constantly pulling things from the ethers in a fashion that resembles the childlike curiosity of Alice and the eclectic, unconventional manner of the MadHatter.
Natale always knew she’d be an author herself. She attributes this to two things: her love for the typewriter (she collects antique ones) and her love of a story. She wants to be listening to a story or telling a story and loves and appreciates details - as many as possible in fact. She admits to readily pressing her husband for more information: “I’ll be like where were you when you answered the phone, what did he sound like? If I’ve heard a story before I want you to stop and tell me the new stuff because I’m not interested anymore.” Her ability to live out loud is envious. Being able to be so blunt without concern of what others think is rare.
When asked about the first book that made her cry, she responds “I think I cry more now at my age on zoom calls than I have my entire life.” She added, “Where the Red Fern Grows, scarred me for life. I’m very sensitive and empathic, but you know, you could kill a hundred adults and if a dog dies I’m a wreck. Aliens can be blowing up whatever and some kid is in danger and I’m like, ‘what happened to the dog!’ I don’t want the alien to eat the dog!”
I ask her how she knew she was ‘creative.’ She laughs and answers “I think you repeatedly hear ‘that’s creative,’ or ‘let’s bring that back down to earth here,’ and you get a sense of how you are perceived by others. I was in ballet, I was in violin, in creative pursuits. There was no mastery!” She tries to admit in one of those sparkly moments of self-effacing criticism that reveals a deeper nature. “I don’t know how to play well, so I tortue people. I have two guitars and a piano. I make my kids take piano lessons and they both have their own ukuleles.
As for her ‘creative process,’ first, she’s smart enough and attuned to see the final product. “I’m a very pen to paper person, I’ll write out the list or notes to accomplish it, I’m constantly in the creative process. From the moment I open my eyes I’m in ‘the mode,’ I’m jotting notes down on pieces of paper or putting them in my phone, there’s a lot of ‘sending ships out into the world,’ I email myself and text myself ideas. My creativity comes with a fair amount of hubris and that’s why it's hard for me to look at all the projects I have going on and make a decision on what to do. There’s this thing that’s really hard and really important for me so I’m going to run a hundred miles in another direction to get people on board with another idea because I can’t see that project at the time, but the really hard one I can see very clearly. Everything is so next level with me. Conversations with my kids can turn into a whole suite of new creative devices.”
Currently in the works is a television project, a sequel to a previous novel, and three children’s books as well as unique funding mechanisms that can bring art to the world in a more expeditious manner.
In catching up with Natale prior to finishing this biography, she describes recently suffering a crushing betrayal from a friend. We talk at length about the highs and lows of life, as artists and business owners, how the devastating losses and stratospheric triumphs have persisted as key factors in our lives. I can relate so well to Natale, being an artist myself and a business owner. “It’s the frog and the scorpion life for me,” she said, referring to the Aesop fable wherein a scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The frog lets the scorpion climb on its back and then begins to swim. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: "I couldn't help it. It's in my nature."
We laugh at the symbolism of creating art for others, but often being stung by other humans, whether through greed, jealousy or pain. But we agree that highs and lows are a part of our process, it provides a deeper meaning for human existence. Such things are easier to contemplate in a locked down world, where we can draw our own boxes and boundaries in the comfort of our own spaces, feed our creativity and hubris, and imagine a world that is better because of it.
I like knowing that artists like Nicole Natale exist. And that I can relate to her and learn from her at the same time, gives me comfort. I marvel at her complexity, her shimmering conflicting personality traits that are easy to misunderstand (and take advantage of sadly), and I know that whatever her madness, I embrace it as my own. And frankly, it’s important to live all dimensions of life as fully as one has the strength and courage to try. In order to breathe life into characters that are believable and striking, one needs to be bold, have a certain amount of levity to disarm people when strong statements come, and of course, time away from the maddening crowds, tucked in with pieces of paper, and ideas that turn into something meaningful.
I honor the conflicting magic of putting it all out there while hoarding privacy and speaking plainly. I mean really, how on earth can anyone create anything worth a damn, if they don’t?
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