Diana Nielsen likes to try new things. For her, a new thing was art. She was retired and 72 years old when Mather’s-More than a Café opened near her. It offered a lot of programs for seniors, and Diana signed up for an art class, hoping she could draw a little.

In her own words, “That soon fell apart, because I couldn’t. The other ladies were whizzes, doing these nice things… The teacher was very nice. I said to her, ‘I can’t paint or draw. Can I try collage?’ ” The teacher showed her many approaches to making collages.

So Diana does not have a great deal of professional training. When asked if there are any particular artists that inspire her, she says flatly, “No.” She explains that before the Mather’s classes she didn’t have much opportunity over the years to look at works of art and no affection for visual art.

Photo by Carma Lynn Park
Photo by Carma Lynn Park

Now Diana works out of her basement, where she keeps her “treasures.”  She uses materials from a variety of sources, including items she finds or is given. “In one old newspaper you can find so many interesting things.”

Diana’s natural sense of design, texture, and color—and her wit—are evident in her work and the intuitive way she approaches it. She explains her working process with, “I just see things,” and, “I just make my stuff.”

She made a collage of notes written by a friend to her husband. She cut them into cellos—the friend was a famous composer—and shaped them into a wreath. She said, “A plane didn’t look as interesting.”

During the month of June she will be in two Northwest Side art exhibits simultaneously, one a solo show at the Austin-Irving Library, the other a group show at Perkolator coffee house.

"Henry's Bed Warmers" by Diana Nielsen

One of my favorite collages is at the library, “Henry’s Bed Warmers.” It includes a picture of King Henry VIII, pictures of his six wives, and an actual bedwarmer—an item that used to be filled with coals and put into beds to warm them before use. It is a witty commentary on Tudor history and King Henry’s lusts and his efforts to obtain a male heir.

Frank Styburski, a professional Northwest Side artist, says of Diana’s work that much of it shows “good humor.”

Diana grew up in Wales. During World War II, she had to leave high school to work at the railroad. She enjoyed sending Morse code messages. Then she went to nursing school in Bristol, England, a big city after the tiny Welsh town she was familiar with. “We had wild fun.” After she graduated from nursing school, she went to midwifery school. She estimates that she has helped bring over 200 babies into the world.

I imagine that she has a strong tactile sense which explains her enjoyment of Morse code, nursing/midwifery, and collage, which involves handling a variety of items and textures.

After the war, she decided to join the Royal Air Force as a nurse. “There was good traveling.” She was posted to Germany and enjoyed a lot of social life there. She also lived in Canada. At one point she saw an ad for a midwife in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She met her husband there, and they adopted their daughter. After many years social and political problems motivated them to move to Chicago.

The Austin-Irving Library is currently featuring her collages in the display cases near the entrance. The large image above, taken by Nina Kuzniak, shows Diana gazing at one of the cases. Below is a view of the other case.

Photo by Frank Styburski
Photo by Frank Styburski

A Shot of Art at Perkolator’s upcoming show, Ladies with Scissors, will be on display June 1st through July 31st. Sara Peak Convery curates this exhibition series. Besides Diana’s work, the show will include collages by Cara Therrio, Laura Collins, Lorca Jolene, and Alyson Voss Paumier.

When the show is up we will be including some photos. Watch this space!

You can meet the artists on Sunday, June 5th at Perkolator from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Come say hello and enjoy coffee and a treat.

Austin-Irving Public Library
6100 W. Irving Park Rd.

Perkolator Coffee
6032 W. Irving Park Rd.

Large image at top—photo taken by Nina Kuzniak