Art is sculptor Fried's life Profile: From doomed relationships to the loss of a breast, she carves every intimate, painful detail into her work.

March 31, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Sculptor Nancy Fried stands before a small crowd of students at Goucher College, ready to talk about her art. Which means she's ready to talk about herself.

Click. Fried shows a slide of two women in a flamboyantly decorated bathroom, one is bathing while the other stands near the tub. "Don't you love baths?" Fried asks the audience.

"It's interesting that the two women are not in the bath tub together." Perhaps, she ponders aloud, her art was trying to tell her something. Fried was the model for the woman in the bathtub. She was in a relationship with the woman standing nearby. The relationship, of course, was doomed.

Click. Now here's a slide of a woman sitting in a room, head down, looking morose. This piece of art also represents Fried, and the room is the "jail" her childhood had become.

Click. Here are slides of torsos. Most are headless, all have one breast. Again, Fried is the model, having undergone a radical mastectomy of the right breast. The pieces are arresting, almost like coming onto the scene of a car accident and being unable to look away. Turns out there are many one-breasted, headless torsos in the sculptor's collection, pieces that have won her a great deal of attention and critical acclaim. Some appear to be grossly overweight. Their hands are often clutched to their chests, while one notable piece is cradling two heads.

The audience of mostly young female students is quiet, their eyes riveted to the screen. Sometimes, when things get a little too intimate, some eyes focus on the artist instead of what she is showing.

If Fried is aware of their discomfort, she doesn't show it. She carries on cheerfully, filling the room with her energy. Her free-wheeling conversations bounce all over the place from mastectomies to masturbation to the details of her brief marriage.

"By the time you leave, you will know every little intimate detail about me," the 51-year-old Fried tells her audience. "It's what I do."

Her life has been a journey of pain, suffering and joy. And she is willing to tell it all. That's what art is to Fried, a manifestation of life, and everything it brings. Art, like life, is meant to be shared.

"A lot of people are going to look at my work and think it is about breast cancer," she says. "And, yes, I am in just about every breast cancer book. But I am also absolutely mainstream. My work is classical, very classical. It just happens to be one breast there."

Critics have called her sculptures "illuminating and humbling." Her work can be seen in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Pieces are included in different traveling exhibits both nationally and internationally. They are reproduced in art magazines and books. Broadcaster Bill Moyers discussed her work as part of his notable "Healing and the Mind" series on PBS. In May, she's having a show at the DC Moore Gallery in New York.

"Her work is powerful and emotionally difficult," says Gail Husch, the art professor who arranged for Fried's visit to Goucher. "Yet, there is strength there."

Although the one-breasted torsos have made her a name in the art world, Fried says she is taking the same approach to her work as she always has.

"My work has always been autobiographical. Someone said, 'When are you going to get beyond that?' I am beyond that. Why do people see one breast and always think in terms of breast cancer? This is just a body. My body."

Nancy Fried is a tiny woman, having lost the weight depicted in some of the work. Her long dark hair is pulled back into a huge, puffy pony tail.

This day she is in a loose gray cropped sweater and black stretch pants, although she has a penchant for wearing tight tops. She mentions this because some people think it is a remarkable act for a one-breasted woman who refuses to wear a prosthesis.

"The 31B, $350 blob" is just too darn uncomfortable, says Fried.

"I did wear one for three months," she says. But "putting it on said I wasn't OK the way I was."

She recounts a story about how her one-breasted status almost got her in trouble.

"I was jogging and ran past this big man," she says. "He looked at me and shouted, 'Hey, didn't you lose something?' I turned around and did this." Fried places her thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart, indicating the size of his private anatomy. "Well, he immediately knew what that meant, and he came running after me! I had to run away from him! Can you imagine?"

She was raised in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a prominent doctor who, she says, abused her physically. She went away to college, the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a history major. She never took an art class in her life.

"I don't know about theory," she says. "To me art is about passion and soul."

After college, she took off on a cross-country trip with a friend and eventually landed in Northern California, living the hippie life.

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