Austin’s legendary Nail women, from left, Katy Nail, Leslie Nail, Frances Nail and Carrie Rodriguez. Photo by Jim Swift.
Artist Katy Nail putters about in her morning garden alone, wearing pajamas and bearing a warm cup of coffee. She’s thinking, waiting for her mind to click in.
After a bit, she heads inside to her studio, one of five interconnected domes that form her home in the Lake Hills woods close to Commons Ford Ranch. Paintings are everywhere, stacked up and leaning against the walls. Photos are taped to surfaces all around the room – images of places she has been – Big Bend National Park, Peru and New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. Photographs to remind her of what it felt like to be there.
In the last 10 years, human figures have pretty much disappeared from Katy’s paintings. Captured on her canvases now are landscapes of remote gorges and deserts, spiritual essays of the environment. Stories that reveal rocks with embedded animal shapes and animal energy.
“I look at the world very differently than a lot of other people,” she said. “I had a lot of spiritual experiences tied to nature when I was younger. That makes you different. I see the energy swirling around. I see colors broken down in the light.”
For 35 years, Katy has been wining the hearts and acclaim of some of the best art critics in the state.
“Katy Nail is an Austin original,” said Dana Friis-Hansen, executive director of the Austin Museum of Art. “She loves our land and incorporates her intense study of the appearance of nature into all her work and always seems to weave in some of its magic too.”
Katy picks up a paintbrush, dabs it into thick oil paint and begins adding yellow to a corner of her canvas. She doesn’t seem to be looking at her painting. She’s thinking about energy – the energy of people, of places and of animals. She’s lost in a world of swirls and colors, a world where time loses all power.
“I mix my colors, my hands are going, but I’m almost not even looking at what I’m doing,” Katy said. “The best artists paint with their hearts and their souls and their hands. Minds can get in the way.”
Katy grew up in Houston. She got a master’s of fine arts at Sam Houston State University and studied in Mexico, Peru and Europe. Her works hang in private collections in North America and Europe. She’s won too many awards to list. Twice, she dominated year-long art exhibits at Austin City Hall.
“You keep wanting to paint because your vision stands out so strongly in your mind,” she said. “You can’t shake it out. It keeps coming back to haunt you – sometimes as a story, sometimes as a scene from the natural world. Finally, you just paint it. It’s like going down a path. Things are presented to you as you go. If you don’t paint them, then they aren’t presented to you anymore.”
Standing in her studio, paintbrush in hand, she may be floating freely in her own zone, but Katy is also tightly knit into a creative tapestry known as the Nail women. She’s the famous painter. Her mother, Frances Nail, is the famous author. Her sister, Leslie Nail is the poet, respected editor and the practical brains behind the dynasty. Katy’s daughter, Carrie Rodriguez, is the famous singer and songwriter. If you stand in the middle of the room at any Nail family gathering and throw a dart, you are going to hit serious talent.
“The Nail women, they are a unit, a collective thing,” said John Aielli, host of KUT’s Eklektikos program and friend of the family. “The relationship between all four of them is unique. There’s a bond, a very strong bond.”
Where does all that Nail genius come from? It’s the age-old question, “Nature or nurture?” To find the answer, perhaps it is best to go to the source, 86-year-old matriarch, Frances.
The accidental author
“It’s strange when I think about it sometimes – all that talent,” Frances said. “It’s amazing really. They just did it on their own. I always thought kids needed to be left alone to do whatever they pleased. Kids get very inventive when they are left to entertain themselves – when they aren’t pushed or prodded.”
Frances knows a lot about talent. For decades, she painted. At age 70, she began writing with the clear distinctive voice of a masterful storyteller and a keen sense of humor.
“I accidentally wrote a book,” Frances said. “I was just writing down stories that we used to tell for my kids and my nephews and nieces. I wrote one down, and it was pretty good. So I did some more. People liked them.”
Someone put one of Frances’ essays into the hands of Aielli. He loved it and had her read it on the air. When she came out of the studio, there was a woman waiting for her who wanted to turn Frances’ stories into a book.
“They were an immediate smashing hit,” Aielli said. “She brought her character as the storyteller right into your face. She’s 100 percent the real McCoy. There’s no [bull] about Frances.”
Frances kept on writing. She now has four books of essays to her name. They include introductory poems by Leslie, drawings by Katy and two audio versions that showcase musical interludes by Carrie. Frances has been a featured writer at the Texas Book Festival and Author of the Month at BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas. In 2005, Austin diva Karen Kuykendall did a one-woman play based on Frances that won the actor a B. Iden Payne award.
“Frances isn’t just a person who can tell a good story about something that happened,” Aielli said. “She’s a philosopher, a very profound observer of life.”
Katy remembers and appreciates the freedom her artistic mother allowed her.
“She would let me go in her studio and get out her oil paints without messing with me much,” she said. “She’d just leave me in there and let me find my own way.”
When she was very young, Katy started sketching animals from her Brer Rabbit book. By 7 or 8, she was doing portraits of her grandmother.
The business end of talent
Like her sister, Leslie also remembers being left to find her own passions as a young child and growing up in an environment that valued creativity and the arts. Leslie was born with a gift for words.
“The most creative moments you have are the ones that come when you don’t have anything to do,” she said. “The freedom of time to fill up, that’s where creativity is born.”
Leslie began writing poetry at a young age but decided to take a more practical route with her love of words.
“You don’t get paid as a poet,” she said wryly. “You have to have your life where you get paid and your life where you write.”
For years, she taught composition and American literature. She worked for a nonprofit organization and as a graphic designer. All of that gave her the experience for what she does today – editing and publishing.
“I don’t consider myself the writer; I’m the fine tuner,” she said.
Words and music
Talent doesn’t skip any generations in the Nail family. Daughter of Katy and legendary singer-songwriter David Rodriguez, internationally acclaimed Carrie was discovered by Chip Taylor at South By Southwest in 2001. The two musicians made five successful albums together and recently put out a new release, “Best of the Trainwreck Years.”
At 32, Carrie has released 11 albums. Released in April, “Love and Circumstance” earned the No. 20 spot on the year-end Americana Top 100 Chart and rose to No. 2 on the Folk Chart. She has a new CD due out this year with Ben Kyle and will trek through three tours, including a long European one starting in April.
Like the other Nail women, Carrie seemed to be born with uncanny talent.
“At the age of 3, the two of us would wander through the house making up songs about things around us,” David said. “She would sing perfectly in pitch and in rhythm with the guitar.”
Genetics probably plays some part in artistic talent, Carrie said. But she also remembers the impact of early exposure to music – the Uncle Walt concerts her mom took her to when she was 4, and an Itzak Peroman concert at UT that she and Katy attended when she was 5.
“Developing a gift goes beyond talent,” Carrie said. “It takes having people to look up to and an environment to grow up in. When I was growing up, I just thought being an artist was a normal thing to do.”
All the Nail women appreciate the gifts they have been given and the support they receive from each other.
“I don’t know if any artist ever starts out thinking that what they have is special,” Katy said. “But, at some point, you realize it is a gift. You are just so grateful to be able to do it. I have begun to see my whole life as a gift. The artistic way I live my life is a gift. What I do in the studio is just the culmination.”
Frances is proud of all her Nail clan.
“Their talent makes them interesting people, but they are interesting people even without it,” she said. “In fact, I’m proudest of them because they have a lot of fun together, and they love one another. One of the most important things to know is how to have a good time. You can go a long way in life if you know what to laugh about and what not to.”