John Nava, Entrepreneurial Artist

By Sheryl Hamlin

Two minutes of John Nava’s gallery talk at the Santa Paula Art Museum on July 9, 2015 revealed just why he had been a tenured professor. Charming, engaging and devoid of hubris, Nava laces his talks with a sense of humor and many contemporary references from popular culture. And the packed, standing audience loved it.









He took questions from the audience on diverse topics. One about his education took him back to Florence where he got his MFA. His teacher was an important artist who did not want to drive far from town, so he held lectures in the famous Uffizi Museum where the professor opened drawers of invaluable drawings by da Vinci and others for discussion purposes. Nava said with a smile … “imagine art history without slides! …” which of course drew a collective smile from the audience.

He opened his talk by saying that thirty years ago he quit his job as a tenured professor, so had been out of work for 30 years! A statement of irony, of course, but the statement allowed him to transition into how the need for work took him to new forms of art: movie sets, portraits, and eventually tapestries. The tapestry story in itself showed his true entrepreneurial spirit.

The acoustics of a new building under design were deemed poor, so the architects were forced to cover the walls with fabric. Tapestry was suggested. Nava was a finalist in this project. He had never done tapestry before but said “of course I can do it” and proceeded to research tapestry production in the late 20th Century. His research took him to Brugge, Belgiam, a European city with a tradition of tapestry dating back centuries, where he found a small company with few employees and several high-tech computerized Jacquard knitting machines. Such machines are used for mass reproduction of tapestry in home décor, for example. The company had never considered doing art. Nava convinced the company that this project was worth their effort, so he began a multi-year quest to perfect the process.

Several major features differentiate Nava’s tapestries from other computer generated tapestries. First of all, his art is original and not based on ancient medieval pictures of dogs or queens. Secondly, the entire tapestry does not exist on paper. He assembles digitized versions of his paintings, including heads, bodies and backgrounds into Photoshop to achieve the right effect. Using this approach he can also change the direction of the objects in the tapestry as well in the event the hanging position of the tapestry needs to be changed. After Photoshop, the image is digitized into codes recognizable by the knitting machines using colors Nava selects for the threads.

This process is a brilliant marriage of technology, art and entrepreneurialism. The results are huge tapestries which can be produced in 9 hours or less by machine which might have taken years with a team of weavers in the old days. Interestingly enough, the large tapestry shown in part below was a prototype to which some changes were made to improve the final work.

He paints portraits of ordinary people who may eventually become saints, like the picture below of the saints on display at the Santa Paula Art Museum. These are contemporary faces in an ecclesiastical setting which is appealing to contemporary worshipers. He supposedly put the head of Gregory Nava, his brother and famous Hollywood director, in one piece of art. And again, showing his self-effacing humor, Nava described his brother as the “…smart one who went to Hollywood…”.

It was remarked from those who had toured the Cathedral in Los Angeles where the tapestries are hung that the figures in the tapestries appeared to approach or come near as they passed by them. Nava said that was intentional. It was noted by someone in the audience that this is exactly the opposite of the ancient cathedrals in which the massive saints are supposed to be humbling to the human supplicant.


Questions about his style led him to discuss art “isms”, such as cubism, romanticism, impressionism and modernism. He said that before 1980 every artist belonged to an “ism” school of painting. After that time, art become more eclectic issuing forth the term “post-modernism”, because “modernism” was the last recognizable “ism”. His favorite painting is a 2005 work done in situ at an Ojai DVD store. He says this work is already a “period piece” because the industry is gone and the movies depicted have achieved cult status.


This exhibition will be on display through November 8, 2015. Do not miss it. Santa Paula Art Museum.


Sheryl Hamlin: With an MS in Industrial Engineering, Sheryl Hamlin spent years in technology with stints at Motorola, Tandem Computers and various startups. She has been on the boards of neighborhood organizations both in San Francisco and Palm Springs where planning issues were her specialty. She now resides in Santa Paula and loves the historic fabric of the city.  Ms. Hamlin’s blog Stealth Fashion  and  technology product ‘ Plug and Play Webmaster’.

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