By Lia Shaw
“The desire to be creative is in all of us,” says Peggy Levison Nolan.
This weekend the two-time alumna will have her first solo exhibition at the Frost Art Museum FIU. Titled “Blueprint for a Good Life,” the show dives into Nolan’s earlier works of black and white photography.
Born and raised in Albany, New York, Nolan was no stranger to the art of picture-taking as her grandfather was a photographer in Brooklyn and had a darkroom in his basement. Nolan dabbled in photography when she was younger, but it didn’t become a serious part of her life until she was well into her 40s.
Nolan’s first subjects were her family, among them seven children she raised as a single mother. “I wanted to have a big family for sure. As many kids as I could possibly have,” she says. “I think it's because I would have this gene pool of people that really liked each other and liked to hang out with each other.”
When her children were younger, the family lived in a housing project in the Naranja neighborhood of Homestead. Alongside their house was a huge field planted with beans. The majority of those who harvested and packed them were women from Haiti, Nolan remembers.
“I started taking portraits of these women, not necessarily picking beans, just in the field. In the beginning, many people were resistant—thinking that I worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” Nolan recalls. “If anybody gave me permission to photograph them, I ran home to my little darkroom to develop the pictures, then I returned to the field and gave them the prints.” This process helped her build trust with the workers, which comes through in the photographs.
Viewers of Nolan’s photographs will grasp her appreciation for family and community. The artist’s work reflects a sense of organic realness as it captures unposed subjects and unplanned scenes. Mainly family members, her subjects often came with a unique set of challenges. As Nolan explained, there can be tension between mothering and making art—especially, when the subject is one’s own child or grandchild.
Nolan's artistic instincts often took precedence over her maternal ones, she admits of her desire to record the moment. “I have compromised myself more than once,” she says. “I was always in my kids' business, I stuck my camera right in there.”
Even as she used photography to dive deeper into her own world, Nolan harnessed her talent in the service of FIU. For more than two decades, she managed the university's photography lab and eventually taught film photography as an adjunct professor.
In “Blueprint for a Good Life,” the artist shares portraits of her family during the '80s and '90s when, she says, “My house was the hangout for a lot of teenagers and the couch was never empty.” Her photographs convey familial comfort and intimacy as they depict a large family sharing a small space.
“The obsession to describe something through a camera was partly so that my family could understand how it felt to be in their life,” Nolan says, adding that she hopes viewers take a strong sense of family with them after viewing her work.