The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Assemblage artist creates object-based art

T-R PHOTO BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ Local artist Nancy Adams creates assemblages — a three-dimensional art form that combines items — often everyday objects — together to convey a message or theme. The art form dates back at least 100 years with Pablo Picasso’s three-dimensional creation “Still Life 1914.” Here, Adams is pictured in her art studio on her property in rural Melbourne.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series profiling artists in Marshalltown and the surrounding area, discovering what inspires and propels their creativity.

MELBOURNE — As a native of the Chicago suburbs, Nancy Adams grew up with a deep appreciation of art, regularly visiting museums and art institutes, although she never classified herself as an artist. Today, she creates assemblages — a three-dimensional art form that combines items, often everyday objects — together to convey a message or theme. The art form dates back at least 100 years with Pablo Picasso’s three-dimensional creation “Still Life 1914.”

“My mom in particular was passionate about the fine arts and creative in many ways,” Adams said. “She taught me visual literacy.”

She recalled how her mother started her own school-based art appreciation program, whereby she would volunteer her time giving art presentations to students.

“It was called ‘Picture Lady.’ This is really how I first saw the marriage of art and education,” the artist explained.

But it wasn’t until her college years at Eastern Illinois University that Adams began receiving compliments about her creative endeavors.

“I fancied myself an art appreciator. I took art history classes and had artists friends,” Adams recalled. “I definitely had a creative outlet with my doll (especially Barbie) and object-based creations, but I didn’t think of it as art. I made stuff. I had limited exposure [to non-traditional art forms]. An artist to me was someone who could draw or paint, and I did not.”

Adams got a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, with a minor in art history. She then earned a Master of Arts degree in school psychology. She worked as a psychologist for eight years at Marshalltown High School before landing her current position at Marshalltown Community College as a professor of psychology. She also writes children’s books, her most recent entitled “Transatlantic Bunny.”

But it wasn’t until the last 10 years that Adams began calling herself an artist.

“I so respected the arts, so I didn’t feel that I had earned the label, but people in my life that came from the outside in, would call me an artist,” Adams said. “It took courage to exhibit my work in front of people who knew me, and then I entered juried shows (where art is judged before it can be included in a show) where people who didn’t know me accepted the work.”

How does Adams define assemblage art?

“It’s a constellation of found objects, chosen to represent an idea that may or may not be related to the original intent. The parts create a whole that none of them could do individually,” she explained. “I take things that are broken, dirty or cease to function as they were supposed to, and repurpose them.”

The artist said she puts her assemblage work in four categories: autobiographical, grief, irony/humor and social commentary.

She has created pieces reflecting her views on the current administration, religion, beauty standards, the treatment of animals, and more, inside her art studio on her property in rural Melbourne.

“My work is conceptional in nature and the titles I give to my artwork are rather key to the understanding,” she said.

An assemblage she completed in 2016 had its inspiration rooted over 30 years in the past. Adams reflected that while she was in college, in 1982, she signed up to participate in a “write to a prisoner” program.

“I wrote him one letter, and he wrote one back, but I never wrote to him again,” she said.

She knew the inmate, Jimmie Wayne Jeffers, was on death row for murdering his girlfriend out of revenge for her giving the police information about his heroin trafficking.

“For years I didn’t know if he was dead or alive, had been executed or was still in prison,” she noted. “It was when I found his letter to me, that it got me on the path of wanting to explore this, and give a face to a person on death row and to his victim.”

After she did a Google search for the prisoner, she learned he had been executed by the State of Arizona in 1995.

The assemblage Adams created about this incident depicts a man in an orange jumpsuit (a Ken doll) awaiting lethal injection behind bars (a wire cage). She also incorporated a copy of the man’s letter into the artwork. She calls the piece: “He Killed and He Died in a Fit of Anger.”

What are some of the difficulties in being an assemblage artist?

“Finding the right tools and materials can be a challenge,” she said. “You have to do visual problem solving, editing, clarity of intent, and work with and master the materials … And you want people to understand the meaning behind your work; you don’t want the material to be alienating or obtuse.”


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or

If you know someone willing to share what inspires him/her to be an artist, contact this writer at the information provided.