Alexandria, VA – Photographer, mosaic artist, and Alexandria Living Legend Nina Tisara has never indulged in routine idle moments. She finds inspiration for her art through the natural world while walking in the woods or in spiritual engagement at her church. Both serve as her temples.
Despite closures due to the coronavirus, Nina’s work is in two exhibits open to the public. “No Fabric/No Rules” spotlights creative alternatives to the traditional quilting medium and patterns. Inclusion was by invitation only at the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg.
The second exhibit is “Witnessing Worship: A Photographic Study of Faith in Alexandria” at The Lyceum in Old Town. In 1985, Nina documented 50 worship groups throughout the City of Alexandria. These 106 images are a portrait of Alexandria’s worship community at that time. She called her project “Converging Paths” because she concluded from it that, despite the many different paths worship takes, “we are all kin.”
September 2020 marks the On Exhibit column’s fourth anniversary at The Zebra Press. To celebrate, On Exhibit interviewed Nina Tisara about her art, her faith, and her hope for the future.
Zebra: This is not the first time that your Witnessing Worship images have been exhibited. What makes this latest showing of the photographs on exhibit different?
Nina Tisara: I think you are asking why, after all these years, is Converging Paths/Witnessing Worship back at The Lyceum? Two years ago I donated the original prints and digital files to the Office of Historic Alexandria. This year, Kristin Lloyd (Acting Director of Alexandria History Museum at The Lyceum) said she would like to do an exhibit on Converging Paths seen through the lens of the history of documentary photography and asked if I would like to be involved. I said, Yes!
Zebra: What compelled you 35 years ago to document the rich diversity of faiths from around the world in Alexandria?
NT: I am a Unitarian Universalist and my children went to Unitarian Sunday School. My eldest son David moved to California when he graduated from high school. When he returned to visit, he was carrying a Bible and quoting scripture.
When I was introduced to the UU (Unitarian Universalist) faith in my late twenties, I thought I had been one all my thinking life, I just never knew there was a name for it.
The Unitarian church began in the 1600s. The name differentiated it from the Trinitarian churches that worshiped a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unitarians believed in One God, rather than a Trinity. The Unitarian Church merged with the Universalist Church in 1961. Universalists believed that all would be “saved” rather than a select few.
Although UU roots are in the Abrahamic tradition—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (followers of the prophet Abraham and his descendants)—modern day Unitarian Universalism, despite its name, does not promote belief in either One God or Universal Salvation. It focuses on issues like social justice and working to address climate change.
Simply put, I didn’t know how to talk to David. I thought if we were going to find a way to communicate, it was up to me to find the way. I chose to use the tool literally in my hand—my camera. People have asked me what happened with David and me. Neither of us converted the other but we did come to a place of loving acceptance. David died of cancer in 2008. He was 47 years old. He died believing he would go to the arms of Jesus.
Zebra: Nina, you are known for your studio, Tisara Photography [now managed by Steven Halperson, Nina’s son]. But you have turned off the light in the darkroom to work exclusively on mosaic art. What of your experiences as a photographer have you carried into creating your mosaics?
NT: I loved working in the darkroom. I loved the quiet and the concentration required to make what I considered a good print. Both my early experience in art (I majored in sculpture at the High School of Music and Art in New York City) and my work in photography carried into my mosaic art. The method I was taught for mosaics, a double reverse process, allows me to shape and refine my designs until I feel they’re right. The darkroom was in many ways my sanctuary. Now, the concentration required for creating mosaics gives me much the same feeling as working in my darkroom.
Zebra: How has your own faith journey guided your personal vision and creative process in all aspects of your life?
NT: When I was a high school art student, I was gobsmacked by the photo exhibition “Family of Man” organized by Edward Steichen, director of the New York City Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography. The images and the overarching message almost imprinted on my brain.
Years later, working on Converging Paths, I heard a passage that brought me back to that theme. It came from the Hebrew Book of Poems and Prayers and included these words, “This is the fact of human oneness, one species, one living kin. How insignificant are the differences between us against the mountainous identities of this one family of time and earth….” This is the message that I try to say over and over again with my photographs, my mosaics, my writing, and in my relationships with people.
Zebra: In this capsizing time of panic and uncertainty you have had two exhibits waylaid by coronavirus closures. The Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg invitational exhibit reopened only recently after the March closure. You seem undeterred by limited exhibit hours and indeterminate delays. How do you maintain composure in the face of such roadblocks? What is your inspiration for hope?
NT: I like that word “capsizing.” Who was it who said, “I’ll find a way or make one?” [Nina found it later: It was Hannibal about crossing the Alps with elephants.] But more seriously, I try to keep in mind the “Serenity Prayer” by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. According to Wikipedia, the original words said “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
Zebra: You are the founder of the Living Legends of Alexandria, a Living Legend yourself, a photojournalist, photographer, writer, businesswoman, mosaicist, mother, member and exhibiting artist at the Art League and Del Ray Artisans with an ongoing exhibit at both the Lyceum and the Virginia Quilt Museum. What’s next for you?
NT: That’s a hard one. I don’t see more projects in the years I have left. I want to walk gently on this earth. I want my artworks to be messages of peace.
“No Fabric/No Rules,” curated by former Torpedo Factory gallery director Trudi Van Dyke, was scheduled to be on exhibit at the Virginia Quilt Museum, 301 South Main Street, Harrisonburg, until September 5. Due to reopening only recently, VQM exhibits may be extended. Check the website (www.vaquiltmuseum.org) or phone the museum (540-433-3818.)
“Witnessing Worship: A Photographic Study of Faith in Alexandria” will run through November 1, 2021. The Lyceum, 201 South Washington Street, is currently running with limited capacity and reduced hours. Timed-ticketing, face masks, and social distancing protocols are required. Tickets are free for Alexandria residents and $3 for others. The exhibit is also available in part online.