The Metarealism of Nancy Witt: An introduction to the work of Nancy Witt

Since 1970 Nancy Witt has lived and worked in Hanover County, Virginia, in a historic grist mill which she and her family renovated and now operate as a gallery. She was a co-founder of Jungian Venture, the Jungian society in Richmond.


The following is an excerpt from Jungian analyst James Hollis's new book The Archetypal Imagination (Texas A & M University Press, 2000) and is printed here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

In speaking on several occasions to the Richmond, Virginia, Jungian society, I have had the privilege of staying in the home of Nancy Witt, one of the group's founders, in Ashland, Virginia. Nancy lives in a nineteenth-century mill, over a stream and a waterwheel, beside a pond, in some of the most historic land of our nation. When I first visited Richmond and walked into that mill, I was stunned by the thirty-plus paintings that line the spacious wall of two floors and create not only a museum effect but also a sanctuary for meditation and reflection. Nancy has created a body of work over the last twenty-some years which incarnates a deeply religious and archetypal vision of eternity. Her favorite critical review came from an unlettered man who was helping unload her paintings for display at a conference in New Hampshire. This hotel worker went about and gathered other employees, and she overheard him say to them, "Come, you have to see these paintings. They are religious!" . . . .

Nancy Witt describes herself as a "metarealist," however. . . . Metarealism is an expression of primordial experience which then runs through the aesthetic alembic of the artist and thereby is ordered. But it arises out of a place which may be disordered and chaotic, which bespeaks the wild precincts of nature. The rending of the curtain allows us to see that, behind the curtain, there is another world of appearances, and behind that another world as well. One who is drawn to do this work has no choice, actually, for as Jung writes, "for all the freedom of [the artist's] life and the clarity of his thought, he is every where hemmed around and prevailed upon by the Unconscious, the mysterious god within him, so that ideas flow to him-he knows not whence, he is driven to work and create—he knows not to what end, and is mastered by an impulse for constant growth and development he knows not whither."


Nancy labors in her studio every day but Sunday from at least 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Why? Because she has to. She told me that she plans to work in this way until she dies because there is so little time and so many images are clamoring for her attention. She told me that very rarely has she begun a painting with an idea in mind. More often she has simply been drawn to an object and then she begins to see through the object to the worlds behind it. Or she has a certain "feeling state" and looks for images which will some how incarnate that state.

Four Paintings by Nancy Witt

Years ago I was reading a novel by Laurence Durrell and came across the word "metarealism." It hit me immediately that the word described my work. I knew I wasn't a "surrealist"—they didn't seem to believe in anything. And although I wasn't sure what I believed, I knew there was an order beyond my knowing. Beyond: that's one of the meanings of the Greek word "meta." Paradoxically, it also means alongside. And among. And between.What I take metarealism to mean as far as my work is concerned, is that we experience two forms of "reality," one beyond and at the same time alongside the other.

Second Opening 1989 24 x 30"

I think of some of the paintings as altars. Many of these contain mirrors. Paintings can be mirrors. Mirrors reflect. Reflections, if we can see/hear them, give voice to things not otherwise visible. I find that it is a voice I hear with my eyes, or more accurately, one that I see with my ears.

Sue's Fan 1988 48" x 48"

I was blocked, burned out, nothing looked good enough to paint. That was so frustrating that I took the newly stretched canvas that wouldn't speak to me and slashed it. Then I decided to paint that, sitting on my easel as you see it. From there grew the painting with the skylights as they were then and the staghorn ferns I've had for so long, presiding over my boxed condition. Now, when I look at the image I can fall in love with painting again.

When Power Fails 1981 62" x 62"

A work of art is like a dream, for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous . . . .To grasp its meaning we must allow it to shape us as it shaped [the artist].

C. G. Jung

Windows 1990 34" x 44"

About the Painter

With more than 50 one-person shows to her credit, Nancy Witt enjoys a growing national reputation. Her paintings have been included and won awards in over 60 exhibitions from New York to California. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of numerous corporate and private collections.

Nancy Witt's book, On Alternate Days, from which the images above have been reproduced, is available at Cross Mill Gallery, 13405 Independence Road, Ashland, VA 23005-7212. For more information send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.