It’s common these days to come across television characters who are artists, or try their hand at artmaking. How could one forget Homer Simpson’s brief stint as a sought-after outsider sculptor? Or Friday Night Lights’s Matt Saracen, who put down the football and picked up drawing, or Don Draper’s bohemian painter girlfriend Midge, from Season 1 of Mad Men (okay, fair enough if you forgot her).
The plots are fictional, but the works of art ostensibly made by these characters clearly aren’t. Animated shows aside, there have to be real artists creating paintings that go on to be attributed to the hand of the actor who just plays them on TV. So what’s it like to paint a work of art for a television show?
That’s a question I put to Chicago artist Nancy Rosen. You may not recognize her name, but if you’re a fan of the hit Netflix show “Grace and Frankie,” you’ll recognize her work. Rosen’s behind the the figurative oil paintings, done with a quasi-German Expressionist bent, that are attributed to the fictional Frankie Bergstein.
Played by Lily Tomlin, Bergstein is a painter and one half of the titular duo, alongside Grace Hanson (played by Jane Fonda). The two opposites form an unlikely friendship when, after 20 years of marriage, their respective husbands come out as gay and are romantically involved.
Behind the scenes, Rosen keeps up with an arduous schedule to create Bergstein’s art. This is a key difference between the art she makes for the show, and her personal painting practice, which grants her a slower pace. Beyond depicting the subjects dictated by a script, “I’ve had to learn how to make paint dry really fast,” said Rosen, who works out of a studio filled floor to ceiling with paintings.
Rosen has been working with “Grace and Frankie” since it debuted in 2015, after Robbie Tollin, a friend and one of the show’s executive producer, submitted her work to potentially serve as Bergstein’s (it was chosen, though a few of the character’s works have been done by other artists). Rosen welcomed the opportunity, never expecting to work in entertainment. Commissions aren’t a common occurrence for her outside the show, and she still primarily focuses on her personal practice (not those made under her nom-de-TV).
Rosen recounted a fairly typical scenario while working with the show, when a “Grace and Frankie” producer called her on a Sunday afternoon, asking her to create a painted laptop case for Bergstein. While that may seem fairly straightforward, the rub was that it had to arrive in Los Angeles by 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Plus, the producer quickly called back—actually they needed two cases.
Occasionally she’s asked to work on even tighter turnarounds, and more time-consuming projects. She was once commissioned to create a large-scale painting of Fonda, Tomlin, and their ex-husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston). And it needed to be on set in four days.
“I’ve been doing this all my life, so I’m always confident that I can get it done,” Rosen explained. She’s found ways to speed up the process—like the drying agent she uses with her oil paint. “The nice guy at Blick [Art Materials] let me know that, of all of the thousands and thousands of products that they have, this was the most toxic,” she said with a laugh.
Rosen has been creating art since childhood and attended art school, where, as she puts it, “they fuck you up—excuse me—but in a good way” (a reference to the school’s desire to challenge Rosen’s figurativeinclinations).
If that expletive-laden statement sounds like a line for the famously rambunctious and authority-averse character of Bergstein, it’s because Rosen and her fictional alter-ego have grown increasingly in sync over the show’s three-year run. She now approaches the work with Bergstein in mind, asking herself how she would portray a subject.
In the recently debuted third season, the opening episode features a full-blown art exhibition of numerous works by Bergstein (really by Rosen). One work seemed like the perfect expression of Bergstein’s inner thoughts on Fonda’s sometimes frosty character Grace. “It’s really challenging,” said Rosen, who was given the bare-bones description of what the painting should include: Jane Fonda with fangs, holding a martini glass. “What does that look like? And what is she wearing?” Rosen muses. (The answer: a white suit.)
Rosen actually appears as an extra in that episode, milling about during the gallery opening. (She told me she’s met the cast and Tomlin once asked her how she held her paintbrush.) “It was so fun,” she said, though also a bit strange, she admitted, to see an exhibition of her work in this fictional context, with all the trappings of a real show. The exhibition featured catalogues and wall text describing her work—only as Bergstein’s art. “It’s all mine, but not mine. It’s bizarre. It was so out-of-body for me.”
A solo show in Los Angeles is but one of the unexpected places the TV gig has taken Rosen. She’s also been guided into new subject matter. Fans of the show know that Bergstein isn’t afraid to express her sexuality—she makes an all-natural lube out of yams and the key plotline in season three involves Hanson and Bergstein creating a vibrator for elderly women with arthritis. So, the subject Bergstein likes to paint on the show, then, won’t really surprise viewers. But it was a bit unexpected to Rosen.
“I have never spoken so much about a vagina in my entire life,” said Rosen. “My studio was full of vaginas.”