Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art

Nancy L. Pressly (Author)


While recovering from a near fatal illness, Nancy Pressly discovers a treasure trove of family material stored in her attic. Haunted by images of her grandparents and her parents in their youth, she sets out to create a family narrative before it is lost forever. It takes several more years before she summons the courage to reconstitute a path back to her own past, slowly pulling back the veil of amnesia that has, until now, all but obliterated her memory of her childhood.

In this sensitive and forgiving meditation on the meaning of family, Pressly unravels family dynamics and life in a small rural town in the 1950s that so profoundly affected her--then moves forward in time, through to her adulthood. With an eye attuned to visual detail, she relates how she came into her own as a graduate student in the tumultuous sixties in New York; examines how she assumed the role of caretaker for her family as she negotiated with courage and resilience the many health setbacks, including her own battle with pancreatic cancer, that she and her husband encountered; and evokes her interior struggle as a mother as she slowly traverses the barriers of expectations, self-doubt, and evolving norms in the 1980s to embrace a remarkable life as a scholar, champion of contemporary art, and nationally recognized art museum strategic planning consultant. Full of candor and art-inspired insight, Unlocking leaves the reader with a deep appreciation of the power of art and empathy and the value of trying to understand one's life journey.

Product Details

$16.95  $15.59
She Writes Press
Publish Date
May 05, 2020
5.4 X 0.8 X 8.4 inches | 0.65 pounds
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About the Author

Nancy L. Pressly, a graduate of Goucher College, received her master's degree in Art History from Columbia University. She began her career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and subsequently held curatorial positions at the Yale Center for British Art and the San Antonio Museum of Art, where she organized several important exhibitions, most notably the acclaimed Fuseli Circle in Rome: Early Romantic Art of the 1770s. In 1984 she became Assistant Director of the Museum Program at the National Endowment for the Artsin 1992 was a visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts; and in 1993 she founded Nancy L. Pressly & Associates, a nationally recognized consulting firm specializing in strategic planning for art museums. She has authored numerous publications, most recently a a book titled Settling the South Carolina Backcountry. She and her husband live in Atlanta, Georgia, close to their son and two grandchildren.


"A wrenchingly honest account that deftly combines a marriage story and an art tour." --Kirkus Reviews "This is an unflinchingly honest memoir, written with the clarity and powerful visual sense of an art historian. Particularly vivid are the retrieval of [Pressly's] childhood memories through letters, diaries, and photographs. . . . Her career as art historian, curator, and arts administrator offer fascinating insights. But above all, this is a memoir about her love of family and her own evolution as a person. Finishing it, you realize you have been privileged to get to know a remarkably gifted and indomitable spirit." --Tom Dunne, author of Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize winner Rebellions: Memoir, Memory, and 1798 "In her searching and compassionate memoir, this keenly sensitive writer, noted art historian, and curator . . . tells how her own near-fatal illness allowed her to unlock her painfully lost girlhood with clear vision and empathy . . . . With Unlocking, she proves herself a woman of the deepest human insight." --Kate Moses, author of Cakewalk, A Memoir and Wintering "In this clairvoyant and heart-warming memoir, Nancy L. Pressly shares her arduous path through the thickets of memory to reveal a remarkable and uplifting account of a woman who defined herself through positive energy and love. Guided by an agile intelligence and an eye for detail, honed by years in art history as scholar, curator, and consultant, Pressly animates memories long obscured by disappointments and losses. She makes the intensely personal universally compelling. We learn from her story how we might tackle the labyrinth of our own paradoxes." --June Hargrove, author of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and recipient of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters "In this memoir, Nancy Pressly shares a lifetime of intense experiences. Her extraordinarily careful and evocative descriptions of personal relationships, works of art, and places enrich this powerful autobiographical essay. Definitely worth reading more than once!" --Ellen G. Miles, art historian and author "Inspired by resilience and renewal, commitment and perseverance, love and trust--themes that are instantly relatable--Unlocking is an exquisite articulation of personal and professional stories, shared through the lens of someone who is deeply passionate about the connections between art and life. However, it is her commitment to learning, at each distinctive stage in life, that is the true lesson for all readers." --Allison Perkins, executive director of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art "Nancy Pressly's revealing personal journey is a powerful inspiration. Uncovering childhood memories and family history, battling physical challenges, acknowledging and owning the roles of wife and mother, researcher, and accomplished arts administrator--all underscore a passionate life hard-earned and well-lived. Artfully written, her life story is a compassionate reminder of the power within to remain positive through adversity and obstacles, to stay true to oneself, and, above all, to embrace love of art, self, and family." --Andrea Snyder, cofounder/codirector of American Dance Abroad and former assistant director of NEA Dance Program "Pressly weaves a compelling memoir, revealing a history that extends across generations and time. Elegantly composed, Unlocking shares a deeply personal evolution. Pressly's story exemplifies the professional and personal challenges so many women confront, while showing how beauty and love can redeem those struggles." --Stephanie Heydt, Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of America Art, High Museum of Art