New Yorker Spotlight: Natalie Vie, the Bushwick Artist and Olympic Hopeful

June 6, 2014

“New York is the meeting place of the peoples, the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.” – Djuna Barnes

Natalie Vie is an Olympic hopeful, a sculptor, and a resident of Bushwick. On any given day, she can be found fencing epee at Fencers Club in Chelsea, sculpting in her studio in Bushwick, curating a show, or out and about in her neighborhood’s coffee shops and bookstores. What’s interesting about Natalie is that she sounds like a native New Yorker; able to masterfully pursue multiple undertakings in a single day. However, she is actually a native of the desert.

Natalie, 28, grew up in Phoenix where she earned a B.F.A in Sculpture at Arizona State University, and was on the University’s club fencing team. She possesses a deep love for her home, but set her sights on New York. The city is home to a number of top ranked Women’s Epee fencers, and Natalie wanted to train alongside them. Almost three years ago, she moved cross-country and immediately felt right at home.

Fencing is referred to as physical chess. It’s complex, rhythmic, and demanding. Epee, one of three fencing disciplines, has an entire body for target. Natalie can score a touch on the hand, the leg, or even the foot. When she fences, she must analyze her opponent’s every move to find an opening and make a touch. Currently, she is in the midst of the World Cup season.

Natalie Vie. Photo courtesy of the Hungarian Fencing FederationPhoto courtesy of the Hungarian Fencing Federation

For Natalie, art and fencing are very much connected. “I feel in many ways fencing is really theatrical,” she tells me. “It’s really expressive and so I feel like even when I’m not making sculptures, when I’m competing [as a fencer], I feel that is a really creative expression in itself.”

In between practice bouts (matches for those unfamiliar with the term) at Fencers Club, I sat down with Natalie. I wanted to learn about her dual identity as an athlete and an artist.


Bushwick. Photo: gsz cc

Why did you choose to live in Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is amazing. I think Brooklyn kind of choose me actually. It’s true. When I moved out here, I actually stayed with a childhood friend of mine who is a fashion designer, and she was going to FIT at the time. I lived with her in Bushwick until I found a place.

I loved the neighborhood so much. I instantly made friends. Brooklyn in general is a pretty young borough — a lot of young people live there and it’s very creative. Bushwick, in particular, is very young and it was really amazing to live with a bunch of people that were about my age and were also undertaking artist endeavors.

Welded sculpture. Photo by Daniel Kongos

Has living in Bushwick influenced your work?

Completely. Living in New York has influenced my work. Living in small spaces has affected my work because I’m a sculptor and I’m used to working big. I’ve been doing a lot of installation work, and in particular, a lot of interactive installation work because I can’t make one huge piece. I’ve been making a bunch of smaller pieces and putting them together as a larger installation.

My first show up here was actually a group show, but I curated it. It was actually about the Olympics and called “An Olympic Quest”. I was the fourth alternate in the last Olympics in London and I didn’t make the team, which was really hard in a lot of ways. But it was also a really amazing experience. It kind of summarized my last few years training and I guess my whole career up until that point.

It was super cool. Jens Ullrich donated three pieces to the show. He sent me the pieces to print out because he does wall collage work, kind of mural work. When I told him I wanted to do this show and start a series, Bushwick First Friday, he was totally in. A bunch of other artists from the neighborhood contributed their work and we all had a show the week of the Olympic games.

You mentioned Bushwick First Friday, is that an ongoing event?

Well, Bushwick First Friday is something that I started in 2012 during the Olympics when I did that show. It was a monthly that I did with my art collective. I founded an art collective called In Real Time with my best friend. We basically just throw a lot of shows. We did a few popup Bushwick First Friday shows at different locations. We got a residency at the Brooklyn Fireproof East off the Morgan L train stop. We had a residency for eight months. After almost a year of it, we needed a break.

We were actually offered a residency on the Lower East Side at The Delancey every Tuesday throughout the summer. Most of the artist and DJs are Brooklyn based. The shows start at 9PM and what we are doing is that we have production artists come down. Sometimes I’m doing performances. I’m a sculptor, but I also do performance art. It’s probably one of my biggest passions.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple pieces. A lot of the pieces that I’ve been making relate to the body. In particular, different parts of the body. One thing that I’m working on right now is a sculpture about the lungs.

There is a tree stump that I have that resembles the lungs and I carved it out to make it resemble the lungs even more. I put in a central channel, which in Tibetan yoga philosophy is referred to as the channel of love and wisdom. I put in a cast bronze piece that resembles a knee, but it’s part of a tree. There is a metal brace that goes to it.

Since moving to New York I’ve worked a lot more in wood. I have a studio in my backyard actually. I have a really weird, awesome apartment. It’s a garden apartment with a huge backyard.

In progress photo of lungs by Natalie VieIn progress photo of the lungs

Do you feel a camaraderie with the artists in your neighborhood?

I think that people exist within the context of their environment and so there is a social unconscious that you participate in just by being around the people that you are around. I do a lot of studio visits with my friends or I hang out with them in their studios, and the things that I see tend to inspire me.

But it’s funny because I think I get most of my inspiration though the books that I read. There is a really cool DIY bookstore in my neighborhood. It’s actually a cooperative bookstore. They have a bookstore in Williamsburg and one in Bushwick. It’s super cool and they have a huge occult section. For some reason it’s become my favorite section recently. The things that I read and the images that I take in all influence my work. But I’m not the only one. Everyone works that way.

Before that I was obsessed with Harlem Renaissance literature and magical realism. I go through genres.

The thing about genres is if you want to relate that to fencing, culture comes out in fencing as well. If you look at that Italians they tend to be really loose and almost theatrical in what they are doing. If you look at the Germans they are very focused and very technical. With the French, everything they do in preparation is very pretty, but when they actually go for it they’re very direct.

Other than the bookstore, what are your favorite spots in Bushwick?

That’s actually really hard to say. I think that one of the best parts about Bushwick are the coffee shops. I really haven’t found anything in any of the other boroughs that compare because the thing about Brooklyn is there is such a sense of community in the different neighborhoods.

There are couple of coffee shops I go to a lot. One is called Little Skips, which is really involved with the yoga community so I see a lot of people that I do yoga with. There is another one called Kave, which is in the Loom, and another called Bunna Cafe, which is an Ethiopian restaurant and coffee shop.

Little Skips in Bushwick
Little Skips. Image via Bushwick Daily

You have been in Bushwick for almost three years. Have you noticed the evolution of the neighborhood?

If you talk about gentrification of a neighborhood in the last several years, Bushwick is it. I’ve seen the neighborhood change a lot. A lot of it has come from Williamsburg. Williamsburg was a really hot artsy spot to live and then slowly it moved down the train line. But it’s weird because it missed a few stops and kind of picked up off the Morgan and Jefferson stop on the L train.

I remember when I first moved in, there were two bars, and one or two coffee shops. There were not that many options. There were a ton of artists living here. There still are a lot of artists.

When did you start fencing? Why did you start?

I started fencing really late. It’s an anomaly. I was 18 years old, and it was the summer after I graduated from high school. All of the other girls on the team that I train with started fencing when they were 7 or 8 years old. Maybe earlier.

I grew up as a dancer. I did jazz, modern. I was a cheerleader. I did gymnastics. I also ran track. I did a lot of other sports, but dance was my main thing. I did a lot of physical activities that informed my fencing. So when I started fencing, I just got into it right away. It was so easy to pick up. It’s a difficult sport to master.

I started fencing because in my high school English class senior year I was reading The Catcher in the Rye. There is a part that talks about Holden Caulfield leaving the epees on the train in New York City. That sparked something. It sparked a weird curiosity. I think Yahoo was the main server at the time. I just called a random club that was on the list of fencing clubs in Phoenix, and I went in and started fencing two months later.

Natalie Vie. Photo by Daniel ShireyHow many days a week do you train?

I’m training everyday. Every day, every second, every moment I’m training. I used to think that training was just when I came in and practiced or was just my workouts. I’ve realized that training is everything that you put into your body, everything you eat, every thought that you have. From the moment you wake up till the moment you go to bed, when you are dreaming, that’s all training.

My goal right now is to make the 2016 Olympic team, and even beyond that I’m committed to 2020 in Tokyo. I want to be a top international player. I’m putting everything into my dreams.

Where have you competed this year?

I’ve been to Budapest, Leipzig, Saint-Maur, which is just outside of Paris, Barcelona, Rio, Havana, and later this year I have a competition in Rome.

Do you think traveling around the world gives you a unique perspective on living in New York?

I think it gives me a unique perspective as a human being. The thing about New York is when you live in New York you don’t really need to go anywhere else, so a lot of us get stuck. Even when you go you are incredibly unimpressed with things.

Phoenix, where I’m from, is different than anywhere else. It’s a desert, it’s super spread out, and there are mountain ranges. I grew up on a mountain called Scorpion mountain. I used to eat the cactus fruits. I went anywhere and it was different. Everywhere was impressive.

Because we [US Women’s Epee Team] travel to the same places over and over, I think that in itself gives me a unique perspective. I’ve seen how different cities and countries themselves have developed.

I mean even living in New York gives me a unique perspective.

You can visit Natalie’s website to read more about her endeavors and travels.

Natalie Vie. Photo by David Fredette

[This interview has been edited]

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