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5 Questions with Nea Hanna

"What It Means to Me: Symbols & the Narratives We Construct with Them" is on view at Gallery Espresso through June 30.

NEA HANNA needs to create. She’s been making art since she was young, working in a multitude of media to fill her compulsion.

Hanna’s latest show, “What It Means to Me: Symbols & the Narratives We Construct with Them,” is on display now at Gallery Espresso. The illustrations question the meaning we assign to symbols by mixing them together in unique ways.

We spoke with Hanna last week.

1. How did you end up in Savannah?

I’ve lived in Savannah for a little over five years now. I’m originally from South Texas but I’ve lived all over—Wyoming, Colorado.

I knew I was going to do art my entire life, ever since I was a child. My mother was an artist who didn’t ever get to pursue it because she had a family instead and life dictated otherwise. But it was very known that that’s what I was going to do.

When I graduated from high school, I was looking at art schools and obviously SCAD was one of the ones I was considering at the time. I didn’t end up going there, but I did research on Savannah at the time. So when I found myself in a position to pick where I wanted to be, Savannah was always on my list. In March 2014 I came here to visit, and then six months later I moved here.

2. You said you always wanted to make art. Were you especially interested in one medium, or were you creative on all fronts?

I was creative on all fronts, or I had a curiosity on all fronts, which I think is what drives all that. Obviously, I started conventionally, with crayons [laughs]. I took art classes all through middle school and high school as much as I could. I went to high school in Wyoming so we didn’t have extensive programs. A lot of it was independent study.

Consistently, from my freshman to senior year, I won state awards for art and things like that. It was in my future. I can’t help it. It’s one of those things that’s always going to be true about me: I have to make things, I have to create things.

3.Tell me about your show at Gallery Espresso right now.

Meaning is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. The belief in things, the meaning behind things and believing that things can have power and deeper meanings than what’s on the surface. Through a recent existential crisis I went through, I started exploring ways to give meaning to my life in ways that were lasting—ways I could actually believe in, not what someone else told me.

I was raised with a certain religious framework—everybody has been—and you reach a point where you either accept that or reject that. Through this recent process, I was like, ‘What about symbols?’ Symbols have been the way for humans to create and share ideas and messages since the beginning of time. I wanted to explore this idea of, well, I can pull these symbols from Wiccan beliefs and pagan beliefs and Catholic beliefs and I can turn them into my own narrative. I can give them the meaning I want them to have. It doesn’t have to stay in the existing framework.

It was an exploration of turning it on its head. I purposely paired Wiccan symbols with Catholic symbols and things like that because, to me, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from, it matters how you us it and hoe it means to you. It’s perspective.

Some symbols can be offensive to people. I have some that are called demonic summoning symbols. For me, those don’t have any power because I don’t believe in that. But if someone who does believe in that having power looks at it, they might be highly offended.

4. What’s it like finding purpose outside of that religious framework?

I’m an atheist, and for me it’s all about finding truth and meaning in the here and now, in what is tangible, in what I can believe in. I think it goes so far beyond that. It is about grounding yourself in what’s going on around you now instead of what could potentially be happening in a spiritual realm or the afterlife. It doesn’t make sense to me in a lot of ways, but I still kind of envy that. I envy that sort of ability to believe in something, which is where this whole idea from the show came from. I want to believe in something. How do I go about finding that?

5.Besides this body of work, what do you create?

I paint—my show before this was a bunch of Impressionist landscapes last year. I really enjoyed learning how to paint. It was something I had to just jump into and discover things on my own. I still have fun with that. I still have a long way to go before my technical skill is perfected, but I’m having fun with it and that’s all that matters. If I’m not having fun with it, then what’s the point?

I’m curious and want to create in every week I can. I actually just signed myself up for a six-week pottery wheel class, and that’s a medium I briefly was exposed to when I was in high school and I fell in love with it. I never revisited it, but it’s something that has always called to me. It’s creating, and art is always something that’s going to be a part of my life.