Role Models: Nina Nastasia Took More From Her Father Than She Realized

How Jim Nastasia made her the artist she is today.

Whenever I think about who my role model might be, my father comes to mind immediately. He was an artist — a painter. He taught art at Fairfax High School in Hollywood California and at Cerritos College in order to make a living and support the family. Everyday of the year for as long as I knew him, he would spend hours in his studio after work and on the weekends painting and drawing. He drank whiskey and painted in his underwear. His role models were Picasso and Hemingway. This explained some behaviors that didn’t always work within the family unit, but we all have our issues. 

His work ethic was a huge influence. Creativity can feel loose and chaotic with no clear timeline. It just comes when it comes. You can have “dry spells” that linger for months and then inspiration that can take over and all of a sudden you have a body of work to show for it. The thing about a dry spell is, it can feel like it might last forever and then that’s it, as if you had no control in the matter, you’re done with being a creative person. 

I found that if I made myself “go to work” everyday at a specific time and pick up my guitar and just play it for at least an hour, the inspiration would eventually come. In other words, I wouldn’t sit around and wait for it. I’m guessing my father escaped into his studio for mostly that, the escape, but I’m sure he understood the value of picking up a paint brush everyday in front of a canvas regardless of the end result.

Another good lesson from James Nastasia was: always observe, stay present, and find the story. Everything has a story, and if you’re entertaining enough, any story is worth telling. He could find the extraordinary in the mundane, the beauty in the grotesque, the funny in the sad. Creativity was a constant practice. Even when he made his annual meatloaf, it was an event. I think when a person looks at the world in this way, their inspiration can be endless, and his was. He never seemed to lose the passion for finding an idea and making something of it. He explored many different styles of painting and drawing. He worked with oil paints, water colors, gesso, pen and ink, charcoal and pastels.  He did hundreds of series of portraits, figures, landscapes, and abstract pieces. 


An Example of How It’s Done: I recently met one of his students in Bristol England who showed me an illustration my dad did during one of his classes that he’d been saving for decades. This student was having trouble drawing the assignment and my dad stood over his shoulder and started laughing, and then said, “Move over — why don’t you just draw it like this?” And then proceeded to complete the image. Despite this anecdote, my father was an excellent teacher. He was well loved.


Some of my favorites were his cartoon illustrations and the darker, more tortured looking work before my time, but also I loved the Francis series which was light and almost humorous. Francis was an art model who was, I’d say, in her late 60s or early 70s. She had a Mae West look with fair powdered skin, rosy cheeks, finger curled platinum hair that sat tall on her head and fell down in ringlets around her face. She was rotund with delicate ankles and wrists, something my father enjoyed celebrating on paper. Francis had an amazing collection of hats all decorated with chiffon flowers, ribbon and lace. I have many memories of coming home from elementary school excited to try on all her hats while my father sat drawing Francis as she stood in the bathtub clad in 1930s lingerie bottoms and one of her fancy wide brimmed hats. My father would sit on the toilet and draw for hours. It’s funny, now that I think of it, I’ve done the majority of my song writing up until recently in the bathroom sitting on a toilet.




Lastly what I’ll say about my dad is, the man practiced his art because he was driven purely by the love of it. Yes, he would have liked to be more known for his work, but that didn’t seem to ever get him down. I never once witnessed bitterness or disappointment. He went fully charged and joyful into that smoke filled room (cigarettes) at 5 pm, would break for dinner, and then went back in the studio at 9 pm to paint well after I had fallen asleep. My bedroom was right next to his studio. There was nothing more comforting than falling asleep with the faint sound of the radio playing and the smells of oil paints, fixatives, and Kent cigarettes that snuck through the cracks and into my room. 

There’s a song I wrote called “Jim’s Room” on the album On Leaving about these experiences:

I always wondered, Francis, where you lived
Standing proudly in the tub
I never saw you in your clothes
In the back of the house in the room right next to mine
The only place she let you smoke
There you spent most of your time
Painting pictures of smoke

Right before he died, I was able to show him a copy of the illustration he did for my third album, The Blackened Air, right after its first release. It was a lucky thing to get him to come up with an image for the song “Ocean.”

To choose to pursue making a living in art is not always an easy one. The business can eat away at the bliss. It can confuse the issue which is why the mantra of “do it for the love of it” is so important to always remember. 

I need to remember it now that I’m back to the business of music after so many years away from it. It’s easy to get caught up in the effort of getting to a higher level and grander scale of things. I have to always appreciate where I’m at in the present and notice the amazing experiences that happen all the time. 

I took in a lot over the years from all the experiences living with my father. Maybe more than I realized before writing this article.

Thank you, dad.

(Photo Credit: left, Heather Saitz)

Nina Nastasia is a singer-songwriter born and raised in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Her latest record — with Jeff McLeod, as Jolie Laide — is out November 17, 2023 on Oscar St. Records.

(Photo Credit: Heather Saitz)