Touch My Art: Nancy Hilliard Joyce

By Beth Browne


Nancy Hilliard Joyce has been an artist as far back as she can remember. Although art is her passion, Nancy says she’s a mom first. Her two children are nine and five and even though they keep her busy, she still finds time for art. She says, “I want to be the best artist I can possibly be, and I really want to make a difference. I work hard,” she says with a laugh, “I don’t sleep much.”


Although she discovered art as a passion by age twelve, she turned away from it as a career at first. She fondly remembers the day she spent, sitting at the kitchen table with an ad cut out of a magazine, riveted. It was a photo of a young girl in a Bennetton ad and something about the girl’s expression caught Nancy’s attention. She sat there and worked all day on a pencil drawing of the girl. “It was the first time that I had spent that much time, with that much focus and had that much joy in creating something alone.” It was her first experience with self-satisfaction.


The experience was born from a challenging period in Nancy’s life. Her mother had just given birth to her younger sister, and Nancy had been suddenly ousted from her position as the youngest child in the family and thrust into the role of the middle child. After the baby’s birth, Nancy’s parents were preoccupied with the newborn, and Nancy was often left to her own devices. The experience at the kitchen table became a turning point, the discovery of personal and private joy she could recreate at will.


Nancy notes that she was just an average student in high school, and when her parents looked at her schoolwork, they found not a single written note in her notebook, instead, portraits of everyone in the class. “I was illustrating the class instead of taking notes,” she says with a laugh. Her father, however, was not amused. He picked up the newspaper, turned to the help wanted section and drew a finger down the columns. “I don’t see a single ad in here for ‘Artist Wanted,” he pointed out, and asked her what she was really going to do with her life.


Young Nancy thought to herself, “If I can’t be an artist, then what am I going to do?” She says, “I knew who I was, (an artist) but I didn’t think it would get me anywhere.” When she was fifteen, her parents, desperate for her to succeed, sent her to a boarding school, Chatham Hall in Virginia, the same school her idol, Georgia O’Keeffe, attended. After graduation, she got a B.A. in Art History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC and went on to earn a M.A. in Art Education from the University of New Mexico in 1997. She figured if she couldn’t make a living as an artist that she would teach instead.


She moved to Asheville in 1997 and got a job with Pam Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum, as an Outreach Curator. Nancy’s job was to take items from the permanent collection, drive into rural areas of North Carolina and use the art to teach reading, writing and math to second through fourth graders. Unfortunately, she soon found that teaching was not for her. “It was a ton of work,” she remembers. “I commend every single teacher out there. I would come home and collapse every day. It didn’t invigorate me; it exhausted me and I knew I needed to move on.”


From the father of a student she had been tutoring, she got an offer to do marketing for a law firm and took the job, which ultimately benefited her in many ways even though it took her away from the art she loves. She says, “As much as it was a random tangent in my life, it has helped me to strike a balance between getting out of my own head and showing the world what I’m doing.” As an artist, she says, it’s easy to stay home, make art and not put yourself out to the world. Her experience in marketing taught her how to balance the creation of art with getting the word out about what she’s doing to other people.


During this five-year tangent, Nancy painted on commission. She did portraits of houses and children and a few animals. But she found that her work felt scattered and had no direction, so she ultimately decided to refuse commissions altogether. A year ago, she and her husband moved back to Asheville, where she says, even though they’d been gone from the area for so long, she felt right at home.


Nancy says that because in Asheville there are so many artist people, she felt like everyone she met was an artist too. She wanted to find a way to differentiate herself from the crowd. “I wanted to take art to a different level.” Her art had always been very tactile, with many layers of texture, and she would often invite people to touch it. Finally, she decided to devise a way to force people to touch the work, to interact with it. Thus, the “TacTile” was born.


When Nancy’s grandparents were in hospice at the end of their lives,Nancy found herself wishing for some way to engage with them, beyond just talking, listening or reading. From this experience, Project Touch Generations was born. She took her TacTile idea and made tic-tac-toe boards, which she calls TicTacTiles, for a retirement home, giving visitors and residents a fun new way to interact. The Aston Park Healthcare Center purchased several of Nancy’s TacTiles for use in their physical therapy room. The puzzles are mounted on the wall so patients can have something to do while they stand and exercise their legs.


Deerfield Retirement Community in South Asheville which has a very active arts community welcomed the idea and has been supportive of Nancy’s TacTiles. “The point was to have children and grandchildren visit and engage with the residents over and above what they’re used to, bringing all the generations together.” Nancy’s dream is for this project to become self sustaining, spreading to other communities of elderly people. To this end, she has pledged that a percentage of sales of her TacTiles will go toward buying new ones for other retirement homes.


Nancy’s TacTiles are painted on wood and then cut into tiles to make a puzzle for viewers to manipulate so they can make a new piece of art. Magnets are embedded on the back so the pieces can be hung on the wall and kept together on a sheet of steel. In this way, Nancy says, “The collector becomes an artist.”


At first, the paintings were fairly small, cut into 12-16 pieces, but she has recently been commissioned for a hundred-piece work for the children’s museum in Greenville, SC. She’s particularly excited about this project, because she was born and raised in Greenville, a city near and dear to her heart. Making something for all the people of Greenville is special to Nancy — almost too good to be true.


The 100-piece TacTile will be installed in the Greenville Children’s Museum of the Upstate in their permanent “Off the Wall” section of the museum. have it cut in 100 pieces, sanded, embedded with magnets and then delivered to the museum for installation.


And as if that’s not enough, for the past 5 months, Nancy has also been working on another permanent installation for downtown Greenville, to be installed in an expansive, new mixed-use hub building, called “ONE.” In this large triptych painting, she’s incorporated different parts of Greenville into the 6 foot x 12 foot canvassed piece, hoping to weave together as “one” historic with modern Greenville. “I’m having the time of my life,” she says of the triptych piece. “It’s the most incredible experience I’ve had in the art world. I put my heart and soul into this painting.”


Her work seems to spreading even farther as she has recently been in contact with the director of the Hands On! Museum in Hendersonville about the possibility of acquiring a TacTile. Also, the Asheville Art Museum will have three TacTiles in their ArtPlayce beginning in January. Nancy has recently accepted a job with Deerfield Retirement Community to head up their Deerfield Arts and Crafts League (DACL) beginning in January. This will be a flexible, part-time gig so that she can keep painting. Of all this Nancy remarks, “It’s such a great feeling inside to be making a living as an artist. I would be doing this anyway, because for me it’s like therapy. It’s a way for me to connect with myself. It’s comforting.”


Nancy feels very lucky and blessed to be able to do the work she loves. She says, “I don’t just want to paint pretty pictures. I want to go over and beyond that. I really want to try to make a difference.” With the growing success of Project Touch Generations and her TacTiles, it seems her wish is rapidly becoming reality.


Nancy Hilliard Joyce can be found at the Cotton Mill Studios in the River Arts District in Asheville or online.


Beth Browne is a determined writer, reluctant farmer, delighted mother of tweens and addicted to sailing. At every opportunity, she dives into her fictional world and swims contentedly. She loves to read almost as much as she loves to eat and thinks her job at The Main Street Rag Publishing Company ( is just about perfect. Occasionally she indulges in a spot of knitting but she practices yoga every single day. When she was five, she starred in the school play as The Ugly Duckling, even though she would have much preferred to have a lesser role as a Beautiful Swan. When she has time, she enjoys sharing her journey at:

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker