Interview with Artist and Photographer Nada Y Todo

In 2012, Nada Y Todo sold her house and moved into a school bus with her five children, ages almost one, four, seven, nine and thirteen.  I came across her instagram account a few years back and was drawn in by the heartfelt way she shared glimpses into a life that felt like a rare form of intentionality.  Nada is a muralist, a sculptor, a photographer, a mother, an artist.  Her primary camera is a Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra, and her photography chronicles the life of her family who have now spent almost 10 years living on the road.  I reached out to Nada because I felt that she had something valuable to teach about pursuing a life of authenticity, where life and art are inseparable.

The following interview was recorded by Nada with help from her daughter Katherine (Kitty), and edited for conciseness.  A few of the questions were contributed by Lavinia Nitu.

©Nada Y Todo

Molly Menschel:  Where do you call home?

Nada Y Todo:  It used to be a house.  And then it used to be the bus.  And then, after a couple years it was the bus but it was more, it was a lot more places.  And then, after a few more years, it was the bus and a lot more places, and also just my body.  Just my thoughts really.  All the thoughts that I have, whatever they are, wherever they come from, my responses to things.  That was home.  My kids.  My kids were home.  And I feel like I’m a home for my kids, that might sound weird but I feel like even though I’ve got two that are at a distance from me, 1500 miles each, I feel like I’m still over the top of them, as a roof, around them like walls.  Keeping them safe.  Somehow.  Wishful thinking, but it feels good.

It seems like you’ve always had an artists’ soul.  What has been the evolution of your life as an artist and how did you first get into photography? 

Well I think my introduction to art in general, artistic expression and a sense of creativity, came from both my parents but predominantly my father.  He used his hands to talk, he’d draw something out while he was talking, even if he was just using a stick and drawing in the dirt while we were doing construction.  Even the dams he made seemed to be more personal, a passion form somehow.  So it seemed like art. And he used to take pictures.  He had a really decent camera, from what I remember, a Canon.  I remember going back through the photo albums and there were so many really good, impressive photos.  And I’m not sure how to describe impressive because it just seemed to be more than parade shots or rodeo shots or being in the backyard shots.  It seemed like he was seeing something different about the world.  Which was really nice.  

©Nada Y Todo

After we bought our first bus, about 10 years ago, I started taking pictures more seriously.  It was still mostly on my phone, but I started feeling out what it was that I wanted to be able to look back on.  It didn’t escape me that I was going to look back on the thing.  And so even though it was pretty much a snapshot still of our life and what we were doing, some part of me knew that what we were doing was worthy of seeing again.  Later, with different eyes, letting it affect me differently or even the same just to remind me.  

But it didn’t take the place of sculpting or painting or anything like that.  I do a little bit of all kinds of things. But I don’t really want to put the label of seamstress or dressmaker or jewelry fabricator, photographer even.  It’s hard to put a label on it because I really just want to live.  Maybe that’s where all of this started, me feeling as though life and art were connected.  Coming from my parents, my father, and then being willing to give myself and my children the opportunity to go at an arms length from society and their demands and their ideas and expectations of what you should be doing with your life, what you should be saying or thinking or wearing, what you should be watching.  What trends are out there, just all of that stuff. 

There were times when none of us had phones, phone service, we didn’t look anything up, we took a break.  And then when we got phones again, internet service and stuff, it was selective.  And I noticed that it didn’t take the place of the kids wanting to go and explore, wherever we happened to park.  It was still the first thing that everyone wanted to do was get out and take a look around.  See the earth that we were standing on.  And if we came across garbage, they would just pick it up.  I mean that doesn’t seem artistic, but in the sense it does, it’s almost like they see the landscape as a piece of art itself.

©Nada Y Todo

What do you usually shoot with?  

Mostly my phone.  I have shot mostly with a phone for years.  After my Canon camera got stolen I didn’t really want to replace it again for the longest time, and then when I did replace it it was large, cumbersome and I felt like out of my range.  Uncomfortable.  So I started using my phone, but I also started giving myself a better phone.  So when a nice camera phone came out, I aimed to get it pretty quickly because I wanted to have the camera, it was pretty important, the same with the phone I currently have now.  I got it for the camera use, and I love having a nice camera on my phone because the shape of it allows you to put it so many different places that you can’t squeeze a big camera.  Although I love using the Fuji xt4 that I got, I really love it.  It’s so smooth, it handles really well and it seems really natural where the adjustments are.  But it just isn’t the same as a flat phone in my hand that I can put in little compressed areas and get a picture.  We live on a bus, the size is nice.

©Nada Y Todo

You don’t seem like someone who “makes art”, you seem like someone where art is an extension of who you are.  How do you nurture this way of being and connect with your inner creativity, shift your mindset so that you can exist in this way?

Sometimes it takes being an asshole, in a certain way, to myself, to shake myself up.  I don’t mean like I downtalk myself, it’s more like… you ever catch yourself holding your breath?  But catch yourself holding your breath, it’s not like you intended to hold your breath.  You know breathing, your body does it, subconsciously you know how to breathe, in and out, in and out.  But sometimes you catch yourself holding your breath.  So, that’s like this.  Sometimes you catch yourself in moments where you’ve put a pause on allowing that creative flow to just go, and go wherever it may.  Whether you told yourself that you can’t pursue it, or it’s uncomfortable, or something is going on with you – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but for whatever reason you’re holding your breath.  

I’ve done that.  I’ve been holding my breath, and then I release it.  And when I release it then it feels like there’s that lovely writing of my foot touching the ground after being mid-air and feeling I’m balanced as I take a step, and I can trust myself to lift up my opposing foot and to do the whole process again.  I can fill up my lungs and release them, I can go forward with creating something or taking a moment to not create something.  By releasing that pressure, it’s really more about, again, just creating art in your life and going with what it is that feels right to you.  There’s no twelve-step, seven-step, three-step program to be doing the perfect things in life.  I think it will always be about stubbing our toes and taking a mis-step, and reminding ourselves that’s a part of the journey.  And putting our smile on when we can, when it’s real, and being honest when things hurt, when they’re sad, because it happens, all those emotions are there for everyone, and all of those emotions are what I want to remember when I take a picture.  I want to remember an emotion of some kind, usually a pretty intense one, for me.  Emotion, art, life.

©Nada Y Todo

Do you have any advice for others, how they can learn to connect with their artistic self?  

That’s a personal journey thing.  I believe every single human being has their own way to connect with themselves, and I think that by putting out a list the only thing I would be doing would be singling out something that has infinite possibilities.  Every human being has infinite possibilities for how they might find their own creative sense.

Can you tell a bit about when you first started living out of a school bus and why you made this decision?

So, it was ten years ago this – was it May?  Yeah because Eean spent his first birthday in a bus.  There are so many reasons why we did it.  I mean I think maybe fate, you know, had something to do with it. Habit, maybe my parents drove around a lot when my mom was pregnant with me, I’m not sure, but I’ve always wanted to be kind of on the move.  I felt more comfortable when we were taking long car drives, it always just kind of felt right.  

But there were a lot of things going on in my life that had nothing to do with my desire to travel.  It just seemed like it was increasingly getting worse for a few years, while we were living in Rapid City, before I thought about looking up communes or different living situations where I could find us a nicer place to live.   When the next door neighbor who was also my best friend admitted that she was using meth, there was that line that was crossed for me.

©Nada Y Todo

There were a lot of things that went into wanting to get the bus, but I remember what I took as my token, was my dad saying that he wished he had traveled with me and my siblings and just let the world teach us and our experiences teach us and he was pretty adamant about that.  So I let myself lean into that and I started looking for school buses.  My dad had died when he was 57 and the only school bus around for hundreds of miles was in Sturgis, which was 15-20 minutes away from where we lived at the edge of Rapid City and Black Hawk.  The bus was numbered 57, it was beautiful.  I fell in love immediately.  And we started living on a school bus shortly after.  

We sold our home, and got rid of most of our possessions.  But it was a process, like an onion, there were layers.  There’s a lot you want to hold onto and think you need, and then you come to realize that you really don’t need a whole lot, and in a way that’s kind of freeing.  You kind of dwindle yourself down to the very bare minimum, and you get to find out a little bit more about yourself.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to have things or to be interested in multiple things, but it’s been a neat journey deciding to travel around and live in a school bus and be minimalistic and to be able to uproot and leave a situation comfortably with our home and our belongings if things and other people’s choices don’t seem to suit.  And that does happen.  We can’t control other people, we can control ourselves.  And having our home be mobile allows us to control our environment a lot easier than a lot of people.

©Nada Y Todo

Lavinia Nitu:  Do you feel like the form of your art changes, becomes more insightful whenever you stop for a longer period of time in one place?

It changes for sure, I don’t know if it becomes more insightful.  Sometimes I feel like I lose my insight when I’m sitting someplace for too long.  It becomes too narrow or too focused on something that’s in the vicinity, something inside of me, I’m not really sure but I feel like I start to get a bit lost.  Which is an odd feeling, to be someplace that you know, and you should be becoming more and more used to it as you’re there for longer.  And instead I become more detached and a feeling of being lost, when I’m sitting someplace.  So I think that affects my art.  I think I start to grasp for photographs that seem more interesting than what I’m actually feeling, when I’ve been in someplace for too long.  Because I long for the feeling of coming across someplace new or even someplace I just don’t visit that often, and feeling interested in seeing it again.  So then I start to repeat that, and that feels forced. I’m not sure if I really personally appreciate my own art when I’ve been sitting someplace for very long.

©Nada Y Todo

Molly Menschel: Was your art different before you started living out of a school bus?

My art was different before I went to college for art.  And I think, decidedly I’ve gotten more technical skill after having done the courses in college than I had before.  But I ended up walking away from college to move onto a bus.  And I felt radicalized when it came to art.  I really detached from it for a while.  I love it and I did do some sporadic art, but I didn’t do nearly as much as maybe I could to have elevated us financially, to have made our lives a little bit more financially stable or secure.  I was and still am angered, annoyed, disillusioned by the current system that we live in, that there is such a vast difference between billionaires and people who can’t scrape together enough money to eat.  I don’t really want to be told that I just have to agree with things because I was born in a place.  And I don’t want to be told that because there’s a majority of other people who I don’t know, that those people can make up rules that will affect me and people I love in possibly negative ways, because they’re scared, they – I don’t want to judge or criticize – but they want to make more money or whatever their reasoning is.

©Nada Y Todo

So I realize I got totally political there, a few different times, and I keep doing it, and I do apologize.  Kitty says we can’t restart the interview so I’m just going to apologize because it’s something that feeds a lot of my thoughts throughout the day.  No matter how far from society I want to get, I’m actually in and around so many different regions all over the United States.  I talk to people from all classes, all different people, and I love people but at the same I’m very frustrated with people.  But there’s not really a whole lot of people who I don’t find common ground with.  Given enough time – and really it doesn’t ever take a lot of time to sort through small talk to the point that you can feel the spark and you know where there’s a common interest.  And then each individual person is pretty amazing – rights, wrongs, ups, downs, things they’ve done that they’d rather not, lessons they’ve learned, everyone has them.  Everyone.  And some people are going through them hardcore currently, all of us usually.  It’s amazing.  At a distance, on the other hand, people get into the mindset of controlling.  So maybe without realizing it some of my artistic expression or lack thereof throughout the year has been a sort of political activism in my own part, because I possibly have enough skill that I could be living hundreds of thousands of dollars richer, but I don’t put myself out there.  

Lavinia Nitu:  How do you feel about your mural art vs. your photography? They both feel like a window into your soul, but somehow I feel like with the murals you are giving to the world while your photos sometimes feel like something you are taking from the environment that surrounds you.

Oh they’re just two totally different things.  Photography is more like a daily ritual, sometimes hundreds of pictures in a day, way too much, way too many.  Sometimes I kind of force myself to take a picture, just because it’s superstitious or something I guess, I don’t know.  A mural art though, is a ripe apple at the top of the tree.  It’s something that I want, I want to do it, I want to create it.  I want it to be large, I want it to be present.  It’s not so much because I want someone to see it, it’s because I want to stand there and feel the thing that I create tower over me.  I haven’t really got there yet.  The closest was the one in Rapid City I suppose, it was of my kids running down the hill, but I want more than that.  I want to create murals that are in part sculptures, and I look forward to that.  They’re just two totally different beasts.  Right now I’m not really feeding the mural beast.

Molly Menschel:  What are you trying to say with your photography or your paintings? 

I really don’t contemplate that too much.  There’s artwork that I have never even taken a picture of, never signed, and it’s not in me to naturally want to hold ego I guess.  It seems overplayed and cliché to bring it up, but it feels like there is no need for me to be present after I create art for somebody.  Like there was this one woman, I did a portrait on a rock of her brother and her father.  And it’s a rock, she told me later that she carries it around in her bag.  It’s always with her and she takes it out and she looks at it all the time, it sits in the palm of her hand.  And I didn’t sign it, you know I’ve signed some stuff but I try not to because I think that once the art is out there and it’s created that it’s almost its own thing.  With sending art or images out into the world, I just don’t really think about it too much.

Can you share your personal beliefs about where you think artistic expression or inspiration originates?  Where does art come from inside of you?

Art inside of me?  I, wow.  Okay I definitely believe in cellular memory.  So I would say that maybe there’s a portion of it, like I said, where my parents have inspired me artistically.  I think that there might be some truth to maybe a lineage of how art or being more willing to express the creative side of yourself might be something that can be scientifically tracked or proven.  But there’s also, I think, just a natural veining over the earth and in the earth and in each person.  We have heard it called a muse, or writer’s block is the anti-version, but it’s whatever it is.  It’s like, you feel it and sometimes it’s not something that you can even mold into a thing.  Whether it’s that you feel creative but you take your camera out and you just can’t get any shots that make you feel the feeling that you have inside.  Or if you’re sculpting clay, for whatever reason that three dimensional form is not doing it for you.  That in-between stuff.  That’s there too, it’s just more proof that whatever this is has its own natural ebb and flow. 

©Nada Y Todo

And so I don’t think that I can pinpoint where art or the creative side of somebody is for them, but I do think that it’s a social matter to be able to more widely accept whatever expression it is that we’re wanting to converse in.  Instead of throwing judgement, I think that it’s stepping away from that and knowing that art doesn’t have to be anything that it is for anybody else.  It just has to be something that you’re passionate about.  It becomes your own art, mediation, life, focus, purpose, what the thing is, whatever the world or label is that makes you feel comfortable with it.  With just going with your own flow and being able to accept yourself and giving that to other people, being able to accept them or whatever it is.  No social or political parties, no grand groups or schemes or financial pursuits, just something inside of you that you want.  Or desire. 

And maybe it’s not one thing, for me it’s been many.  I like that.  I don’t feel any lesser because I don’t have a speciality.  I feel fine with myself because I feel like no matter what it is that I’m interested in, I can adapt to it pretty quickly, I can at least follow my interests and see where it goes.  That is art and artistic expression because art is creativity, it’s creating something.  So if you take time to literally just create for yourself, your life then becomes your work of art.

©Nada Y Todo

How do your children feel about you photographing them all the time and sharing photos of them on the internet?  I have a free-spirited eight year old daughter who I’ve photographed her entire life, and suddenly she is extremely self-conscious and wants to make sure she looks good in front of the camera.  Did you ever experience this with any of your children? 

It varies.  I have definitely had the butting of heads, whether it’s because I want to post something or just because I want to take something.  I’ve been called out in the moment, like why are you taking a picture of me?  So there’s been that end of the spectrum.  And there’s also been a general tolerance and acceptance.  And then there’s been even like the poke and the prod, I feel like I’ve been handed my camera on more than one occasion where I’ve felt detached from it or struggling in the moment, and somebody’s like, “we know you want to take a picture of this, take this.”  So you know, it’s kind of all over the place.  But I definitely wouldn’t put anything out for the public consumption or the public eye that my children have expressed that they don’t want anybody to see.  Consent is huge for me.  My children are their own people.  So, it matters to me that they care.  And even more than that I really hope that they like the pictures that I take so when they compliment me I get, like, all jelly in the knees.  

©Nada Y Todo

Lavinia Nitu:  How has the school of art you’ve followed in the past year influenced your way of seeing?

Similar to the first go around with it, although I changed my major to photography because I feel like I’m doing that more consistently, therefore it would be more seamlessly integrated into my life.  I like the classes, I like the challenge of knowing that there’s a certain prescribed, expected result of a thing.  And I know that I can wrap my fingers around my result and give it over pretty easily.  But I also like the opportunity to remain myself while I’m doing it because I feel like that’s a contradiction and it kind of makes me feel comical, in a way.  It relieves me of a little bit of the stress of it.  Because it’s stressful knowing that someone expects something of you and that you’ve let them down.  Nobody wants to let somebody else down.  School has been cumbersome, because the expectations get in the way of the regular flow to the creative process that I specifically happen to have.  Where I’m not thinking so much.  I pick up my camera, or my phone, and I’m seeing and I’m feeling, and instinctually I’m capturing or trying to capture a thing.  Whereas school, although it’s nice because it might give focus in certain areas that maybe need some attention, it takes away from that and I start to focus on what somebody else might be seeing through my eyes – almost an impossibility – it will drive you mad.  So I just have to step away from it in-between semesters, which I feel like I’m doing now.

©Nada Y Todo

I’m always impressed with how you share so openly on instagram, you put your heart out there for anyone to see and it feels brave to me.  Can you talk about this?

So my mom who I love very dearly has communication issues.  There was so much hate that I had for the longest time about the lack of communication, then there was an acceptance, as I understood she had gone through her own things and was processing in her own way.  But I definitely think that went into wanting to communicate.  Wanting my kids to have some idea of what I was thinking, even if what I was thinking wasn’t right.  And wanting them to know that they could always question me or question themselves later, to always be aware of themselves and analyzing themselves.  I wanted to be able to let them feel like they could do that because I didn’t feel like I could, growing up.

I guess it goes with communication, I want to be able to share whatever although I really don’t.  I have four instagrams, it’s absurd.  I have one for physical art that I’ve created, drawing on stones, murals, what have you.  I have one that journals and documents my and my children’s life on the road, I have a personal page that I use to explore my own self image and self expression and curiosities, and I have one that only my children are following that’s like a family journal.  So I think maybe I post too much on my other instagram, or maybe it’s just that some moments I do feel like being a little more guarded.  I want to be able to be open, but I have to admit that over time I have definitely regretted being as open as I am.  So I’m trying to find my own sense of middle ground or balance to that part of myself because I don’t want to stop expressing myself or being open, about whatever it is, but I also want to keep something for myself and my children.

©Nada Y Todo

I see you as someone who is authentic in the way you put your words and images out into the world, and authentic with the way you live.  Photography aside, how do you live in a way that feels true to who you are and what you believe in, even when it feels scary or is different than the way a lot of other people live? 

I don’t ever really feel like I stop being myself.  Even though sometimes I put on a front or I don’t put out there the same open, honest, translucent energy that maybe other people see about me.  And I don’t even know if the things that I say online can really convey what it is to be around me in person.  Because part of me is that I don’t have a filter, I’ll say whatever, but then the other part of me is that I know the expectations and the game and the system and the sociology behind certain encounters or situations.  And sometimes I’m not exactly who I want to be in that moment but I try to evade certain problems or issues the best I can because I can see them and be aware of them.  I suppose in a way that’s me still being authentic.  It’s hard for me to ever take that away from anybody else.  Even if I’m looking at someone and I’m being more critical of them and I’m like, “well, it doesn’t seem as you’re being genuine or sincere,” that in it’s own sense is that person’s authentic self.  They have for whatever reason the response to guard themselves in a way.  I’ve done it.  It’s just really difficult to look at anybody else as being much different than me or look at myself as much different than anyone else because, ain’t nobody perfect.  So I guess authentic equals being willing to admit that I’m not perfect.

©Nada Y Todo

What are some of the things/people/places that have had an influence on you as an artist or as a person?

Everything I’ve seen, touched and experienced, I wouldn’t even know where to start with the list.  From little tiny bugs in the grass, or that creep into the house, to pretty much every human we’ve met, it’s just all over the place.  Everything, I feel like, affects me in some sort of artistic way.  Whether it’s thoughts that I have that I feel like I want to put down into a picture, or me wanting to do pictures because there’s so many amazing artists out there in this world.  And I try not to overwhelm myself by looking into them, I don’t watch a bunch of movies or scroll through a bunch of images.  I don’t read a bunch of books, but I do soak up whatever comes my way.  And I feel like there’s some sort of magic to the pattern and I really love the things that have come my way.

What makes you feel like you come alive?

My kids.  Living on a bus is pretty nice, it opened up the door to me being able to admit that there’s a passion and an intensity that flows through me, but it’s my kids for sure, 100%.  Experiencing things with them, feeling the safety of knowing that I’m going to be accepted no matter what my response is.  No matter who I am, they’ve shown me consistently that they love me.  And it’s nice. There’s so many different things that have happened that I could never have planned out in any way.  And having those experiences with them that are just, like, so weird, makes me feel alive for sure.

©Nada Y Todo

How did you get your name Nada Y Todo? 

Before I was born I was George Anthony, my father and mother believed I was going to be a boy so they picked that name, But I wasn’t George Anthony, I was born a girl and I was born early, unexpected on all accounts.  My mom decided to name me after her best friend who had just recently had a baby, Jamie Lee.  I can’t remember how old I was when I was told that story, but at that point there had already been an estrangement between me and my mother.  So I was never really attached to that name.  Later, after we had started living on the bus, when things didn’t work out between me and my third husband and I was deciding that I didn’t want to ever be married again, didn’t want to be in that type of relationship or that much stress, I decided that I wanted to be called Nada, which means nothing.  My kids are sweet and said if I’m going to be called nothing then I also be called everything, which is todo.  So nothing and everything.  Nada Y Todo.  

You can find more of Nada’s photography and writing on Instagram @nadatodolife and @nadatodoart

Her paintings can be found on her website, and her work has been featured in Up Photographers.

©Nada Y Todo

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.