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Esta Nesbitt papers, 1942-1981

Esta Nesbitt papers, 1942-1981

Nesbitt, Esta, 1918-1975

Educator, Printmaker

Collection Information

Size: 10.5 linear feet

Summary: The papers of illustrator, xerography artist, filmmaker, and educator Esta Nesbitt date from circa 1942-1981, with the bulk of the material dated 1964-1975, and measure 10.5 linear feet. They consist of biographical material, correspondence, writings, xerography research files, project and exhibition files, and printed material. Much of the collection relates to Nesbitt's xerography work. Additionally, the collection includes motion picture film and sound recordings related to her film and performance work.

Nesbitt's primary collaborators, correspondents, and subjects of investigation are not concentrated in any one series but rather recur throughout the collection. Nesbitt worked closely with Anibal Ambert, Merle English at Xerox Corporation, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She read and wrote about the accrual of information, Albert Einstein, Asian religion and philosophy, communication, computer technology, documentation practices, energy, psychology, Samuel Beckett, and states of consciousness. Chinese characters and an image of Allen Ginsberg appear repeatedly in Nesbitt's works. Subjects of study and experimentation include 3M and Kodak technologies, color, film, morphology, participatory and performance art, shadows, sound, street works, xerography, and Xerox machines.

Biographical material revolves mostly around Nesbitt's work as a professor at Parsons School of Design. Records include Nesbitt's resumé, an exhibition history, motion picture film of the inside of her studio, and teaching files.

Correspondence contains personal letters from family members, and professional correspondence with fellow artists and employees of Xerox Corporation. Much of the series is correspondence between Nesbitt and fellow artists Alan Leder, David Lyle, and R.E. Wood, and is philosophical in nature. Correspondence with Xerox Corporation documents her relationship with the corporation between 1970 and 1972, when they underwrote her experiments in xerography.

Writings include illustrated journals, journals, notebooks, loose notes, and transcripts. The content of the writings varies widely throughout the series and includes artwork, sketches, diagrams, annotated clippings, transcripts of conversations, Nesbitt's writings about her dreams and family, details about her daily life, and notes about artists' materials, film, and sound.

Xerography Research Files document Nesbitt's experiments with xerography, which she often refers to in her papers as "Xerox Xplore." Contents include Nesbitt's definitions of xerography terms; Xerox equipment brochures; clippings; xerography studies; notebooks about Nesbitt's plans, work with color, and xerography study details; and slides and transparencies of completed xerography prints.

Project and Exhibition Files consist of a variety of documentation related to Nesbitt's books, exhibitions, films, performance and participatory art, and other projects. This series contains the bulk of the collection's motion picture films and sound recordings. The film and sound performance piece titled "Everyman as Anyman, or Putting On, On, On, On, On," the piece Walk Up - Tape On, the film "Light Times 499," and exhibitions of Nesbitt's xerography work and her series of work called Shadow Paintings are the most prominent subjects of the series.

Printed Material contains books, clippings, magazines, exhibition announcements, catalogs, and press releases about Nesbitt's interests, artwork, exhibitions, and galleries that exhibited her work. Some of the material is annotated.

Biographical/Historical Note

Esta Nesbitt (1918-1975) was an illustrator, xerography artist, filmmaker, and educator who lived and worked in New York City.


The Esta Nesbitt papers were donated by Saul Nesbitt, her husband, to the Archives of American Art in 1981.

Related Materials


Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Council on Library and Information Resources' Hidden Collections grant program.

A Finding Aid to the Esta Nesbitt Papers, circa 1942-1981, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical/Historical note
Esta Nesbitt (1918-1975) was an illustrator, xerography artist, filmmaker, and educator who lived and worked in New York City. She was a fashion illustrator for about two decades before becoming a children's book illustrator, performance artist, xerography artist, and filmmaker.
Nesbitt taught at Parsons School of Design from 1964 to 1974. Around 1970, Nesbitt created the piece
Walk Up --Tape On
with her Parsons students. The piece involved documenting social interaction by taping themselves to each other and then others as they walked through New York City, creating what Nesbitt called a "living organism," before presenting themselves to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The event was documented with film, photography, and audio recordings.
In 1970, Nesbitt contacted Xerox Corporation about creating experimental art investigations of the
Walk Up --Tape On
documentation using Xerox machines in their New York City office. During Nesbitt's time at Xerox, she experimented with many different copying machines, materials, and techniques to create what came to be known as xerographic artworks. She invented three xerography techniques: transcapsa, photo-transcapsa, and chromacapsa. A transcapsa work is created by moving a piece of material over the copier's window during the printing cycle. A photo-transcapsa work is created by moving a photographic image over the copier's window during the printing cycle. Chromacapsa is a process of adding color to xerographic works using Xerox copiers. Nesbitt referred to her work at Xerox as "Xerox Xplore," which culminated with the exhibition "Xerography - Extensions in Art" (1971-1972) and the commission of the print
All the Lines are Nines
To demonstrate "the media bombardment surrounding 'everyman' today," Nesbitt created a film and sound performance piece titled "Everyman as Anyman, or Putting On, On, On, On, On" in 1969. The performance consisted of five Super 8 film projectors and a multi-layered soundtrack. Nesbitt further experimented with filmmaking and xerography with the films "Folding/Struck" and "Light Times 499," which was created with Anibal Ambert. Her interest in xerography is further illustrated in the exhibition "Electrostatic Structures: 'New Morphs'" (1972-1973). The exhibition "1000 Empty 49.3 Grams: A participatory environment" was a culmination of her interest in participatory art.
Nesbitt died November 30, 1975 in New York City. Three posthumous exhibitions include "Esta Nesbitt: Xerography Prints" (1976) at The Art Center of Waco, "Memorial Exhibition of Drawing and Illustrations by Esta Nesbitt" (1977) at Parsons School of Design, and "Electroworks" (1979-1981) at the George Eastman House.
Arrangement note
The collection is arranged into 6 series:
Biographical Materials, 1964-circa 1981 (0.3 linear feet; Box 1, 11)
Correspondence, 1942, 1964-1976 (0.3 linear feet; Box 1, OV 14)
Writings, 1959-circa 1973 (1.3 linear feet; Box 1-2, 12, OV 15)
Xerography Research Files, circa 1966-1974 (2.5 linear feet; Box 2-4, 11, OV 16)
Project and Exhibition Files, circa 1966-1981 (5.2 linear feet, Box 4-8, 11, 13, OV 17-19, 21, FC 22-23)
Printed Material, 1942-circa 1944, circa 1963-1977 (0.9 linear feet; Box 9-10, OV 20)
The Esta Nesbitt papers were donated by Saul Nesbitt, her husband, to the Archives of American Art in 1981.
Processing Information note
The collection was fully processed and a finding aid was prepared by graduate intern Christina Meninger in 2013 with funding provided by the Council on Library and Information Resources' Hidden Collections grant program. Motion picture film reels were inspected and re-housed in 2016 with funding provided by the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment. Use of archival audiovisual recordings with no duplicate access copy requires advance notice.

How to Cite This Collection

Esta Nesbitt papers, 1942-1981. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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