Chicago-based artist Nancy Rosen, the creative force behind Lily Tomlin’s Frankie on Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” has watched with glee as the show, popular with LGBTQ+ audiences, has exposed her artwork to the world. Frankie is often seen painting behind her easel in her work shed, and those creations — Rosen’s creations — have become an integral part of the show.
To date, 56 pieces of Rosen’s art have been featured on the Show (now streaming its seventh, and last, season). But that ain’t nothin’. Since the show started airing, art-loving viewers have flocked to Rosen’s website. “I’ve sold 822 pieces because of the show,” Rosen, 65, told Pride Source. “In 44 states and 17 countries. It’s wonderful because if you like Frankie’s work, you just Google ‘Who does Frankie’s artwork,’ and I come up.”
That whopping total might seem impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the massive amount of work Rosen has created in her studio in Rogers Park, Chicago. “You can’t tell that I sold one painting in my studio,” she said. “Because they’re all on paper.”
Rosen, whose work is currently on display at the Robert Kidd Gallery in Birmingham, discovered painting at 5 years old, when her kindergarten classmate kept turning down her invitations to Friday playdates.
“Finally, I asked her why she kept saying no, and she said she was going to art class,” Rosen recalled. “So, I said, ‘Well, then, I’ll go to art class, too.’”
Once there, Rosen immersed herself. “My whole life, I’ve always painted, but I always made stuff as well. Like I strung beads, I did silversmithing, I did macramé in the day, and that’s what filled me up. [My friends] all dropped out, and I kept going. And that’s what always filled me.”
Rosen’s introduction to creating for television came about when her dear friend, Robbie Tollin, executive producer of “Grace and Frankie,” told her they were looking for an artist to create work for the Frankie character. Everyone on the show’s creative team suggested an artist. Tollin suggested Rosen, the group agreed, and the rest is showbiz history.
“It was a thrill,” Rosen said of receiving the call that her work had been chosen. “I had no idea what I was in for. They didn’t either. At first, I did some paintings that they asked me to do, and then they just kept asking me to do more and more. They were figuring out Frankie’s character and Frankie’s art. So it was a lovely, fabulous, challenging journey.”
Tomlin, for her part, told Variety that she had not been familiar with Rosen’s work before the show, but that she agreed it fit for her character. “Nobody knew what kind of painter Frankie was,” Tomlin said. “[Rosen’s work] seems eccentric, and a little manic, and wonderful, and dark at times and very comedic at other times. It’s just right.”
The demands of Hollywood
Once Rosen got the gig, she was quickly surprised by the demands of the job, which would push her creative boundaries to new limits. Such as the time when they told her to paint a pig.
“I would say ‘yes,’ and then I’d go, ‘Oh God, what do I do now?’ So then I must Google pigs and start drawing pigs, and I draw them in the way I would draw a pig. It takes my style, my thread through it.”
Eventually, Rosen did paint a pig—six of them, in fact—for the studio to choose from. Sometimes, Rosen admitted she doubted herself. But her husband de ella David never did and she relied on him for support. He’s the only person she’d let see one of her paintings of her before it was complete.
“He’s the only one I trust,” Rosen said. “When I was doing vagina paintings, and I was doing the head of Frankie, I was like, ‘Do I have her de ella?’ You get so close, and you have to ship it the next day, and he’d come over and be like, ‘Not yet.’ And he I’d be like, ‘Shit!’”
Starting out, Rosen said she had no idea what to expect. But her art of her ‘s role of her in the show continued to grow. In the third season, Frankie even had a one-woman show, “which meant that Nancy Rosen was having a solo show, and I was like ‘Bring that shit on,’” she said. “We curated that show. I showed them my fantasy of what they would show. I was able to show work I’ve never shown before, really.”
Not only was her solo show viewed by millions, but Rosen was an extra on that episode, paid to walk around and look at her own art.
As the years went on, Rosen would have a total of 56 pieces of her artwork featured in the show. Thinking back on seven seasons, Rosen tried to explain how her work — Frankie’s work — had evolved.
“I did me until they told me to be somebody else. I would never have drawn a poodle,” she said. “Then, they said, ‘We need you to draw a robot that’s a woman who’s making donuts, but they’re really bagels with sprinkles.’ I’ve never thought about a woman robot, not once in my entire life.”
“So maybe the evolution is of me doing stuff that I’ve never dreamed of in my life,” she continued. “I have the skill set to do it. But I would have never done it, if not for the show.”