While recovering from a near fatal illness, Nancy Pressly discovers a treasure trove of family material stored in her attic. Haunted by images of her grandparents and her parents in their youth, she sets out to create a family narrative before it is lost forever. It takes several more years before she summons the courage to reconstitute a path back to her own past, slowly pulling back the veil of amnesia that has, until now, all but obliterated her memory of her childhood.

In this sensitive and forgiving meditation on the meaning of family, Pressly unravels family dynamics and life in a small rural town in the 1950s that so profoundly affected her―then moves forward in time, through to her adulthood. With an eye attuned to visual detail, she relates how she came into her own as a graduate student in the tumultuous sixties in New York; examines how she assumed the role of caretaker for her family as she negotiated with courage and resilience the many health setbacks, including her own battle with pancreatic cancer, that she and her husband encountered; and evokes her interior struggle as a mother as she slowly traverses the barriers of expectations, self-doubt, and evolving norms in the 1980s to embrace a remarkable life as a scholar, champion of contemporary art, and nationally recognized art museum strategic planning consultant. Full of candor and art-inspired insight, Unlocking leaves the reader with a deep appreciation of the power of art and empathy and the value of trying to understand one’s life journey.

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Praise for Unlocking

This is an unflinchingly honest memoir, written with the clarity and powerful visual sense of an art historian. Particularly vivid are the retrieval of [Pressly’s] childhood memories through letters, diaries, and photographs. . . . Her career as art historian, curator, and arts administrator offer fascinating insights. But above all, this is a memoir about her love of family and her own evolution as a person. Finishing it, you realize you have been privileged to get to know a remarkably gifted and indomitable spirit.”
―Tom Dunne, author of Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize winner Rebellions: Memoir, Memory, and 1798

In this clairvoyant and heart-warming memoir, Nancy L. Pressly shares her arduous path through the thickets of memory to reveal a remarkable and uplifting account of a woman who defined herself through positive energy and love. Guided by an agile intelligence and an eye for detail, honed by years in art history as scholar, curator, and consultant, Pressly animates memories long obscured by disappointments and losses. She makes the intensely personal universally compelling. We learn from her story how we might tackle the labyrinth of our own paradoxes.”
―June Hargrove, author of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and recipient of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters

Nancy Pressly’s revealing personal journey is a powerful inspiration. Uncovering childhood memories and family history, battling physical challenges, acknowledging and owning the roles of wife and mother, researcher, and accomplished arts administrator―all underscore a passionate life hard-earned and well-lived. Artfully written, her life story is a compassionate reminder of the power within to remain positive through adversity and obstacles, to stay true to oneself, and, above all, to embrace love of art, self, and family.”
―Andrea Snyder, cofounder/codirector of American Dance Abroad and former assistant director of NEA Dance Program

Pressly weaves a compelling memoir, revealing a history that extends across generations and time. Elegantly composed, Unlocking shares a deeply personal evolution. Pressly’s story exemplifies the professional and personal challenges so many women confront, while showing how beauty and love can redeem those struggles.”
―Stephanie Heydt, Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of America Art, High Museum of Art

This is a woman of extraordinary passion and enormous energies. The test of a person (and for that matter, a marriage) is how the individual handles and overcomes the challenges of life. Pressly time and again passes the test with flying colors in this candid memoir. A side benefit: the illuminating chapters devoted to her thoughts on what it means to experience great works of art. (The volume features copious illustrations, both art plates and family photos.) In Florence, she admired Jacopo Pontormo’s “enigmatic, strange, and beautiful” painting Deposition From the Cross (1526-28): “I was absolutely stunned by the intense, almost strident, pastel colors of the drapery, which in places clung so tightly to the grieving figures as to appear translucent.” The author is a truly marvelous guide on a tour literally around the world, insisting that art reproductions in books are a poor second to the in situ experience that she convincingly describes as life changing. A wrenchingly honest account that deftly combines a marriage story and an art tour.”
—-Kirkus Reviews

In her searching and compassionate memoir, this keenly sensitive writer, noted art historian, and curator . . . tells how her own near-fatal illness allowed her to unlock her painfully lost girlhood with clear vision and empathy . . . . With Unlocking, she proves herself a woman of the deepest human insight.”
―Kate Moses, author of Cakewalk, A Memoir and Wintering

In this memoir, Nancy Pressly shares a lifetime of intense experiences. Her extraordinarily careful and evocative descriptions of personal relationships, works of art, and places enrich this powerful autobiographical essay. Definitely worth reading more than once!”
―Ellen G. Miles, art historian and author

Inspired by resilience and renewal, commitment and perseverance, love and trust―themes that are instantly relatable―Unlocking is an exquisite articulation of personal and professional stories, shared through the lens of someone who is deeply passionate about the connections between art and life. However, it is her commitment to learning, at each distinctive stage in life, that is the true lesson for all readers.”
―Allison Perkins, executive director of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Recent Blog and Goodreads Reviews

Moving, emotional, inspiring and gripping—all words I would use to describe ‘Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art’ by Nancy Pressly.  If you know me, you know I absolutely love a good memoir. Truth is always stranger than fiction, and the inner struggles and triumphs of people’s lives are always so fascinating to me. I love to read these types of books because it makes me feel like I am experiencing the highs and lows of their lives along with them and it is also a great opportunity to have a little cry over a book. This is the perfect memoir for readers like me. The perfect memoir for memoir-lovers! Pressly’s writing is profound. She clearly has a great sense of non-fiction story structure and how much detail is just enough. ‘Unlocking’ gives me a wonderful reading experience and a renewed interest for researching my own family history!  Bettybee306 and Toots Book Reviews

This taut, powerful and deeply original memoir revolves around the life of Nancy Pressly who was diagnosed with cancer in her late 60s. It is during these tough times that she discovers a treasure trove of family material stored in her attic. As she sorts through the old pictures, cards and letters she is fueled to learn more about her family which later sparks an interest in her to put down the narrative before it disappears forever.   The narrative undulates shifting between her family fleeing from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s with a dream of seeking the freedom and opportunity of America’s shores while also trying to get away from a hostile anti-Semitic situation from their home country Russia.  Unlocking is one of the best sensitive introspective memoirs ever written about immigration and hope. Presley’s [sic] writing is profound and evokes the contours of a life fraught with pain and major health issues but complete with both family and work. In her account, she shares her joy of both art and home all done in a wrenchingly honest account.  Gud Reader

A stunningly beautiful memoir about family and finding your place….Accompanied by a series of absolutely beautiful photos, Nancy tells the story of her family as she has come to know it. The story of a group of Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe’s increasingly discriminatory laws at the turn of the 20th century and coming to America. Living in the crowded and oftentimes difficult world of Jewish immigrants in New York City, Nancy’s family endured trauma, hardship and experienced some of life’s greatest joys in only a short amount of time.  This beautiful memoir gave me a new appreciation for the past and even changed my perspective of my own background as I read along. Nancy Pressly writes with the absolute softest touch, relaying details in such a tender and loving way that I found myself tearing up at times about people I don’t even know and places I have never been. By the end of the memoir, I felt like I knew her family and had spent many years sharing memories with them.   Linda on Goodreads