Don’t Bite These Fingernails! Fanciful ‘Tiny Canvases’ at Oceanside Art Museum

Cleopatra’s nail sarcophagi are part of “Tiny Canvases: The Art of Nails” exhibit, on display through Feb. 9, 2020 at Oceanside Museum of Art.
(Photo by Maurice Hewitt)

“Nails have been a path to artistic expression for thousands of years,” reads a sign at the entry to Oceanside Museum of Art’s supersized exhibition “Tiny Canvases: The Art of Nails.”

Farther along, there’s a sign about the history of nail adornment, mentioning “manicure kits dating as far back as 3200 BCE in the tombs of Babylonian soldiers.”

Babylonian soldiers? Who knew?

Jan Arnold did. She’s the co-founder and style director of Creative Nail Design (CND), the company that co-produced this stunning display of nail art, which opened in October and continues through Feb. 9, 2020.

A longtime Del Mar resident, Arnold is the daughter of Dr. Stuart Nordstorm, an Oceanside dentist who, 40 years ago, invented the product that made advanced nail artistry possible.

She first proposed the exhibition to OMA executive director Maria Mingalone about two years ago, wanting to do something special for CND’s 40th (ruby) anniversary in the city of its birth. She wanted the show to be a celebration of nail artists.

“We just make the product,” Arnold said. “They do the magic.”

Jan Arnold with a Ruby Corset made of hundreds of nail tips by designers David and Phillipe Blond. She is the co-producer of “Tiny Canvases: The Art of Nails” exhibit, on display through Feb. 9, 2020 at Oceanside Museum of Art.
(Photo by Maurice Hewitt)

She brought her own passion for fashion to the company, eager to see nail art included on Fashion Week runways.

“Bare nails are platforms yearning for adornment,” she said. “If you give models something to express with, they don’t just walk the runway, they express themselves completely — with their hands.”

Designers listened, and since 1995, CND has been nailing the runways, with full-size examples of their couture collaborations on view at OMA, along with 10,000 tiny canvases, chosen from their 20,000-nail archives by project manager Brigitte Mahnke.

As lead curator for the exhibition, Mingalone brought in Orange County-based Rhonda Gawthorp, who had recently curated two shows for the museum.

“It was a wonderful experience, very different from what I usually do,” said Gawthorp. “Usually I bring in the artists and the art, but Jan’s team had everything from their archives, plus all the photos, mannequins and costumes, and having Brigitte as co-curator was great. I just had to make a half-inch scale model of the exhibition so we could figure out how to fit everything in.”

A close-up of the Chinese Empress’ long nails and jeweled nail guards, as part of “Tiny Canvases: The Art of Nails” exhibit, on display through Feb. 9, 2020 at Oceanside Museum of Art.
(Photo by Maurice Hewitt)

The first room of the exhibit features interactive touch screens so viewers can watch nail designers do what they do. Next is the History Room, with examples of Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian nail art. Then there’s the Design Lab, with the 10,000 sculpted nails and the products they’re made from, and finally the Runway, an installation of giant photos and small “Look Books” with a Paparazzi Room set up for selfies.

“ ‘Tiny Canvases’ is making good on our commitment to deliver the unexpected,” said Mingalone, and the show has been drawing diverse and enthusiastic crowds. After OMA, it goes on to Italy and beyond. Don’t miss seeing it here, this holiday season. Bring your friends, and come prepared for a hugely good time.

IF YOU GO: Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way, Oceanside is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $8; seniors $5; free for children under 18, students and active military. First Sunday each month is free. (760) 435-3720.


The Nordstrom family; autumn 1979; Jan is at the far left.
(Courtesy Photo)

The Creation of Creative Nail Design

Besides being a practicing dentist, Dr. Stuart Nordstrom had a degree in organic chemistry, and spent many evenings in his garage cooking up formulas. “He was always inventing things — mouthwash, toothpaste, hand cream. We five kids were his guinea pigs,” said his daughter, Jan Arnold, co-founder of Creative Nail Design.

One day in 1979, he was preparing a temporary crown for a patient who suddenly said: “Whatever you’re using smells just like what I use to sculpt porcelain nails! I’m a nail professional, and the products I use don’t look natural, they’re not strong enough, and they have no resiliency or color stability. If you’re using this for teeth, with all the biting and chewing we do, it must be better, and I want what you’re using!”

He asked her to bring him a sample of one of her products, analyzed it and discovered what she had was a single-linked polymer, when a cross-linked polymer resin was what she needed.

“My father was a real brainiac,” Arnold said. “He started spending hours on the phone with nail pros, asking ‘What do you need? What do your clients want?’ My mother thought he was having a mid-life crisis, on the phone with all those women, but he was gathering information.

“He used to say: ‘You’ve got two ears and only one mouth. Do twice as much listening as talking.’ That’s what inspires innovation.”

He came up with a liquid and powder polymer mix he called SolarNail, and applied for a patent. “He became a real nail pro himself,” Arnold said. “He improved not just the product, but the protocol, introducing safe and sanitary practices from the dental office to the nail salon.”

She was 22, already enjoying a career in fashion merchandising, when Nordstrom told his five children, two of whom were still in high school, that he was gifting the patent to them.

“He wouldn’t give us the money to start a business, but that’s what he thought we should do,” she recalled. “My brother Jim and I decided to do it. We made friends with the head of the School of Cosmetology in Oceanside, we took classes and learned about the business and finally we went to the bank to ask for a loan. I put a sculpted nail on the banker’s pinky, and he gave us the loan! It changed the nail industry and it changed our lives.”

She hand-drew the company’s first logo. Then, someone recommended award-winning graphic artist David Arnold, who not only designed their logo, but began doing all their graphics.

“He did such a good job, I decided to marry him!” she said. “He also does a beautiful sculpted nail!”

Some of the 10,000 tiny canvases on display; each skull has moving jaws; as part of “Tiny Canvases: The Art of Nails” exhibit, on display through Feb. 9, 2020 at Oceanside Museum of Art.
(Photo by Maurice Hewitt)