from chickfactor #15: an interview with nikki mcclure

nikki is an inspiration—a renaissance woman, a jane of all trades. she took the time out of her busy schedule of art, gardening, cooking, making music, nature-watching, and everything else, to answer some questions.

interview by dawn, photo by gail (nikki with cynthia connolly at ladyfest 2000; interview originally appeared in cf#15, 2002)

cf: describe your art.
nikki mcclure: I primarily make papercuts. I cut images from paper using my trusty x-acto knife with a box of fresh sharp blades nearby. I then reproduce the pictures with offset or letterpresses for the masses. the original artwork is sculptural though. at first people think that they are woodblock prints, but when they get real close they see that the paper has been carved like lace. they are 3-d and 2-d at the same time.
cf: describe the process of making your cuts/prints.
nikki: I sketch out ideas working from tiny postage stamp/thumbnail sketches to larger and more definitive drawings. my sketches are usually pretty rough. I save the details for when I am working with the paper. I then draw a new sketch onto black paper with pencil and start cutting. I leave a lot up to chance; making mistakes and fixing them is an important part of my process. the choice of light or dark is of the moment.
cf: how did you get into paper cuts?
nikki: one day I was working with scratchboard and was not getting the look that I wanted and tae won yu was sitting nearby and said, “why don’t you try cutting it out of paper?” I did. it turned out the way I had imagined and it felt good to boot. it really satisfies me.
cf: what is the tradition of paper cuts?
nikki: it has been around since the invention of paper. there are early chinese papercuts that look like snowflakes progressing towards modern cuts that are giant sized and detailed. there is a history of papercutting in mexico, poland, germany, japan, and there is also a jewish tradition. we all have made snowflakes. there is a guild of american papercutters even.
cf: where do you get the inspirations for your books/art pieces?
from living adventures and from happiness. nature, gardens, people working together, swimming in anacortes, new york city, water, the walk home, the morning light, love, those moments where time doesn’t matter, watching birds fly.
cf: did you do a birding map? (I think I read this online) if so, who was it for and why? (can you also describe it?)
nikki: I think you are referring to a guidebook to the birds of east bay (olympia) that I illustrated. I have made maps with birds on them, but they are not necessarily birding maps.
cf: is birding a hobby that inspired your punk rock nature walks during yo-yo a go-go?
nikki: yes. but I am not a hardcore birder by any means, so it really isn’t a hobby. I did bring binoculars with me camping this week and I did get a guide to birds in japan at a garage sale last week…plants and insects are hobbies as well. it’s the whole of the forest and wanting to share some of its secrets that inspired the walks. plus, I wanted to get the punks out into nature.
cf: you taught a letterpress class at the oly ladyfest. do you teach this often? what do you like about the letterpress? do you use it in your work?
nikki: yes. I am eager to share the resources that are at community print with the community. I think it is magic to print and want others to be able to print whatever they want without censorship and by the power of their own hands. therefore, I share more than teach. letterpress is full of mistakes (for me) and I like that. I print text for different things, make posters, an occasional book, and I always wish I had more time to print. I also would love to get a vandercook letterpress. if there is anyone out there who knows where I can get one, please let me know!
cf: what other types of art do you do?
nikki: I print, make a monoprint every so often, draw, watercolor on vacations, and I want to learn how to build things from my woodworking husband.
cf: do you consider your house art? please describe it.
nikki: the garden is always art, even in the winter as the iris seedpods gray. right now it is full of red poppies ringing the baby apple trees; their seeds brought in from the compost. the garden is constantly growing, changing, and more and more lawn is being removed. inside it is looking more like an art gallery with rotating exhibits of friend’s artwork. right now there is work by jean smith, khaela maricich, tae won yu, kanako wynkoop, mal pina chan, katie baldwin, and amber bell. the last issue of nest [magazine] also made me throw out a chair and plan an improved entryway. the kitchen is waiting for cork flooring and the garage is in need of a vandercook to go with the windows salvaged from a cabin on mt. rainier. the house is a 1922 bungalow. wood everywhere and wide open floor plan. (I have yoga class at my house.) I have never been anywhere like it.
cf: what piece of art that you’ve made are you most proud of?
nikki: oh this one’s hard. pride. there are my favorites, of course, but pride is something different. I just made a picture for my 2003 calendar that I am proud of. it was hard. I challenged myself and all it is a man in a field with another figure approaching with a bucket of water. but it is the bucket and how the shadow falls on the water that is what I am proud of. I am proud of pieces, of line width and subtle curves, of hands held right, and water dripping into circles.
cf: when you make art, do you have a specific audience in mind? gail says your art appeals to toddlers. can you explain this?
nikki: my audience usually is me first. I make work to make myself feel good, for the most part. not every picture is a joy, some are work, or rather work, as I make pictures for a client with a picture already in their mind. my book about chickens appeals to the toddler set. they love it. it becomes their favorite book. black and white, find the chickens, what’s going to happen next? pretty suspenseful stuff to a 2-year-old. another audience is everyone’s mothers. and yet another audience are lovers, mine and yours.
cf: does your art support you? if so, in what way—commissioned jobs or selling our work?
nikki: I make art and the art supports me. I sell the original papercuts of all my books and calendars. I have art shows, collaborate on making lamps and furniture with jay t. scott (my husband). I also make the calendars and books as a way for more people to enjoy my art. rather than relying on sales of originals, I can sell the reprints affordably. I also do commissions, logos, illustrations, k2 snowboards for 2003, teach art at schools, trade art for veggies…
I try to do more art from the heart than from assignments. I find that the self-inspired art is the art that supports me the most—financially as well as spiritually. but it is good to do jobs for other people: it is nice to not always have to make up new, brilliant ideas; it is good to not work alone all the time and to develop sketches with a client; and work makes more work.
cf: do you have any non-art jobs?
nikki: at present, no. I have worked doing bird surveys, a year at dept. of ecology, substitute teaching, waitressing. but these are all becoming historical notations. I need to clean out my car, oh and do bookkeeping! that’s work.
cf: what is your involvement with tell me how it came about. is it successful?
nikki: is pat castaldo and aaron tuller and artists/makers in olympia. pat is an old friend of mine. he is a master of computer graphics and I work with him on all my projects. so one day he tells me about his dream of selling olympia wares online. it sounded too good to be true, though I was a bit skeptical that people would find out about it. but buyolympia has done well. they advertise, link to the indie web, work all night mailing out everything during the holidays, call the artists to keep everything in stock, support and encourage new work, and people from sweden can not only buy a book and some olympia honey, but contact me to be in an art show.
cf: I hear your studio is a collective. who else belongs?
nikki: the studios are a community of working artists and members of a self-made economy. stella marrs operates her worldwide card empire; amber bell makes books and quilts and studies to be teacher; lucas gray cartoons; rebecca pearcy makes queen bee necessities (though she moves soon for portland); k records stays abreast of the underground music scene; khaela maricich paints and plans operas; phil elvrum orchestrates the microphones; people drop by to silk screen, sing, say hi, take tours, deliver the mail. then there is community print, add al and cypress and ariana to the mix and some salvaged presses and type and boxes of paper and you have a collective of printers. we took a show called 508 legion way to space 1026 in philadelphia this past march.
cf: where have you shown your artwork? will you have a show in nyc?
nikki: I have shown my work in olympia, seattle, portland, toronto, philly, sweden, tokyo, and kyoto. I would love to show in new york, but how and when require some work.
cf: why do you think that crafting is such a big trend right now? can we blame martha stewart?
nikki: sure, she can be part of the blame. but I think she should be blamed for encouraging classist consumerism instead. the trend to make crafts is due to the lack of using our hands to make work. sure we may type all day on these computers, but nothing real and tangible is being made by pressing all those keys. knitting, crossing sticks and pulling yarn into knots, row after row to make something warm is real work. folding paper and threading needle to sew up a book, make the hands work. crafting is handiwork. our neurons crave it.
cf: who are your favorite artists right now?
nikki: mecca normal
cf: who are your favorite musicians right now?
nikki: mecca normal
cf: do you still make music? perform?
nikki: yes, though pictures are my primary form of expression. I sang in tokyo in february and will perform at the what the heck fest in anacortes in july. I haven’t given it up, but I have less desire.
cf: what are some of your other hobbies? okay, more specifically, do you cook? if so, what and how? what’s your favorite dish to cook? hobbies?
nikki: camping, gardening, foraging, gleaning, and cooking, sure, but it seems too necessary for survival to be merely a hobby. I made cherry pies the other night for a camping trip. the tree at the abandoned house a few doors down called to me like a siren with her cascading red cherries. so jay t. and I got some ladders and filled up a bucket in 15 minutes. pitted with sugar and tapioca, crust made with ice cubes in water and cold butter cut into flour with two knives like my grandma taught me. wrap up the finished pies in parchment, pack them in a box with care, and then carry them in your backpack to a lake in old growth forest. eat them around a campfire and you are set.
cf: I hear you play soccer. on your own for fun, or in a league?
nikki: my mom signed me up for soccer in the 2nd grade and I cried, “but that’s a boys sport!” I have played ever since. my women’s team is called the sharks. I play sweeper/stopper (a defensive midfielder, defensive offense/offensive defense); I have been battling with injuries lately ever since I got kicked in the ankle playing co-ed. I dream about soccer all the time though.
cf: what’s the best thing about living in olympia? the worst?
nikki: the best is the abandoned blueberry farm where you crawl under the bushes or walk on top all crouching dragon style and fill your buckets with blue. the worst…I don’t want to tell. cf

nikki’s first major museum retrospective just opened at the museum of contemporary craft in portland, oregon.