Interview: artist Nikki McClure

GR: Since your last exhibition at Giant Robot, what's the biggest change in your work? It's been perhaps 9 years?

Nikki McClure: I keep challenging myself with space and light, pushing for greater depth and exploring fog and shadows and rays of sun. My work has evolved into being less human centered. More images have no humans. When there are people, the people are more a part of the environment: feet seep into the advancing tide, children burrow with moles. There are more native plants, more water, more lines and sticks and jumbled vines. I cut the hell of of things now, bout also leave pieces of the paper solid, heavy and black. I am happiest when I find a balance between crazy pattern cutting and the restful weight of black paper.

photo by Finn

GR: It seems that your work follows your life and that of your son Finn. can you see a day when your  subjects change entirely out of children? Are you ready for Finn's teens?

Nikki McClure: I think that transition is already happening. Less people, more tangled roots and water. But he is still there with lots of ideas and quirky interests and sticks!! I am curious to depict boyhood transitioning into male teen hood. I grew up with just women around. This “becoming a man” thing is new and fascinating and as a feminist, a necessary self education.  I wonder what I’ll learn. What I can depict and add to the story. What are the growing up as a boy stories that will I discover and that our culture hasn’t written about or shown us?

I also have 10,000 photographs of the small years! And as he grows, I can look back and remember and draw from the emotion of changing lives. And people keep making cute curious children.

But that said, it hasn’t been so much about children as about motherhood and hope and what will this Earth be like when these children are grown and their children have grown?
The images are my life so as long as that keeps happening, I’ll keep making images and words about it. I am a changing being, getting older. My images from my 80’s will all be tea cups and landscapes.

photo by Buy Olympia

GR: The messages in your works (posters) have been popular, can you talk about how you came up with the words?

Nikki McClure: WORD. I keep a list posted to the wall of my studio. As the words come to me, I jot them down. They hover above my head as I work. When I am making an image, I’ll start thinking of the word, usually when the sketch is almost done. I’ll write a list on the sketch, a word path I have followed. I look words up in the dictionary. My husband Jay T. made me a dictionary stand once for my birthday. I use it almost daily. I follow the words through the book until I find the one that has layers of meaning. TRANSVERSE = pathway, yet also to cut through with a sharp weapon. That is a good one for an image of an antler I found on a trail. I stay away from the most obvious words. I want there to be some mystery, some sleuthing, and lots of conversations all month long about the word when the image and word are finally printed as a month in the calendar I make. My art practice consists of living life, making images, finding words, disseminating the calendar, and then instigating conversations in kitchens and offices about the images and words. I didn’t start out knowing how important the word would be to so many people. I just was making my own public service ad campaign, my own WPA project. But the words have changed peoples lives.

GR: What energy do you take from Olympia? You've stayed solidly in what I jokingly call, "indie town."

Nikki McClure: “What energy did I take?” seems a bit more appropriate. I feel like a hermit these days! But it’s not completely true. I am working with a younger-ish chap, Justin Crawford, experimenting with silk screening and the glory of fading inks over on the “West Side” which is another world! It is near Evergreen State College. The food co-op on the Westside is so different from one on the East Side, where I live. Pat Maley of Yo-Yo records always greets me when I walk in, for one thing, and the boxes to pack your groceries in are nicely stacked and they have a free store. There is a new letterpress print shop downtown! Pope Press where Hukee is giving classes and making cool inspirational broadsides in the most beautiful colors. Lois Maffeo and Eric Fleming meet me and Finn after school to play tennis in a decidedly “Keep it alive!” Olympia way. Jay T. always has some woodworking guy over with crazy schemes and that is fun to listen in on. I don’t walk around as much downtown anymore. But, I am amazed and proud of all the stores and restaurants that my peers have created in town.

I have always derived energy from the habitat of Olympia: the woods and moss and seawater smells. I have rooted here. I like seeing the water, the sky. I live just on the edge of town now. I can walk or bike in, mostly drive (i’m a Mama). My neighbors are eagles, owls, frogs, seals, jellyfish, chipmunks, and coyotes. They inspire independence too.

GR: There's something comforting about your work. Perhaps it's nature, or maybe being active, and positive. Can you elaborate more on your own life and how it all intersects?

Nikki McClure: That’s it. Natural Positive Action. My new cult.

Well, this one’s hard. 

For one thing, I don’t have a job other than making pictures (and books) . I don’t spend time in front of a computer too much (unless I have a tricky interview question to muddle through). I prefer to be outside, walking, looking, breathing, picking berries, and then swimming all afternoon, and having a spontaneous party at sunset on the beach. That is my ideal day. And in summer, it is usually what happens if I get my way and the tide is right.

I’ve always been an optimist and a finder of four leaf clovers which just reinforces my optimism and observing leaf patterns in a field of green, and also the necessity of talking a walk to improve your luck. I was dead set on becoming a Marine Biologist when I was young. I loved drawing, but being an Artist wasn’t in my sphere of careers (though there is an Artist in “What do People Do All Day” by Richard Scarry). In college (The Evergreen State College) I studied Natural History. I got to know my NW community. I also got to know the Olympia Indy community who were artists!! I could be one too and a scientist. It’s been a fun, and lucky time.

photo by Buy Olympia

GR: You've made plenty of books, can you tell me about the writing process? 

Nikki McClure: Books. I make books now, which is another change since I was last at Giant Robot for a show. I make a book a year now. 1/2 the year= book. 1/2 the year= calendar.
The ideas seem to leap at me like the calendar words. They are usually something Finn says. IN, my latest book is inspired by a glorious day in June when he wanted to stay in. I tried all my tricks tot get him to go out, but then accepted his in-ness. Then he wanted to be out! and it was raining! and getting dark! and it was time to go to bed. “But you want me to be outside.” So I made a book about that. I wrote it in my tent at the Kids Book Kegger, an annual kids book writer and illustrator retreat. I was intending to take a nap, but wrote a book instead. I am going again this year!

I am making a book right now that took a long time to write (for me). I’ve been working on it since August and it's still not done!! It is about marine biology and shows a more grown up boy entering that transition of self.

It is titled “Waiting for High Tide” and will be published in Spring of 2016 (fingers crossed! I have four more images to cut). I would sit on the beach and write until the waiter was to my toes. Perhaps that is why it has taken time. The writing unearthed things I didn’t know would happen,like my son needing to wear glasses. I love opening consciousness through words or images. 

GR: Any more of your retrospective giant museum art exhibitions? Those must be satisfying!

Nikki McClure: I haven’t heard any plans to take it elsewhere. But if you're a museum curator, let me know if you want to host it! 

It was a short a retrospective, a pause in my career. 

For me to stand in a room and see in sequential order images from my life unfold and become me was trippy. I’ve been making image after image since 1996. One image done, I move on to the next. Every series I stand back and look at what I made, or at every book. But to see all of it at once!! I didn’t know I was telling a story of a woman growing in confidence and body and motherhood and knowledge. That kind of story isn’t told in many museums. That was satisfying. I may not be Cindy Sherman, but I am making Feminist Art in my own quiet way.

But now I wonder what my retrospective will be like. What will I have made of this life? I hope it is interesting and then I can just paint my tea cup everyday and landscapes, seascapes, cloudscapes and eat blueberries happily.

GR: Finally, any tips for folks who enjoy paper cut related art? 

Nikki McClure: Make mistakes, experiment, change blades frequently, get a cutting mat ( sells them. They are from Japan). I use Strathmore charcoal paper, #11 Gripster X-Acto knife, small dabd of PVA glue from Colophon Book Arts Supply. But every paper cutter uses different papers, techniques, tools. Find your favorite. I went to Japan in October and brought back paper. I really wanted to get paper that is a fading gray blue, dark on the edge, fading to light inside, then to dark again, but couldn’t find it anywhere in Kyoto. The four-leaf clover luck might be waning. There is also a Guild you can join! The Guild of American Papercutters. Enjoy.