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Home FEATURES Artist Interviews Interview: Nikki McClure

Interview: Nikki McClure
Tuesday, 12 June 2007 08:32
Cynthia Houng interviews this Olympia, Washington based artist who's known for her painstakingly intricate paper cuts and her work with K and Kill Rock Stars.

by Cynthia Houng

Nikki McClure’s papercuts are at once fragile and powerful. The smallest ones are no bigger than a postage stamp, but they exhibit the same graphic lines and decisive interplay between positive and negative space that characterize McClure’s larger works. McClure’s works are characterized by their tight composition. These pieces give a sense of the artist as one who observes the world carefully, with sustained attention. And the clarity of her vision comes through in her precise lines.

A Washington native, McClure lives and works outside of Olympia, Washington. McClure’s papercuts were recently featured at San Francisco’s Needles & Pens. In April, 2007, Abrams published Collect Raindrops: The Seasons Gathered, an anthology of McClure’s recent work. She is currently creating a book cover for Carlos Petrini’s Slow Food Nation, working on illustrations for her 2008 calendar, and “keeping lonely honeybees company” in her Olympia garden.

mcclure_1.jpg

Let's start with the biographical facts. Where are you from? Where did you grow up? Can you remember when and how you became interested in art? Who were your favorite artists?

I grew up in Kirkland, Washington, aross the lake from Seattle, and then I moved to Olympia to attend The Evergreen State College in 1986. I planted some apple trees and now I am staying put here to harvest the fruits.

I have always considered myself an artist, even when I was small. I would dress up in crazy outfits from my Grandmother's old clothes and draw all day long. But I never knew it could be a vocation. I thought I would always have to get a "real" job, so I wanted to be a Marine Biologist.

My favorite artists have have always been childrens book illustrators: Sendak and McCloskey, but I also had The Life series on artists so I was drawn to the gory paintings of Goya, the sketches of Leonardo, and the feet of Picasso.

How did you come to your medium? What drew you to paper cuts?

I didn't take art at college, I took science classes. I have a B.S. and a BA. I basically drew technical drawings--even my chemistry lab books had drawings in them. I studied a lot of entomology and would spend a whole week drawing one fly--every hair and spiracle with a technical pen. I drew myself crazy!

I decided to loosen up a bit and try an art class, so I made up a class where I would make a book about wetlands with linoleum prints. I rented a studio downtown next to K Records and got to work. I showed up at the end of the term with a set of linocuts, not knowing how to print them! The book is still published by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

So I started making linocuts, and started forgetting to reverse the image in my excitement to make pictures. I tried scratchboard too, but these allowed me to be too detailed and was a regression toward my technical drawing compulsion. Then one day, my friend Tae Won Yu suggested I try cutting a picture out of paper. I had gotten skilled with an knife to draw, and I really liked the black and white simplicity. I tried it and it felt so good inside my brain- The light turned on. It is still very meditative to me.

I had never noticed papercuts before. It was as though I had just discovered the wheel, but then looked up and saw that the Chinese have been creating them for thousands of years, as well as Japanese, Mexican, Jewish, German, and Polish artists. Where ever there is paper... It is a accessible art form.

mcclure_4.jpg

No artist interview is complete without some discussion of your influences. What or who do you enjoy? Which artists and genres do you find yourself drawn towards? What's your current obsession?

My influences are mostly nature-based. Crows preening each other, swallows in flight, hazelnut catkins hanging low, the swelling of buds about to bloom. I come to art from observation of the natural world. My favorite artists include waves and the patterns made by grasses blown by the wind across the sand. It might sound corny, but it is true!

I don't get out much. I live in a small town with some great artists. As far as people artists, I am inspired by the work of my friends.

Obsession? The heavy drape of hazelnut catkins.

Your work references motherhood quite a bit. You frequently depict children and childhood in your work, and often include your own little boy. How would you describe your approach to art and motherhood? Are they complementary practices?

I'm just living. My work is my life: my life is my work. My life now has a child in it and that shows up in my work. My work now has a child as part of it and that shows up in my life. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to continue making work while caring for my child.

I worked at home for the first two years and have only just now made it back to my studio in downtown Olympia. But I am at home now, typing this up, taking peeks outside where my family is planting fresh strawberry starts in just turned over soil. It will be a picture some day. I just ran outside for a photo shoot to make sure! They found a big worm to feed to the chicken, but she couldn't be found so they put it back in the earth. Lucky worm!

So you can see how it's just all intertwined. I do have some lofty art ideals, too. I want to make a better world, a cleaner, safer place to live for all--people, trees, bees, water. Hopefully I am making at least a few people's days better.

mcclure_photo.jpg
//photo by Pat Castaldo

How do you start a piece? Do you sketch and then transfer the image to the paper? Do you begin cutting directly into the drawing? Do you "draw" with your knife?

I start with an idea, an experience, a moment witnessed or shared. Then I sketch, sometimes I have Jay T., my husband, take pictures of me in different poses (the digital camera has changed the art world!). I make a final-to-size sketch, and then I sketch it again with pencil onto the black paper. Sometimes I trace it, so I can follow the indentation, but I like the multiple drafting stages. I then start cutting--usually doing the part I am most likely to mess up on first, just in case I do, then I don't have to do the whole piece over again. But mistakes are what I like about the process, There us no way to fix it except through new choices.

Problem solving is what art is all about. I can't erase, paint over...I have to alter the relationships, line width, or...eee gads...just live with it! The last piece's imperfections usually makes me want to make the next piece.

I keep room open for changes, for by-the-way decisions. I don't sketch it out too tightly. Each pencil line is two lines to cut. The width of the line is subject to the whim of the knife blade and the steadiness of my hand.

How did you learn to make papercuts?

By making mistakes. The first papercut I made is the first page in my book, "Apple." The second is the second page.

mcclure_5.jpg

mcclure_2.jpg

Do you work in other media?

I used to watercolor when I was on vacation...but now I just ride cable cars.

McClure creates album covers and other graphic materials for K Records and Kill Rock Stars. Her work frequently appears as illustrations, and she produces a papercut calendar every year.

Tell us about the relationship between your illustrations and your "independent" work?

This is a timely question, as I am trying to make them one and the same. I only want to make the pictures that I want to make. If the client doesn't want them, then I don't want to do the project. But of course there is a part of me that wants to do good work for the client, so it's hard to really know how much is purely independent.

I am also becoming much more clear about image reuse. I don't want it to be just anyone. They have to meet a standard of responsibility towards the world, for instance I just licensed images to Patagonia, did a cover for a book by the Slow Food founder, Slow Food Nation, and [did] product design for a food store that makes local, organic take-home meals in reusable containers. Pretty p.c. I also made hatch-covers (manhole covers) for Olympia's Stormwater. It is a picture of a baby swimming with little salmon; the only reason people will ever try to make water cleaner. They let me make whatever I wanted. It was liberating. I realized that I know what I want and when I am allowed to make that picture it is so much better than a compromised, committee-decided image.

The calendar has become my own self-commissioned project: January? what is January? March? July? It is a definitive assignment. A collection of all my calendar images will be out in May on Abrams, Collect Raindrops.

How did you become involved with the record labels K and Kill Rock Stars?

I live in Olympia! Before I really found image-making as a way to express myself, I would write a song on my ukele/body and run down the alley to the Bikini Kill show and sing it between bands. It was a rush! I am pretty impatient with my art. I want to see the image right away, much like I wanted to sing that song that very moment of conception to my community.

I also wanted to be in Olympia ever since I heard Beat Happening's first record. It was a magnet pulling me to this shore.

mcclure_3.jpg

Would you mind sharing a random, and unexpected, fact about yourself?

I can find four-leaf clovers while running fast on a soccer field, or while stopped at a traffic light, or just about anywhere...especially when I am not looking for them. When I was little, I would find so many, I would gather them up in my shirt tails and press them in the dictionary to make St. Patrick's Day cards.

You can find more information about Nikki and her work at her website: www.nikkimcclure.com

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