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Nikki McClure

Cutting Her Own Path, 1996–2011

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Nikki McClure Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Craft

Jean Smith writes about her relationship with Nikki McClure and McClure’s influence on Smith’s life.

Download a PDF of the essay.

Nikki McClure Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Craft

On the occasion of being invited to contribute my thoughts for a retrospective exhibition of Nikki McClure’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, I feel it is significant to say that I am the singer in the Vancouver-based electric guitar and voice duo, Mecca Normal. Along with my creative partner, guitar-player David Lester, we have been touring and releasing music for over twenty-five years.

Nikki has, from time to time, said that Mecca Normal is her favorite band, the band she has seen live more times than any other band. In addition to this, Nikki and I are friends.

In the mid-1980s, David and I started Mecca Normal as a feminist response to injustice and a reaction to what was happening—and what was missing—in terms of music, anger and the female voice. In the mid-1990s, Mecca Normal was cited as an inspiration to the founders of the Riot Grrrl movement.

Some time in the 1990s, on one of our regular visits to Olympia, there was no room for us stay at the not-yet-legendary Martin Apartments. Calvin Johnson of K Records introduced us to Nikki—a scientist and Mecca Normal fan. She was to be our host. I was nervous about going home with a fan (short for fanatic). In my mind, because she wasn’t “in a band” or an activist, it seemed like things might be awkward between us. What would we talk about?

Since that visit, I don’t think we’ve stayed anywhere else in Olympia. Nikki makes our time in Olympia special. We feel valued and important in her life and we have, of course, been exposed to her artwork, her successes as they arrive, as they accumulate. While I am loath to dabble in a sentimental nostalgia, I want to get across how it is that she evolved, not as a human or an artist, but in the mind of another artist, one who works and thinks very differently than she does. In my mind.

If it wasn’t for Olympia, for Nikki and her friends, I wouldn’t have a tactile sense of community. I was an outsider in Vancouver, an oddball, an angry anarcha-feminist activist who grew up in a very sophisticated home with two abstract parents for painters… I mean…

In Olympia, David and I were welcomed into the hearts and homes of an entirely different sector, one populated by a gang of pie-baking, marshmallow-roasting, lake-swimming, lunchbox-toting, stuffed animal-collecting, berry-picking, picnic-packing non-politicos. Here I was, a hardcore punk with an anti-authoritarian attitude who ran-off at the mouth about “people” and “society.” I just didn’t see the connection. No one mentioned a connection; they just slid the pie across the table, asking if we’d like a slice. This is the deeply subversive side of Olympia. I never heard anyone talk about grassroots organizing, they just set up all-ages shows in crazy places and went ahead as if… as if that was normal. They behaved their way into what could be called utopia, rife with naturally occurring forms of reciprocity. I was exposed to a functioning model of community that I returned to many times to participate within, to reap the benefits and to use in re-configuring my own social philosophies.

It is strange to think that Mecca Normal has been part of the soundtrack to Nikki’s paper-cutting hours, listened to while she designed calendars, pondered concepts and at home, while she washed just-picked berries in the sink before piling them onto dough spread across a pie plate. That our music was her fuel and inspiration astounds me, not in an ego-oriented way, but because Mecca Normal’s lyrics, sounds and concepts are abrasive and confrontational. Likewise there is much ferocity in Nikki’s work, which may be overlooked because her work is also beautiful. As folk singer Phil Ochs said, “Ah, but the true protest is beauty.”

Nature—including the cultivation, collection and preparation of food—child-rearing, matters related to personal well-being and community have traditionally been the concern of women and therefore, historically of lesser importance and value than whatever male artists select as subject matter. Nikki’s seasonal themes are well-suited to her annual calendar releases, which, in a town with a monumentally important music scene, are a record of another kind. Her book Collect Raindrops (published in 2007 by Abrams, arguably the most important art imprint) maps a trajectory of viable activities through the seasons, but there is something else going on, right from the title page—the woman toiling there has remarkably sturdy legs. Throughout Nikki’s work, women look like women I know, not the stylized versions we react to in advertising directed by the well-implemented maxim—sex sells. In Collect Raindrops, the literal directives of prepare, embark and reconcile are augmented by visual information that bodies are both different from each other and from what consumer-driven media reflects back at us.

In craft especially, as opposed to art, per se, the aesthetics of design encourage a sort universal fixing-up, a boiling down, a smoothing over for the purpose of making the subject, human form included, recognizable in a language that borders on cliché. That is the nature of design and decoration. Craft may not be the vehicle best-suited to test wildly-new interpretations of its own traditional lexicon. In craft, image and design are decorative components typically secondary to the functionality of the piece. It’s a blanket, a bowl, a pleasant thing to hang on the wall in that annoying empty space between the window and the door. Which is precisely how American slaves were able to design quilts with messages and maps on them, to then “hang out to air” on fence railings without slave-owners realizing that the quilts were directing escaped slaves to safety, food and the Underground Railroad to freedom.

In craft, there are traditions and boundaries to consider, positioning craft as an excellent vehicle from which to voice subversive concepts.

The faces and bodies in Nikki’s work convey emotion, age, ethnicity and the mechanics of action. The strength of her work, of course, is in a courageous adeptness within her working palette of black and white, where all code is transmitted by the much-feared line. No shades of gray exist to soften edges, to allow the viewer leeway in their interpretation. Nikki’s work offers no such luxury. Yes, that is a bit of a frown on that woman’s face, the softer face of a woman in her forties.

We are, as highly astute readers of body-code in life, art and advertising, constantly understanding nuances based on nearly imperceptible variations in lines that imply weight, wrinkles, age, and physical strain. The subtleties of line-code are both idiosyncratically and universally agreed upon and internalized more than could ever be measured. We are, as citizens, chronically surrounded by standardized images, especially of the female form. Representing real bodies and faces is a political act. Nikki’s overt form of body-type realism is a subtext to her literal messages, which are all the more subversive because they are within beautiful and methodically technical work based on traditionally feminine themes. Or, are the overt messages trust, respond, and share the subtext to the decisions she makes about who populates her concepts?

In craft, the amount of time a piece takes to make will typically be visible by looking at the object. As a painter, and the daughter of painters, I am irked when I am asked how long a painting took to paint. I tend to say, “About fifty years.” Had Nikki’s images and concepts been articulated in pencil or watercolor, a viewer might err on the side of considering haste to have contributed to how and why the line describes the female form, but Nikki’s work clearly takes time—and the viewer sees this. There is a great deal of deliberation in her pieces.

Nikki’s work has been consistent in many ways, over many years. Looking back, as one does within a retrospective, we understand that her tenacity extends beyond paper-cutting time to finding sources of inspiration and honing concepts. The subjects of her artwork exude confidence. Fort-builders, gardeners, lovers. There is nothing tentative about the emotional scenarios she depicts. The viewer responds to her fearlessness with trust. Nikki McClure is an observer you can trust. Her pies are not in the sky. This is the way she lives. You see her family, her friends, their tribe. Were you at the retrospective of another 21st century artist you might well be looking at images tilted “Ordering My Twelfth G & T at the Bar No One Knows I’m At” or “Crying My Eyes Out Again on the Bathroom Floor” or “There Goes Another Container of Ice Cream and Desperate Housewives Isn’t Even Half Over Yet.”

I don’t think Nikki even has a TV.

I admire that Nikki orchestrates life the way she does, that she articulates it and disseminates it widely, providing the rest of us with a model, a template, to work with.

While the world appears to be spinning farther away from the broad-reaching benefits of responsible living practices, Nikki’s messages remain as emphatic and essential as they were at the beginning of her artistic life and before, in her largely undocumented formative years as a student of science and nature—human and otherwise.

That Mecca Normal’s music and ideas inspire someone as successful as Nikki, means that we are successful in our endeavor. It is our intention to inspire activists to continue tenaciously in the face of various types of failure by re-inventing their own terms for success, and by encouraging non-activists to consider including political content in their art, to include themselves in the long history of making art that intends to change the way things are.

Our mutual cohort, Calvin Johnson has been known to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While somewhat less poetic sounding, but quite possibly far more profound, Nikki McClure might suggest, “It’s broken. Here’s how we can fix it.”

I see Nikki as a scientist who made room for herself in her community by creating art. By participating. She fuels Mecca Normal by exposing us to demonstrations of living with great intention, including the day she took us to her studio at Community Print when she designed a poster for Mecca Normal’s song Beaten Down. Where others may have “gone for coffee” to catch up, we stood around an ancient letter press and gave input on typesetting. We left her to print and somehow, to our amazement, the poster was available at that evening’s performance.

On tour, Mecca Normal stays in the homes of librarians, academics, scientists, artists and fans, and we frequently see Nikki’s calendars hanging in kitchens when we’re up early to get back on the road, trying to figure out where the nice people still asleep upstairs hide their coffee beans. In this way, calendar page by calendar page, city by city, we see the scope of the community that Nikki infiltrates and conspires within.

I could add here the story of Nikki finding me on a pile of topsoil outside a local supermarket in the middle of the night eating raw oysters out of the jar with my hands. Or the time she chased a possum around the house with broom while David and I stood on chairs shrieking. Or how it was that her calendar on the wall of a Lower Eastside apartment tipped me off to the possibility that perhaps I was not in my lover’s bachelor pad, but that a woman, his wife more than likely, had tapped the nail into that wall and hung it there. Or perhaps the calendar brought me back from denial, back to at least trying to do the right thing.

Nikki McClure is an elegant communicator of vital information. Beyond that, she has the ability to both inspire and soothe—her work is a simultaneous call to take action and a call to save your strength. Her ideas and work occupy places of honor in museums, on the minds of activists, in books gripped by the hands of children and hanging on kitchen walls—in those annoying spaces between windows where you knew there was something missing.

Jean Smith, 2011

Jean Smith is a two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts Awards as a professional writer of creative fiction. Jean is the founder of the Black Dot Museum of Political Art and the author of two published novels. David Lester and Jean Smith co-present a lecture event called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”

Currents in a Shared Landscape

Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, writes about growing up around Nikki McClure and watching her art take shape.

Download a PDF of the essay.

Currents in a Shared Landscape

Nikki and I grew up in neighboring suburbs in the state of Washington and went to the same high school. She left for Olympia a few years before I did. We wouldn’t meet until I followed the same trajectory south—but I always felt drawn to her, as if our similar geography was codified, with underlying rules of familiarity and validation. Between us, I always felt the reassurance of a shared landscape.

My band, Sleater-Kinney, began making music around the time that Nikki was increasingly focused on her visual art. I would often visit Nikki in her studio in the old K Records building. It was an airy, light-filled work space with high ceilings and dusty corners. Against one wall was a twin bed, a makeshift perch for visitors and a sought-after nap spot for weary friends.

I spent many an afternoon in that studio, talking to Nikki about music and travel, art, plants and animals. I watched her work, the images appearing like strings, like smoke; they were stories told in streamers, in a most deliberate unraveling. I felt like the figures in her work already existed in the black expanse of paper, like she was merely letting the rest of us in on what she could already see: life from deep within the void. There were scenes of promise, of hope and sustainability, of nature, of family and friends. Nikki’s work conjured the quotidian acts of ritual, the repetitions that form an eventual and spiritual connection to people and to places. Somehow, Nikki captured permanence in the most delicate of mediums.

Nikki designed numerous t-shirts for Sleater-Kinney that we took along with us on tour. A cat, a monkey; they were our best-sellers. The images had an iconic, unimpeachable quality. They were accessible without being cloying or overly-accommodating. Nikki’s designs were playful yet subversive. The single form of an animal spoke to the very act of doing, of creating, of overcoming. All of this in a cat? Yes, I swear.

To this day, in my bedroom hangs a papercut that Nikki made for the Sleater-Kinney 7 inch single “Get Up.” A song about longing—not as a burden but as a necessity—Nikki’s piece depicts telephone lines as seen from the rooftop of her studio. Atop the wires is a small feminine figure holding an umbrella. I still see this piece as a source of inspiration, about accessing a current, an energy, about finding new ways to be daring and fearless. Somewhere in that scene the boundary between our human shape and both the natural and industrial shapes that surround us—swallow us, make us who we are—is blurred, it disappears. At the core of the piece is an infinite yearning for connectivity.

And that’s what I love most about Nikki’s art: she creates scenes of belonging. Each figure and image literally linked to the next, but also illustrating the ways we are each bound and beholden and blessed by those very ties.

Carrie Brownstein, 2011

Swim. Sweat. Slumber. Life in Olympia with Nikki McClure.

Writer and musician Lois Maffeo reflects upon the work of Nikki McClure and their friendship.

Download a PDF of the essay.

Swim. Sweat. Slumber. Life in Olympia with Nikki McClure.

She comes into my world via the punk scene of Olympia, a generally cheerful hodgepodge of musicians, artists and fans. “That’s Nikki,” is about all anyone says, but the general feeling is that she is already a part of the pop underground that began developing in Olympia in the early 1980s. And now as the decade is finishing up, here she is; arriving fully formed, enthralled by independent music, arrested by nature and determined to be a part of whatever is happening.

We do the things we like to do. Swim and sweat. Disco dance until dawn and fall asleep in tents on the lawn. We drag ourselves to our jobs and come home to start all over again. Life is what we make and everything else is beside the point. Is there drudgery and pain in this life? Yes. But we will not let it get the upper hand. We will fight back with picnics and dancing to S’Express.

I realize quickly that Nikki never looks at anything without seeing inside it. Early in our friendship, she hands me a copy of the Journal of Natural History that she has just put out. “What did you write about?”, I ask her. “Flies fucking. They are fascinating when they are doing it.” I think that is when I discover that she isn’t your average music scene kid around town.

It’s 1992 and the Riot Grrrl movement is transforming Olympia. Young women are focusing on seeking justice for their music, their opinions, their selves. Their fanzines announce, “We will not live lives diminished by the judgement of others (mostly boys!)” Nikki eyes the scene with interest, but seems to take a longer view. There is too much drama, too much in-fighting and clutter. She keeps working and begins beating her chest and singing about “me, me, me, me, me…and Godzilla.” As the soundtrack to Grrrl Rock grows louder and more confrontational, Nikki writes songs that are equally fearless and personal, but decidedly more simple and narratively oblique. To those of us lucky enough to hear them (in the laundry room of her apartment building or on tour with Kicking Giant in her Volkswagen Bug) they are as brave as the menstrual blood-soaked roar of Riot Grrrl. There is no revenge fantasy in her blackberry thicket.

But there is a tide pulling the punk kids away from Olympia. It is indie rock and those of us interested in it are making records and touring around the country in dubious vans, playing small venues with audiences of people that look (mostly) like us. Somewhat radically, Nikki remains rooted in Olympia, continually nourished by the Sound, the forest, the collaboration and creativity. She stays put and begins to hone in on her artwork. She has begun cutting black paper into swoops and branches. As the paper falls away from her x-acto knife, an image remains that is both stark and subtle. Crows and apple trees fill the page. But it is clear that she hasn’t chosen them simply because they are outside her window. The apple trees are past harvest, the old apples hanging low, forgotten by everyone except the hungry crows. It is a mysterious setting, like a forest from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, beckoning to a wandering child.

Throughout the late 90s, Nikki is putting down roots with her work and with her life. She buys a house, and unbeknownst to her it comes with a cat named Bud. He comes and goes as he pleases, but soon he is a fixture in Nikki’s work; his tuxedo fur perfectly rendered in paper, black and white. He is featured in a calendar, and although it is not Nikki’s first, it feels like it is a big jumping off point. Maybe by selling calendars she can make her house payments. Her friends put out records and she puts out a different kind of record, one of time across the year, visual ideas to help us get away from the ordinary.

Now the work is coming faster, images evolving and moments illustrated. Her eyes work overtime. She sees a bird in flight long before anyone else. As you walk with her through the forest, her eyes range over everything, vacuuming up images. She points out the snozzy patch of slime mold and in the next instant is tracking an eaglet and swinging her head to see its parent guide just behind. “Nurse log!” Check. “Salal berries.” Yep. “Hmm. I’ve never seen this black mushroom before.” And you almost hear the camera of her mind go “click”. It will appear in a papercut someday.

But with all the drawing and papercutting, Nikki can still summon up a dance party when one is needed. We plot a dance party during Olympia’s first Ladyfest in August 2000. The theme is Gold and we want it to be sumptuous. A harem tent idea is concocted and Nikki asks her carpenter friend Jay T to help build it in her backyard. He cheerfully agrees and drives the tent stakes into the ground smittenly.

How did it happen so quickly? After the Gold party it seems like time condenses and suddenly there are several calendars, local and regional art shows and a sign on the front door to remind us that a new baby is sleeping. But one thing remains constant for Nikki throughout—her ability to coax the richness out of moments and scenes.

There is a papercut that Nikki made in 2006 of a woman diving into water. Her hands are clasped and her technique is effortless. This is how I think of Nikki: fearlessly diving in. And inviting us to share
what it feels like, offering encouragement to those who want to dive in as well.

Lois Maffeo, Olympia, Washington, 2011

CraftPerspectives Lecture: Nikki McClure

Nikki McClure, CraftPerspectives Lecture, October 2011.

A Conversation with Nikki McClure

Listen to a three-part podcast conversation about the exhibition between curator Namita Gupta Wiggers and artist Nikki McClure.

PART ONE: MUSIC

Download this podcast. (MP3)

PART TWO: CALENDARS

Download this podcast. (MP3)

PART THREE: BOOKS

Download this podcast. (MP3)

OPB Interview

Watch an interview with Nikki McClure and read an accompanying article on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s website.

August 18, 2011 – October 29, 2011

Curated by: Namita Gupta Wiggers

Nikki McClure works with daily life as her subject, black paper as her medium and an X-acto blade as her tool. Her intricate papercuts form the foundation of a self-made career that now spans self-published calendars, books, t-shirts, posters and more. In each medium, McClure’s message is clear: take action by making your own life. It is a message McClure models every day.

Born in Kirkland, Washington, Nikki McClure was drawn to The Evergreen State College by Olympia’s independent music scene. One of the more prominent visual artists involved with Calvin Johnson’s K Records, Kill Rock Stars and linked to the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s, McClure embodies the independent spirit that brought national attention to creative activities in the Pacific Northwest.

Her delicately sculptural papercuts document her life, family and community. Made with simple tools and telling everyday stories, McClure’s images show real people engaged today in activities that have happened for thousands of years: picking berries, eating meals together and swimming in a river. The first museum exhibition to focus on the artist’s fifteen-year career, Nikki McClure: Cutting Her Own Path, 1996–2011 reveals how one artist uses a simple craft and graphic language to show how to be a maker, and how McClure models a self-sustained life on her own terms.

Papercuts, publications, calendars and a limited edition silkscreened print co-produced with PNCA students are available for purchase in The Gallery at Museum of Contemporary Craft.

Music

The music scene in Olympia, Washington played a big role in Nikki McClure’s decision to attend The Evergreen State College, where she earned her degree in 1991. Music released through independent record labels, such as K Records, co-founded by Calvin Johnson and Kill Rock Stars, was part of the initial draw. Coupled with the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s, Olympia offered a creative
environment where McClure found role models for how to live independently and began experimenting with performance as well.

In addition to her own recordings and performances, such as Godzilla, McClure created album covers for Sleater-Kinney, and toured with Lois Maffeo and Kicking Giant in the late 1990s. A number of bands, musicians and performers, including Nikki McClure, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Lois Maffeo and Kurt Cobain made Olympia their home during this period. McClure’s studio in the mid-1990s was located across the hall from Calvin Johnson’s recording studio; her couch became a frequent place for many to hang out. A one-time resident of the legendary Martin Apartments, which housed many creative musicians and artists through the decade, McClure bought a house in 1996 and began to turn her focus to her family, her home and her art.

In 2009, McClure explained her transition from the performing to the visual arts in an interview in Giant Robot as something that “happened gradually. More and more of my ideas were presenting themselves visually, less and less orally. I could also disguise myself more. A bird is not me; it is harder to sing stories and not be understood as the instigator. I could hide more and disclose more about humanity than just my own struggles. Plus, how many heartbreak songs does the world need?”

Calendars

McClure produced her first hand-bound and Kinko’s-printed calendar in 1998. Since then, the structure of working in a twelve-month series of images continues to guide much of McClure’s work. The success of her calendar feeds her family (along with food she trades with local farmers). Today, her self-published annual calendar print run is 17,000.

The first calendar was created to meet needs for an art show that was one month away. McClure explains:

“I focused on things that could be foraged for during each month, McClure explains, It provided direction plus I liked the idea that it would be utilitarian. A calendar also ends up in kitchens and I like thinking of all the kitchens they are hanging in and all the goings on and good food they are witness to…

As far as ‘calling out to the world’, the calendar does that in two ways. The first is, ‘Hey, I’m here! I make pictures!’ and it has opened doors for me and adventures have been offered because of that call. It is my calling card and portfolio. The second call is, ‘Wake Up!’ I have no way of knowing how that message is received and acted upon. Sometimes people write and tell me how the image and word resonated in their life in a meaningful way.”

—Nikki McClure, excerpt from Last Hours, Summer 2008

Books

In addition to self-published books, McClure has published with Sasquatch Books, Chronicle Books, and is the writer/illustrator of four children’s books published by Abrams Books, including The New York Times bestseller All in a Day (2009), on which she worked with Newberry Medal award-winning writer Cynthia Rylant. Papercuts from this and her most recent publications, Mama, Is it Summer Yet? (2010) and To Market, To Market (2011) are on view alongside examples from her earlier hand-printed books.


Exhibition Sponsors:

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EXHIBITIONS AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS ARE SUPPORTED BY:

We are grateful for 75th Anniversary Anchor Support from the following

PNCA+FIVE Ford Institute for Visual Education

The Collins Foundation · The Ford Family Foundation · The Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc · Meyer Memorial Trust · James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation · Western States Arts Federation · National Endowment for the Arts · Whiteman Foundation

Cynthia Addams · Ginny Adelsheim · Bank of America · John & Suzanne Bishop · Mary & Brot Bishop · Virginia Campbell · Maribeth Collins · Truman Collins · Sue Cooley · Anne & James F. Crumpacker · Czopek & Erdenberger · Carol Edelman · John Gray · Ray & Jere Grimm · Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation · Ronna & Eric Hoffman · Sue Horn-Caskey & Rick Caskey · HW Irwin & DCH Irwin Foundation · The Jackson Foundation · Selby Key · Connie Kiener · Anne Koerner · Sally & John Lawrence · Dorothy Lemelson · Doug Macy · Mary Maletis · Linda & Ken Mantel · M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust · Widney & Glenn Moore · Linda & Bill Nicholson · Oregon Cultural Trust · Oregon Potters Association · Paul G. Allen Family Foundation · PGE Foundation · Regional Arts & Culture Council · Dick & Deanne Rubinstein · Luwayne “Buzzy” Sammons · Arlene & Harold Schnitzer · Bonnie Serkin & Will Emery · Manya Shapiro · Joan & John Shipley · Ken Shores · Carol Smith-Larson · Al Solheim · Cornelia & William Stevens · The Standard · Susan Thayer Farago · US Bank · Vibrant Table Catering · Larry & Dorie Vollum · Steve & Tisha Vollum · Wessinger Foundation · Wyss Foundation · ZGF Architects LLP · ZIBA

With special thanks to: Portland Monthly