Interview: Nikki McClure
By Issac Scott
How did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
I want to say something like, “Because you get to sleep in” [laughs]. But when I was little I always wanted to be an artist, but it never really seemed possible, just because I didn’t know people who were artists. So I decided I would become a marine biologist, in fifth grade. I went on this voyage in Puget Sound and looked a plankton, and it blew my mind. In eighth grade I went to an alternative junior high school, and everyone was talking about Evergreen, so I’m like, Okay I’m going to go to Evergreen and I’m going to be a marine biologist. It’s the only place I applied to. The first class I took was sailing every week. And we looked at all the seabirds, and all sorts of stuff and it was really amazing. But it also opened my eyes to all the other types of sciences. So every week I wanted to be a different kind of scientist. But the whole time I was drawing, and drawing, and drawing detailed field sketches, and looking at things in the microscope, and drawing. And I did a couple summers doing field work on different bird studies. When I graduated, I got a job at the Department of Ecology. I worked there for one year, doing an internship, and when that was over I was just like, Ugh. All the field work had its moments of exasperation for me like, How could I be collecting objective data when I’m just not an objective person? And then, working at the Department of Ecology, the more paperwork side of science just did not appeal to me at all, or being in an office. But by then, I had become very good at drawing ducks for people, and drawing different things, so I decided to just draw, and do my science that way, by drawing and showing people these moments of time and seasons and life that they’re missing, overlooking. And kind of being a scientist that way.
I noticed you talk about the first time you started cutting paper in terms of neuroscience, that you felt your neurons were lined up through cutting the paper. Are there other ways your scientific background has influenced your process or what you choose to focus on?
Oh yeah, completely. My work is sort of a reduction to the basic elemental line or shape of that creature, or that tree—so kind of reducing it, and think about what makes it unique, what makes a song sparrow different from a junco. Like, for most people they wouldn’t even think of that: the beak shape, and its head shape, and body shape, as well as its coloration. How to make it sort of simplified. And the subject matter is very much—I want to say nature-based, but that just seems so limiting these days. So outside experience-based, not inside walls, not inside a roof. So my subjects are very much informed by the science. Or just my education at Evergreen of looking and observing.
Did you keep pursuing science during your time at Evergreen, or did you shift more into art?
I didn’t take any art classes, although I did take one quarter where I made a hand-printed book [laughs]. But I received minimal instruction on that. And it was a book about wetlands, it was a wetland educational primer. I studied science. And I still do. Like this weekend I just went to Malheur bird refuge in Southeastern Oregon, with Steve Herman, my old ornithology teacher! From way back when. So I still do dabble in, at least dabble in appreciation of the world. Everyday.
The early ‘90s in Olympia fostered a lot of very influential artists who were all involved in underground music and art, and more socially aware kinds of artforms. How was your work was influenced by those other people coming up at that time, the music that was happening with Riot Grrrl, Calvin Johnson, and all those people?
It was this electricity in the air—everybody was making things around you, and it was hard not to make things. That was how we expressed ourselves, even to each other and within the community: by writing a song, or by making a picture, or by making a poster. It was this moment that was really electrifying.
Another reason I decided to come to Evergreen was Beat Happening. I was like, I want to see Beat Happening play in Olympia. Because I grew up in Kirkland, and went to shows in Seattle. But I knew that the shows in Olympia were 500 times better than the shows in Seattle. I knew it, just knew it!
I was influenced by seeing Calvin, and by this other artist Stella Marrs, making their own communities around their work, and making their work in ways not compromised at all by anything, even by production. You have the means of production within your own hands. For Calvin it was tape decks in his bedroom, and for Stella it was scissors and glue and National Geographic magazines that she made postcards with. And it wasn’t the idea that you needed to have a record label and press records, or that she would even need to go to a printer and get things printed. That would stop so many people, thinking that you needed those things. But they didn’t. They didn’t need those things. They didn’t need the world to make what they wanted to make.
Also at that time, there was Kathleen Hanna, Megan Kelso, who was a cartoonist—just so many people. These artists, I was hanging out with them, and they all got to sleep in, but I had to be up at eight o’clock for chemistry class [laughs]. And I’m just like, Ughh. We were all busy making our own dreams real. It was a great time. It was fun.
And you’ve stayed in Olympia since then.
Yeah. I’m rooted. I think part of it is I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so now I’m here and I don’t want to move again. I really love this landscape. I just came back from Southeast Oregon, just yesterday, and being all enveloped in the green, and it’s just so nice. The air, the salty tang of low tide. I really like that.
You work in such a tangible medium, using your hands to cut paper intricately with a knife. In today’s world, digital art-making technology is so prevalent, and the illustrations you make, maybe a lot of people looking at them might take them as digital illustrations. How do you think this digital technology has changed the way people respond to your artwork, and to visual art in general?
For my artwork, once the sort of magic part is revealed, they’re sort of stunned by it because it is something that uses your hands so much, and a lot of people have lost skills that way. I want to say I use the computer a lot, but I don’t really use the computer a lot. I scan them and then my friend digitizes them and cleans up the scans. So actually what most people see of my work has been digitized. It’s the original paper cuts that when people see those they—if they look at them really close they start to understand what I do. People are so used to seeing something on a screen now, they forget the physical object that they’re making, and the scale of that physical object that they’re making.
We just drove through Southeast Oregon and up to the Columbia River, and then across. And going through this area where, ten years ago there wasn’t a windmill in sight, is now full of giant, giant windmills, just hundreds—thousands of them. And we were just in an area, through John Day, where there’s 29 million years of history—like an ash flow happened. You’re looking at a scale of time that is epic and then you pass through these windmills and you’re thinking, Do we need that power, is it really worth it to do that to this land? That landscape will have those for a thousand years. So design, not just graphic design, but life. What we make in this world. People forget.
Do you have any story behind the image on our cover, of the person reading in the field?
Well, it’s my son, who reads a lot. The book he’s reading is Usagi Yojimbo, a cartoon about a rabbit samurai. But it’s just this idea of, you know, go read outside [laughs]. There’s just so much more adventures that happen outside.