Even if you don't recognize her name, odds are you'll recognize the striking work of Olympia artist Nikki McClure. Using an X-ACTO knife, she cuts detailed pictures from a single sheet of paper, creating bold images depicting simple everyday scenes, with a knack for magnifying poignancy through her lens.
After a decade of having her images appear in journals, note cards, and her beloved yearly calendar, McClure has recently begun illustrating and writing her own books. After teaming up with children's author Cynthia Rylant to illustrate All in a Day, she followed with her own picture book, Mama, Is It Summer Yet?, which was received with rave reviews. Her next book, How to Cook the Perfect Day, showcases the artist branching out in another direction. Featuring simple recipes and her iconic illustrations, McClure’s rendition of her "perfect food day" inspires readers to find their own.
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Megan Zabel: How did you find your medium?
Nikki McClure: I had been working in linoleum and scratch board and wasn't really satisfied with what I was getting. And before that I had been doing more technical illustrations with pen and ink in a very scientific style, but I was finding myself obsessing over details and unable to capture them. I'd spend all week drawing the same fly, or the same leaf, trying to get it perfect, but nothing is as perfect is the object itself, and even then, it's not perfect.
So by trying to do linoleum or scratch board, I had to think about the essence of the object other than its exactness, but I wasn't able to quite get it. And then, when I tried paper cut it just felt so good inside my brain, like it was this very peaceful, meditative feeling. And by cutting, by drawing with a knife, basically, I am able to kind of distill each object down to the thing that makes it distinct, like what makes an apple leaf different from a cherry leaf, but without having to do all the details, focusing on what about that thing that makes it different.
So I really didn't have any exposure to paper cuts before I began. I don't have any art background at all. I very much felt like I was inventing the wheel. My own little wheel. [Laughter]
McClure: Ideas come from many sources, but mostly from living. Often when I'm kind of stymied for what to do I just play hooky and have a good time. And then the image will sprout from that experience. So there's the experience, which then feeds the image, and oftentimes I have this memory of my muscle moving through the experience, and I'll recreate that with digital photography and staged shots, and then I'll use those photographs plus my memory and kind of make a new picture based on that.
Then I'll make some drawings, a bunch of little thumbnail sketches. And then, when I finally get the one I like, I draw it to size, and then transfer it onto black paper using graphite. Once I have the drawing, I kind of redraw it on the black paper and just start cutting. So I'm following pencil lines on black paper, and luckily my eyes — I'm knocking on wood — haven't failed me yet. So I'm just cutting along, and then once the paper cut is done it gets glued down or scanned or whatever I use it for. But I really love the process of making it. It's like I'm crafting something. I'm building something by removal rather than adding things; I'm always subtracting. And a lot of the decisions on what's black and white get made as I go along. I don't really follow my lines perfectly, because that's all part of the fun.
Megan: I imagine there's not a lot of room for mistakes.
McClure: Yes. But mistakes are OK. They're not something I really set out to make — that's not really a mistake, is it? But when I make one, it's not the end of the world. It opens all these possibilities for me, because if I've already ruined it, then it can't get any worse. You're free to try all these things that you wouldn't necessarily try if you were going to mess up the most beautiful picture you've ever made. You're not going to take that risk. But once you've made that mistake, you're able to take the risk, and those pictures have actually become my favorite pictures.
A couple of years ago, one of my calendar covers was a picture all these people wading into this river, with their backs turned, and I totally messed up on it, or so I thought. And so I just winged it for the water, and it became really sort of as abstract as my art could maybe be, or as psychedelic as my art could ever maybe be, and I really love that picture now.
Megan: I really like that one, too.
McClure: It made me think about the paper in a different way than I normally would have.
Megan: Where do you find inspiration? If you're really stuck, what do you do?
McClure: I usually sweep the floor. [Laughter]
It actually needs sweeping. You just finished the picture, so you leave your room. And the next time you come, there's always something to do, right? There's sweeping the floor.
But inspiration is like... It's everywhere. It's food. It's moss. It's mushrooms. It's the bird that just flew away from my feet. I find a lot of inspiration just... It's just life. Life's so beautiful. It's every needle on the fir tree, all the leaves. It's a way to kind of capture it and honor it, and hold on to memories, too. I feel like I'm kind of compiling our family scrapbook and sharing it with the world. It seems to resonate with people even though it's so personal to me, but I really love making pictures of events in my life. I'm kind of recording it, marking it. But the inspiration is just in the day, though sometimes it's hard to wake up. [Laughter] I like sleeping in.
McClure: Not necessarily anger, maybe an obtuse political frustration. Like, "I must save the world, and I'm getting so frustrated," My politics are... they're there. My work, I feel, is very political, and it's intentionally political. But I try to do it in a way so that people don't mind putting it up in their kitchen, and so it kind of seeps in, and it's simply that this is the way it is. Not like, "You have to do this!" More like, "This is the way it is." [Laughter]
So anger, no. Sadness, yes. A lot of my pieces have come from deep sadness, but sometimes people see a different emotion in them, because they don't really know the back story. But I have suffered some deep loss in my life, and so some of those pictures are about that.
Megan: Do you approach your work differently depending on the final product — whether it's a calendar, or a book, or a journal?
McClure: Yeah, I'm very much a "What does the cover look like?" type of person. The final physical form is very much part of my design process. With that said, with this year's calendar, I was kind of joking, "Oh, who needs dates." [Laughter]
With some pictures I just really went over the top, and it was hard to figure out where to put dates in the images. And that was partly because I had been making this children's book for over a year. It's called, To Market, To Market, and it will be out in spring from Abrams. And it's about the farmer's market in Olympia. But it was a very involved, very long children's book — lots of words, extra pages, lots to review.
So when I got to time to do my calendar, it was just like, "It's just me. And I have a week to do each picture. What am I going to make?" It was freer, I was just running with it without having to wait. So it felt like I got to gallop.
McClure: Oh, it's everything. It's this physical part of my molecular structure. That's how I approach art... it's the water, the air. Olympia is very much a part of that. There's so much water in the environment. There's the tide, and you can smell it. There's the fog. There's the rain, rain, rain, and the puddles.
But there's the food. And that sense of definite seasons. If I lived in L.A., my work would be very different. For me the seasonal cycle is so apparent, and so necessary, and just part of who I am. And that's what I make my work about.
The calendar fits in. Thinking about that, the calendar is just a meditation on seasons and change, and what makes April different from May, and what makes May different from November. And so, I've been doing that for... this may be my 13th or 14th calendar.
Megan: Oh, wow.
McClure: I've done 13 or 14 Mays. [Laughter] Pretty soon I'll have an image for... well, in another 15 years or 20 years I'll have a picture for every day in May. And then there will be global warming, and it will screw everything up. [Laughter]
Megan: Through your work, you encourage people to slow down and appreciate simple things. How do you make sure you do that in your own life?
McClure: Today, before I came into my studio, which is really only just out the back door, I thought it would be good to get a little bit of exercise. We have two big giant chestnut trees within a block of my house. So I went out to see what had fallen, and I collected some chestnuts, and it was really fun, because the squirrels were actually cutting the chestnut balls. They're very spiny things, and they were falling down. I was glad I wore a thick jacket, because they'll actually fall and hit you. And then I kind of felt bad, because I was robbing the squirrels of their work. But they're really well-fed squirrels.
So I did that before I came into work. I make choices like that. And to some extent my life is set up for a slower pace — I'm self employed, and so is my husband. And the only thing that we have right now is the school schedule, which makes it a little bit hard sometimes to adhere to it.
But there is a sense of, "OK, what's the most important thing to do today?" And sometimes that's not work, sometimes that's, "It's the end of August and this is the last chance to pick blueberries. Let's just take the day off and pick blueberries." I'm a forager.
Megan: You have the kind of lifestyle that people dream about obtaining, especially people here in the Northwest. You're making me very jealous. At what point were you able to make art full time?
McClure: Pretty early on, right after I graduated. I graduated from Evergreen State College, and I got a job at the Department of Ecology doing wetland education, and I worked there for a year. By then word had gone around the hallways that I could draw ducks and cattails pretty well, so people would ask me to come in and draw a duck for their organization or a cat, etc. But at the end of the year, I had decided that I couldn't do that. I couldn't work eight to five. And so I just jumped off and decided I would draw. It was really scary and hard, and my father and my mother thought I'd gone bonkers.
So I decided that the only way it would work is if I made a little bit of money every day, and it didn't matter how that money came to be. It could be drawing a duck for someone for $25, or it could be finding a quarter next to a parking meter. [Laughter]
And then, every once in a while when I got down to my last $100, the light would go off. And I bought beans and rice and tortillas and salsa and turned them into burritos, and sold those on the street outside a music festival. I made a $150, and could coast for a while. And at that time my base expenses were extremely, extremely low. And I would supplement by doing these day camps for the city during the summer, hanging out with kids on the beach making beach sculptures, and telling them about plants and animals.
So I did that for a long time, and it wasn't really until I made the calendar that things shifted. My calendar was a way to make something that people kept up in their homes and talked about, and so more people saw it. It wasn't like a book that got shelved.
And also Buyolympia, my friends and distributor from the start, really expanded the possibility of getting my work out there without having to go knock on every single store door myself. And then the spores kind of started fruiting.
It's only recently that I've started publishing with other people, really, and that's been a little hard sometimes, too. I'm used to working alone. But at the same time, there's value in criticism and working together. And it gets kind of lonely working by yourself all the time, too. So yeah, burn those bridges. [Laughter]
Megan: I'm going to walk out right after we get off the phone. [Laughter]
McClure: Everybody at Powell's is just going to get free books. Nobody will need a job if they're free.
Megan: Tell me about How to Cook the Perfect Day.
McClure: I made the book in 1998, so it was in the time period when I decided I could be an artist, and I could make things. So it's me in my raw 20s stage, just really excited, when I'd stay up all night working. And in some ways the recipes aren't totally necessary because it's just more of a concept of "What would your perfect day be?" If you could think about all your food memories of your life that made you happy and you could combine them all into one day, what would the be? These are just my memory triggers, are these types of foods, and then there are recipes to go with them.
And so, when I made the book in '98 I just took it to Kinko's, made copies, and would sell them, and Buyolympia sold some. Then Sasquatch Books found it and said that they would like to print it, and I was a little bit torn, because it's me in my raw baby stage. But it's also me in my raw baby stage, and certain parts of that innocence and that energy have been a little bit lost now that I'm a tired mom with book contracts and advances, and things that have to be done at a certain time.
So things have kind of gotten a little more bogged down and tighter, and this book is just me in my free form. So I felt like I could share it with the world and have it be printed the way it should have been printed rather than just a Kinko's job. My favorite recipe is the gingerbread cake recipe. It's kind of morphed into this gluten free and vegan recipe as well. Whenever I make it people are like, "What is this?" And kids think it's chocolate cake, but then they still like it when they figure out it's not chocolate cake. [Laughter]
Megan: The true test. What else are you working on?
McClure: Well, there's the pregnancy journal that I'm making for Sasquatch as well, that will be out this spring, and it's called Embrace, and it's a journal for pregnancy. I did another book with them, The First 1000 Days, which people really have responded to. I made it, because when I was having a baby, I could not find a baby book that met my needs and reflected what I valued, and my sort of my lifestyle. I wanted it to apply to many different types of families, not just mother/father.
So I made that book, and it's done really well. So I was kind of thinking, "Well, maybe I can make a journal for pregnancy, because it's such an important transformation period in a woman's life." And all the pregnancy journals that I read are just like... You know, there's more to it than just feeling sick to your stomach, there's this powerful awakening of... this courage, and this Joan of Arc kind of feeling! [Laughter]
And you're passing through this portal... It's not just a physical change, it's an emotional change. And what is important to you completely shifts. For me, I can't really watch movies, and had an especially hard time with them when my child was little. To put myself into somebody else's world just felt so trivial, like why would I want to do that? It ruined movie watching for me for a long time.
So it will give women a place to record things like that, and also encourage them to explore it and be aware of it. So that's coming out in the spring.
And in 2012... I used to just make something, and then it would be done that weekend. Now I'm a little bit farther out. In 2012, if everybody can still remember by then, my very first paper cut that I ever made will be part of a book called, Apple. And it's a small, wordless storybook that Abrams will be publishing.
And I just thought of another book idea today about white buttons. A friend of mine passed away. She was in her 80s and was a bit of a pack rat. I've been going through her things and cleaning up the house, and there were several little boxes and containers that said "White Buttons" on them. So I've been thinking about that.
Megan: Were they all really filled with white buttons?
McClure: Yes. And they all are labeled, "White Buttons." I'm like, "What about white buttons are special?" And thinking about that kind of hoarding and that categorizing of things, and about death and passing. Now I have all these things that say "White Buttons" on them. And it really does feel like I just need to make some big button blanket type of picture or relic object, kind of liberate those buttons a little bit. So we'll see. I thought, "I'll make a book about all these buttons, about all the new lives they've come into." So nobody steal that idea, because that will be out in 2014.
I spoke to Nikki McClure by phone on October 21, 2010.
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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.
Books mentioned in this post