Image from Nikki McClure's 2016 Heed calendar.
The artwork of Nikki McClure is instantly recognizable, both due to her mastery of craft and her deeply familiar subject matter. Nikki’s intricate papercut images pull back the layers of everyday moments to reveal something strong and universal underneath. The inherent optimism and sense of connection present in her work has made her greeting cards and calendars into holiday traditions for many Northwesterners and fans worldwide.
Along with Rebecca, she was a part of Olympia’s burgeoning indie scene of the 1990s, and she continues to live there today. We asked Nikki lots of questions about her work, her art, and her life. The answers she gave us were thoughtful and candid.
Photo of Nikki by her son, Finn.
QB: Queen Bee: In many ways, your work reflects a certain ethos of the Pacific Northwest, of living with a greater connection to the natural world. It seems that you have a deep connection to place. What is your story with the Pacific Northwest, and Olympia, WA in particular?
Nikki: I grew up in Kirkland and moved to Olympia in 1986. The Pacific Northwest is all I have ever known. It is my only home, so of course I am connected to it. I count Cedar and Chickadee and Bufflehead and Chanterelle as neighbors. And I have always lived near the water. The Salish Sea is wilderness, especially when you swim in it. Swimming is an immediate connection to the natural world.
I moved to Olympia to be closer to the water and to learn how to sail and become a marine biologist. Now I’m not much of a sailor or a marine biologist. I love the kind of quiet sailing where you can read a book and snack, not riding the rail through the water with a bone in her teeth. I do know a red-eyed medusa and ctenophores…but I’m more of a marine observer, not a biologist.
Olympia brought me closer to the water, but it also brought me closer to a community of making. there were people all over making their own economies, making up their own work, and having a great time at it. Olympia opened up my eyes to possibilities that I never knew existed. You could sing and draw and write and make mittens instead of getting a job.
Nikki McClure, Return.
QB: You’ve been doing calendars for many years. How would you say your approach has evolved? Do you plot out all the images and then choose a theme, or is it more about choosing the theme and then coming up with images?
The theme has become less important over the years, or is it that the theme is much bigger than 12 months of work? I used to take a theme and then make the work to fit. Now I just make the images that call to me and a theme emerges. The images connect through line, or pattern, or other visual tricks I am challenging myself with. The images also connect with what I am pondering deep inside. What I am feeling about this place. What I feel that we will be needing to look at and concentrate on and have conversations about in kitchens across the Earth as the calendar months are changed.
Nikki McClure, Dare.
QB: How long does it take you to cut out a single image? Are there multiple iterations once it gets to the paper cutting phase? And do you go in and edit once the image has been digitized, or is it shown pretty much as it’s been cut?
This is the number one question I am asked. 15 minutes to 3 weeks, but usually 1 week. I sketch everything out first, but there is still plenty of chance and changes as I cut. I scan it and then “clean it up” which is not making changes except to change what the computer has decided the line should be back into what the line really is or bringing out the tiniest of details that I cut that the computer cannot fathom due to shadows in the scanning process and paper thickness. The original is the original. the digitized image is the graphic interpretation. I wish they could be the same…but you have to see the work in person to understand how delicate, yet strong the paper is. The originals are very thin sculptures. The calendars are very graphic images.
Nikki McClure, Corn.
QB: You’ve done calendars with themes of The Next Thousand Years and Love 15,000 Years Later, as well as The First 1000 Days book for new moms. Additionally, representation of the seasons is a recurring theme for you. How does time play a part in your creative process?
My creative process is time. It is so very dark outside. It is December. It is 2pm and I'm done working for the day.
And I've been making a calendar since 1998. That is a lot of Januaries and Augusts to ponder and make pictures about.
Seasonality in my images ties into the sense of place. February in Olympia is different than February in Minnesota or Los Angeles. One of the themes is uncovering the seasonality of our lives, celebrating it. Circling around the sun and knowing that if you don’t collect nettles this spring, then you will have to wait until next spring and you only have 90 springs maybe if you are lucky. That is 90 times to gather nettles, though nettle gathering is a poor example as you can do it every day all day long for a two months. I wish I had a nectarine to eat right now.
QB: You have a career as a working artist, which for many people is a challenging thing to achieve. Have there been any missteps or things that you wish you’d done differently? Any advice for up-and-comers?
Challenges, always. missteps many…but always steps off the main trail. I never had a plan. Sometimes I wish that I had made a plan. But I couldn’t have planned it all out anyways. This is probably a good thing to think about now, instead of when I’m 70. "What should I do differently?" sounds much better than “What should I have done differently?”
I wish that I had kept everyone from moving to Portland. Really.
I wish that I had more time and energy to collaborate with people. It's hard to keep the energy of spontaneous making just for a lark when you are making a living through your creative work.
I wish I had time to make all the books that I dream up. maybe I’ll become a writer, then I won’t have to illustrate as well.
Nikki McClure, Outside.
Starting an artistic career is different now than in 1996.You have Etsy, BUYOLYMPIA! (toot-toot! hooray!), and Kickstarter campaigns. Campaigns!! In some ways it is easier (you get paid before you make things!)…but in other ways it is harder (now you have to make the thing AND send everyone special bonus things and commitments to studio tea parties).
There is also an expectation now that you need to be a business and be a viable business. I would often spend my last $100 to make things and then sell them to end up with $200. It works…but it is stressful. But it can also be a lot of fun and it does force you to make. No creative blocks when you are desperate. And maybe there’s a secret in that too: have no other option. "There is only make", said Sister Corita Kent.
And keep your receipts.
Nikki McClure, Vote for Survival.
QB: What’s next on the horizon for you? Any big projects or new adventures in the pipeline?
Books! and while I am waiting for architects to make up their minds about the final dimensions of a 14 x 35 foot gate that I am designing (for a Food Bank in Seattle), I am making pictures that I want to make and which I will probably use for the 2017 calendar. Looking ahead! I'm also finally forming a business with my woodworking husband Jay T. Scott. We are starting McClure & Scott Manufacturing LLC, which means that we'll be making more lamps together. It also opens up my mind to the possibilities of manufacturing…what will we make with our hands?
QB: Anything else you’d like to share?
My favorite dress was sewn by Rebecca when she worked in the studio next door to me. I still wear it. Thank you!
You can find Nikki McClure's calendar and greeting cards in our shop seasonally, or call us at 503.805.5693 to order over the phone. For a year-round selection of Nikki's work, stop by Land Gallery in Portland, or shop online at Buy Olympia. To find out more about Nikki McClure, check out her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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