I don’t read Nikki McClure’s books. I absorb them. Her art is precise, thoughtful, and every other synonym for exquisite. I could probably effuse about her elegant mastery until next Thursday, but her sweet interview below says it all far better than I ever could. Friends, I’d like you to meet Nikki McClure, the author and illustrator of a few of my favorite books. Enjoy her words!
Q: Nikki, I’m fascinated by your art and utterly floored by its intricacy. How long is the process, from concept to finished papercut? And what’s your favorite part of the process?
A: Thank you, Gabrielle. The process takes as long as it needs to. But I also tend to wait until the last minute! So I usually give myself a week per image. Sometimes the papercuts take longer, but I don’t like having half-finished work around.
The papercuts are delicate and the way I cut out leaves one week may change after a weekend. I start my images with a concept mostly from my own living or details caught from the corner of my eye. I make sketches and even stage photographs where I recreate something I saw or the muscle memory of picking berries, stacking wood, or hanging clothes. Once I have a sketch, I make it the size that I will be working out and then transfer that to the black paper with pencil. I then start cutting with an x-acto knife. What is black (paper) and white (cutaway) isn’t totally determined beforehand, so decisions are made as I cut. The knife decides a lot! I also like being able to add things that aren’t in my sketches, to be able to create and not be tied down to a concrete plan.
My favorite part is living the moment that inspires the work and then the time cutting it out. The act of cutting is very calming and meditative. I get lost in it. It makes my brain feel good.
Q: What is your earliest memory of being creative?
A: My earliest memories aren’t of creating, but of watching. I remember a ball of yellow striped baby spiders exploding as I touched it. The snake that our cat brought to the door and how it slid away off the step. Ants marching back and forth: one set with food, the other with bits of our house. I did imagine myself as an Artist, playing at it as though I were playing Princess and dressing up in my grandmother’s fancy clothes from the 60s. Fake leopard fur coat, 200 necklaces and bracelets, red high heels… typical Artist high fashion! By the way, I am in jeans and slippers with a band-aid on my finger right now. But I would draw all day dressed up like that. I would also spend days watching ants, birds, leaves, grass, and berry pick all summer long.
My mother would paint every now and then, but she was raising three girls on her own and waitressing for a living, so she didn’t have much time to wait for watercolor to dry. Just now she is starting to paint more!
I grew up across the lake near Seattle. I could see the city lights from my bedroom window. We moved every year, but always kept within a few blocks of my grandmother, and I always got the room with the city view. I have layouts of assorted kitchens stacked up in my memory.
Isn’t all childhood magical? My parents divorce was pretty rough to see, but I was lost in a world of climbing trees, singing to my dog, and talking to the birds. I wouldn’t have changed much except I wish I had washed the dishes more for my mom.
Q: Describe the moment you knew you were an artist, and the moment the world knew it, too.
A: Moment? My work is made from capturing and recording moments…but this one seems to have escaped my watchful eyes! I used to have a business card with Illustrator on it. And one day I consciously changed it to Artist. I remember feeling a strange level of acceptance. That it was OK to be an Artist. It wasn’t unattainable like playing Princess. I could be it…and I was…and I would be OK. I wasn’t just illustrating. I was making. And what I was making was resonating deep inside people. That brings a greater level of responsibility, thus the change on the business card.
Q: What is the first book that moved you? Is there one you wish you would have written or illustrated?
A: Blueberries for Sal has always been my favorite. From the cover to the blueberry ink to the squareness of the mother’s bent-over hips and that kitchen. Oh! And Sal’s shoulder strap. Not to mention the plot and pacing and suspense!
(I had grizzly bears in my dream last night, I just remembered!)
I wished I had written that one and drawn those pictures and picked blueberries that day on that hill with my own Sal or my own mother when I was young. I still half hope to see a bear every time I pick berries.
Q: For a day to be perfect, it would have to include these three things:
A: Some good watching, swimming, and picking berries.
Q: The best advice you’ve ever received, either personally or professionally?
A: I have Sister Corita Kent’s Rules for her art classes above my desk. My favorites are:
Rule #4: Consider everything an experiment
Rule #6: Nothing is a mistake. There is no win or fail. There is only make.
Rule #7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
Q: Tell us about your favorite piece of art you’ve ever made.
A: I have so many! This is one of my favorites right now. I like the look on her face, the determination of a ten-year old girl. I was able to cut how the bowstring ties on to the bow. I also enjoyed returning to my botanical drawing roots and drawing violets. Plus when I showed it to the model’s family, they exclaimed, “How perfect! Her middle name is Violet!” I didn’t know that part. Sometimes pictures just have to be made and I don’t know why until afterwards.
We made bows and arrows for kids at an art show. My husband, Jay T. Scott, is a woodworker. I was surprised that all the eight- to ten-year old girls were intensely drawn to them, more so than the boys. I realized that I wanted one, too! Now I am practicing archery. I now have a longbow. Post Riot Grrrl comes Artemis Rising!
Q: What inspires you through creative blocks?
A: Playing hooky. Going outside and walking in the forest and being a part of the world. My family. My husband and son in a canoe. Chickadees. And when all else fails, or the deadline is tight, sweeping the floor seems to always help clear my mind.
This was lovely, Nikki. I feel so lucky to have your words here on Design Mom!
Her contented happiness is contagious, isn’t it? And her creative block busters – chickadees and sweeping the floor – have been added to my own list. I imagine they’ll be twice as powerful knowing how well they’ve worked for Nikki! I’d love to know: What inspires you through times of low inspiration?
You can find the entire Author Interview Series here.