Museum of Contemporary Craft

The True Protest is Beauty


Writer and musician Jean Smith reflects upon the example of Nikki McClure, their relationship and her view on McClure's evolution as a human and an artist.

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.

—Namita Gupta Wiggers


Nikki McClure, Source, 2010, paper, 11 × 11 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

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.

“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…”

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.”


Nikki McClure, Conspire, 2003, paper, 11 × 14 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Dan Kvitka

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.


Nikki McClure, Tonight, 2008, paper, 11 × 11 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Dan Kvitka

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.

“I admire that Nikki orchestrates life the way she does…”

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.


Nikki McClure, Pause, 2010, 11 × 11 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Dan Kvitka

by Namita Gupta Wiggers and Jean Smith
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.”

— Posted on 08/25 at 02:12 PM

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