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Interview: Nikki McClure on Illustrating with an X-Acto Knife

Based in Olympia, Washington, Nikki McClure is an artist with roots in the Pacific Northwest indie music scene of the 1990s, having worked with both K Records and Kill Rock Stars. Her medium of choice is cut-paper illustration, which she creates using an X-acto knife. McClure's latest project is Mama, Is It Summer Yet? a children's book inspired by a question her son asked that explains the signs that winter is ending. We asked McClure a few questions about her work and the change of seasons over email.

Interview: Nikki McClure on Illustrating with an X-Acto Knife
Nikki McClure

What initially attracted you to illustrating with an X-acto knife?

I was doing a lot of technical illustrations. I would draw the same fly for over a week and drive myself crazy trying to make it perfect when even the fly was not perfect. I moved on to scratchboard and linoleum cuts. By using a knife, I had to edit my lines, distill the shape to the essence of an object. By using a knife, I couldn't be perfect. I made mistakes and that was good for me. I was too impatient to keep at lino cuts. I didn't want to wait to print to see the final image. I wanted to work with black and white. I wanted to work with limitations of detail. I had also gotten proficient with using a knife to draw. My friend who went to art school (I am science-based) suggested trying to cut paper. It solved all the problems by presenting all the challenges I wanted to explore.

In your artist's notes, you mention that if you make a mistake, you have to "keep cutting and find a solution."  What's the most creative or unusual thing you had to do in this situation?

When I make a mistake, I often end up with a favorite image. I have already messed up, so what could happen that would be worse than that. I will often just push on ahead. I am then free to experiment and discover new patterns. I can't mess up as I have already done that! The images end up looking abstract or psychedelic (to me!!). 

Interview: Nikki McClure on Illustrating with an X-Acto Knife
Nikki McClure

Since you work in black and white, what were the important things to consider when adding color to Mama, Is It Summer Yet?

The tendency is to want to color it all in and I always try to resist that. Color is part of the story. It isn't just filler. In Mama, Is It Summer Yet?,  the first page of art has no color, but the text page is a color. The child is in their own world and a bit oblivious. The color then becomes part of the story in the next spread. Color is added to each spread as something in the child's world and something in the natural world that is happening at the same time. The mother is showing the world to the child.  At the end, it's a big color party. I couldn't help myself. It is all an experiment!

Of the signs that winter is ending mentioned in Mama, Is It Summer Yet?, which is your favorite to see? Why?

Oh gosh...each of them! However, the return of the swallows is always a joyous day. I hear them sing and look up and smile and then shout a big "Welcome home!"

Considering your association with labels like Kill Rock Stars early in your career, is music important to your creative process? If so, what do you usually play when you're working?

Music was very important to the beginning of my self-expression. Seeing people perform music moved me to participate and I started expressing myself through performance. Music helped grow the confidence to express myself visually. The visual side of me has taken over. Very rarely do I peep out a song now. Right now I also prefer quiet. Bird song, insect wings, wind, rain. But every now and then I have to take a crazy dance party break and I put on Santogold or Mecca Normal. My studio used to be above K Records so there was always music drifting up or bands recording. My studio is now at home with 6 inch walls= QUIET. I'm having the quiet part of my life now. Small sounds and bird conversations are all that drift in. I do like to hear music live and it is hard to find early afternoon shows (I have a 5 -year-old who keeps me home at night). I would welcome a strolling banjo player, if one showed up at my door.


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