Unscientific Method: Interviewing Nikki McClure

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Unscientific Method: Interviewing Nikki McClure

While I was taking an oral history workshop at Berkeley a fellow attendee challenged me to explain why I chose artists that live in western states to interview and not, say, in the mid-west or the east coast. We got into a bit of a verbal tussle about it as I explained that choosing the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest was largely a practical decision for me - I was driving and the towns I was visiting were accessible in relation to where lived, and I had limited funds and had free places to stay in those areas. I had also chosen some places because they were known for having strong artist communities; no offense to Danbury, Iowa, but I think Taos might have a few more artists running around. The fellow attendee was never fully satisfied with my answer and brought it up several times during the week. I continued to refuse to call my project something along the lines of Artists’ Voices of the West because someday, I hope, to expand geographically and include artist from other regions.

However, I have to admit that I found him irritating because he tapped one of my fears - that there was something inherently wrong with the approach to my project. When people ask me how I choose the artists to interview I sometimes hesitate to answer. I hesitate because I feel like they expect the librarian to spout some kind of scientific method of selection when really it’s been a combination of chance, luck, and synchronicity (or coincidence, whichever you prefer). Sometimes I picked a town because of an artist, other times I picked an artist because of the town. Sometime I was totally selfish and just wanted to visit a particular place. Then I posted my call for artists on Facebook, my artist sister, Whitney, shared my posts on her Facebook page. I harassed and begged my sister’s artist friends to be my guinea pigs. I posted on Facebook again, I sent emails cold to people who run art collectives or are presidents of regional art associations, and to individuals I thought simply might help. I told anyone who would listen about my project. That’s how I found artists.

Despite all of this work, it always felt like bit like magic when an artist said yes to me.

I am finding that one of the things that I enjoy about writing up these notes is sharing how I connected with artist. It was Whitney who suggested Nikki, an artist in Olympia. Although she didn’t know her, my sister had been an admirer of her work for some time. As I was planning the Northwest portion of my trip I thought I would just use Olympia, where my mother lives, as a stopover and hadn’t really thought about trying to find artists there (don’t be offended Olympia artists, I know there’s a great artist community there). But then Whitney sent me Nikki’s website and I was immediately taken with her work and knew I wanted her on the roster.

When I met with Nikki I was already finding that I get a little nervous before each interview, but so far I was the most nervous with Nikki. It was around the time I met with her that I began to feel the weight of my project and what I was trying to accomplish; the importance of asking people I didn’t know to share their life stories with me. Nikki is also an artist that has been interviewed many times. One of the challenges in oral history is interviewing those who have been interviewed a lot; narrators can get stuck in telling the same stories, in the same way. Even though I did want to expand on some things that I had read in her interviews, I also wanted to create a new space for her to share her story.

Nikki’s warmth put me at ease right away. After watching several videos of her I found I already enjoyed listening to her; her voice has a soft, rhythmic quality to it, and the woman is a born storyteller. When I met with her the same qualities that I enjoyed from the videos were present in real life, and my nervousness quickly fell away. I know we all hate the sound of our own voice, this is nothing unusual, but I couldn’t help but be a little surprised when she told me how hard it was for her to listen to her voice in our interview when I sent it to her. “Don’t you know how lovely your voice is?” I wanted to say to her.

In addition to her gentle demeanor, her house is comfortable and inviting. It is nestled in the woods right on the Budd Inlet down in the southern reaches of Puget Sound. Not only is her house beautiful, but it was built by her talented husband (who may need to get on my list as well). Her studio is underneath the house, but I resist referring to it at the basement because I think that can conjure image of a dark and dank space and her studio is anything but that. It is instead spacious and bright. One side is solid windows that that opens out to water and a wooded area, the latter makes green the dominant color in the space. The opposite side has no windows because it is surrounded by the earth. It is easy to see how she fills her creative cup with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest at her studio doorstep. It is also fitting that you can periodically hear birds on the recording of the interview.

The Education of Nikki

Our interview lasted about an hour and forty five minutes and we covered a wide range of topics. From her childhood bouncing around the Puget Sound, to her participation in the Riot Grrl movement and dancing on stage at her friends’ show. With all of the people I interview I most enjoy  listening to them talk about how they got their start, when they made the leap to being a full-time artist, and what may have been a defining moments for them in this process. For Nikki one of them happened towards the end of her year-long internship with the department of ecology. While she had already discovered that she wasn’t really cut out for the fieldwork necessary to be a natural scientist, it was also the idea of being caught in an office at a copy machine for the rest of her working life that made her fully understand that there was something else for her.

I especially appreciated her approach to her education, which she wrestled control of at an early age. I have to admit I was actually a little jealous of her in this respect - I had a very tough time in school and always hated it; I could also never see beyond the traditional approach to education and always felt boxed in by it. My way of dealing with that was to shut down and refuse to do my schoolwork. It took me a long time to find my way academically and figure out what worked for me, but she seemed to know from a very early age how she wanted to learn and what she wanted to get out of school. She knew, for example, from when she was in 8th grade that she wanted to attend Evergreen State College, which was well known for its unconventional teaching methods and narrative evaluations. She seemed to know that going to any kind of traditional university would have been problematic for her and that she needed to be at a place that allowed her to gather her education on her own terms and with a lot of space.

Most of all, I enjoyed learning about how Nikki approaches the the world - with an open heart, listening to what’s around her, and giving space and attention to the ideas and inspiration that comes down to her. Oh yes, and throwing in a touch of magic. I felt this was reflected in many of her stories. When she was a child she would make herself cry as she looked through her window at the stars and city lights so that they would all twinkle just a little more. Listening to her talk about her time singing a capella in smokey bars and alleyways at her friend’s punk rock shows made me marvel at her bravery.

Just One Word

At the end of our interview I had asked her why and how she chose one word to represent with her images. Although she had started to use one word as opposed to phrases as a way to conserve space, she continued the practice because she enjoyed editing herself down to one word. The word may or may not be directly connected to the image, but she wanted to entrust her viewer to interpret the meaning for themselves:

“...you have to find out for yourself what that word means to you with this image as well. So each person has a different background they are pulling from to combine that into different dreams and wishes. I like having that be open-ended…”

She shared a story of a family who lost their son, who had visions and dreams with foxes several weeks prior to his death. Shortly after he died when they turned the calendar to the next month  it was a picture of a couple’s hands intertwined and a fox looking on with the word “abandon.” She said they were a bit angry at her and asked her why; why had she chosen that word for that image? Why the fox? Instead of feeling offended by their question, Nikki tried to get them to see it in another way - that maybe it wasn’t him abandoning them, but them abandoning something else within themselves. I found this story so profound, that I couldn’t help but cry (which is noted in the recording!).

Nikki had said that she may not always know why a word ends up with an image, and she may not know for some time, but she did know that it was a magical equation.