Cutting to the quick

First museum exhibit of paper artist Nikki McClure gets past feel-good calendar pages into a world of pain, joy, X-Acto blades

Staff writerNovember 23, 2012 

If you know Nikki McClure’s work, chances are you know it from one of her calendars or books. Apart from Dale Chihuly, it’s hard to think of another regional artist who has so embedded their work in the collective visual consciousness of South Sound. Her restrained, almost stylized white-on-black portraits of ordinary Northwesterners living a sustainable lifestyle of cooking soup and picking huckleberries are found in homes throughout the region.

But a new show at Bellevue Arts Museum – McClure’s first museum retrospective – brings out two qualities that the calendar graphics miss: life’s balance of joy and sorrow, and the sheer three-dimensionality of papercutting.

The sculptural part hits you even before you head up BAM’s curvy staircase to the gallery floor. Near the lobby elevator, three crowd-scene works – a street of people, a sky full of birds – flutter under their glass fronts like a flag, a testimony to McClure’s sheer skill at cutting tiny lines out of black paper. Wings, tails and hands float off their white background like animated shadows, a three-dimensional paper world that’s your reward for making it to see this art in person.

This is Nikki McClure’s art, these unbelievably delicate tendrils of paper, a filigree black spiderweb that plays with your eyes as they register the negative reality of white shapes in a black background. If you’ve only seen those calendar graphics – as is the case with most of us – this will be your enlightenment.

Not that there’s anything wrong with McClure’s calendars, of course. They’ve worked as art on a number of levels since her very first hand-bound one in 1998, which kicks off the whole set up to 2013 in the first gallery room. For the artist, they’ve been great marketing: “It has opened doors for me,” says McClure in the wall text. “It is my calling card and my portfolio.” For the rest of us, they’ve been a low-cost entry into McClure’s world, a world where families picnic in forests of salal, wade into calm tidepools and make everything from soup to babies. It’s a world that strikes deep into the DIY, love-your-home Northwest attitude, a world that we like to keep on our walls and read to our children to remind ourselves of why life is worth living around here.

But it also is a reproduced flat graphic world – and that’s exactly why you should make the effort to see the original images in person. As the exhibit shows (via an interesting Lucite case of pencil sketches, in-process cuts and leftover blades), McClure cuts her images out of black paper with an Exacto knife, drawing first with white pencil. Cut into such fine lines of bark, leaves, hair and shadow, the paper takes on a dimension of its own which you just can’t imagine in a copy.

Another fascinating thing to see at BAM is McClure’s progress through her art. Her very first papercut “Apple” (1996) is simple, each fruit with just one highlight cut, the tree almost childlike in its outlines. Right next to it are two new works from her upcoming book, “How to be a cat” – these are simple too, but with a feline curve that springs from total knife control and a new, almost modernist aesthetic of large black-and-white color fields. In between, McClure goes from the highly centered portrait works of the late 1990s through ever-increasing detail into a composition that dives into the scene, cropping close, foreshortening, looking upward and generally immersing the viewer. In these images, a hand chops dandelion leaves with a thin-edged knife, a curtain blows out of the frame on a garden scene, a tree looms overhead with hundreds of bark lines.

The exhibit also gives a nod to McClure’s musical roots, with her album covers for Sleater-Kinney and Godzilla, and iPods with playlists of both the riot-grrrl bands she sang in and the music she listened to when she switched to visual art. There’s even the coastal ravine, with its bent tree and broken fence, that she designed for a Patagonia T-shirt and snowboard.

But the most poignant aspect of “Cutting Her Own Path” is the emotion in McClure’s work – especially the work you probably haven’t seen before. The counterpart to the homespun calendar joy, this emotion is the raw grief of death, the vulnerability of marriage, the sorrow of betrayal.

Belying the pastels that stripe each gallery room, the “book” room holds a Lucite case of hand-bound books McClure only made a few of: “This Yearning,” with a red band, made for her wedding, and “In Between,” made after her miscarriage, with devastating poetry and papercuts of McClure herself crouched in a tangled, dark forest like an animal in a net. “Sinephobia in Olympia, 1886” is a published book, but one you don’t often see in the gift shops: The tale of how white people brutally expelled the Chinese from their town, it contrasts joyful scenes of the Chinese mud-villages, flags and kites flying with the haunted eyes of a trudging farmer watched balefully by a uniformed officer.

“I work from my life, things I’ve seen,” said McClure about this yin-yang aspect of the show. “As I progress, the work has become more complex. … Now the ideas I’m grappling with are much deeper, though they’re still rooted in the natural seasons, and aging. There’s living, but the other side of living is death and loss and overcoming that, and learning how to go on.”

If you try your own hand at papercutting at BAM’s little workstation, you’ll probably come out with a new admiration for this difficult technique, and a burning question: Does McClure ever make mistakes?

“Sweeping the floor is a part of what I do,” McClure says. “There’s always the looming danger of making a mistake. And that’s OK. Nothing can be as perfect as the original bird or flower, so I embrace mistakes. There’s a certain rawness that’s out of my control, and I always do the thing I’m most scared of first, usually the face. And once I make a mistake, then I can breathe again, because I can’t make it worse! It’s about the mistakes of your hand against the perfection of this messy, beautiful, imperfect world.”

Nikki McClure

What: Papercut artist Nikki McClure puts on her first museum exhibit, “Cutting her Own Path, 1996-2012”

Where: Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. first Fridays through Feb. 3

Cost: $10/$7/free for those younger than 6 and on first Fridays

Information: 425-519-0770,

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

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