For years, Nikki McClure’s self-published calendars have graced my office walls. I love the intricate beauty of her paper cuts and the ways in which she pays yearly homage to the nuances of each season. Her art is often peppered with words like "breathe" and "nourish" that challenge the observer to act with intention.
As are her many books. Her recent collaboration with Cynthia Rylant, All in a Day (Abrams, 2009) offers children and families a poignant reminder of the simple wonders that a day can have in store for us. I was thrilled to learn it landed on the NY Times bestseller list last spring, and that there are more books to come.
Nikki approaches art through communion with the natural world and her reverence for daily life. Whether it’s a Sleater-Kinney album cover, shirt design, or children’s book, each holds deep personal meaning for Nikki long after she’s put down her X-acto knife. On the way to her back yard studio, we passed a giant bucket full of blueberries. I suspect those berries will show up in her artwork before they make it into pies, and none will be wasted.
Nikki talked with me about her artistic journey and her successful foray into children’s literature. She also shared book recommendations, what makes her brain feel good, reflections on floor sweeping, and why she feels like a Lorax.
AB: Congratulations on the success of All in a Day. You’ve published at least four other kid-related titles including The Great Chicken Escape (1998), Welcome (2004), The First 1000 Days (Sasquatch, 2006), and Awake to Nap (Sasquatch, 2006). Were you always interested in children’s literature?
NM: I’ve always been into it, but it wasn’t until I had a child that I allowed myself to become fully immersed. I had collected some children’s books, like an obscure Maurice Sendak book from the ‘50s, but for the past five years I’ve been actively studying children’s literature.
AB: You went to college here in Olympia at Evergreen. Did you study art there?
NM: Mainly natural history, actually. I grew up in the Northwest, mistakenly thinking that salal berries were poisonous, so I wanted to learn the names of all the plants and animals that I shared my space with. I immersed myself in the sciences: entomology, botany, ornithology, soil science. I realized after doing some field work that my health and safety mattered more to me than data collection! So I thought about working in environmental education. I wanted to be a person who could travel around to schools talking about marine biology. That interest morphed into book making.
NM: In the early ‘90s, there wasn’t really a lot of kid-focused material on wetlands, so I felt like there was a need for a primer with an environmental message. I made Wetlands (1991) and it was funded by what is now People for Puget Sound. I rented a studio for $50 a month, covered it in linoleum curls, and delivered it ten weeks later. Nowadays, my images still have messages in them, but they’re more subliminal or instinctual.
AB: Have you always been artistic?
NM: When I was a kid, I’d dress up in crazy costumes to be “the artist.” In 6th grade, I decided to teach art to my fellow classmates! I was a misfit, but not a super nerd or anything. People always got along with me, but I liked to be different. I would go and sit in the park and play my flute badly to my dog, who’d howl. But I never thought I could be an artist when I grew up. I thought that was as attainable as becoming a princess or something. I was also the kid who sat and watched ants. An observer.
AB: When did you start doing paper cuts?
NM: I’d been working with scratch board, linoleum and India ink, doing the odd illustration job, when a friend of mine who went to Cooper Union named Tae Won Yu suggested I try paper cutting. When I did, it felt good inside my brain. Very meditative.
I began with my book Apple (1996). The first page was my first paper cut ever; the second page was my second. My work was a lot cruder to begin with, but now I use a supple cutting board from Japan that works so much nicer. I also like the challenge of working through mistakes in paper.
AB: During this period, you were designing album covers for the K Records and Kill Rock Stars labels. Were your books also part of the Riot Grrrl movement at the time?
NM: Yeah, it was kind of all happening at the same time, but the paper cut work was all post-Apple. I drew pictures for friends. It was all very natural and a part of my life. You work with what you know. Life is a political act. By making all these books, I was bringing what is personal to me to a political level. I was also expressing myself during the early nineties through what I would call “sung word”. I didn’t really play instruments, but I would strum the guitar, performing, touring, and making singles and records. As I started making more books and more images, I found I didn’t need to express myself by standing in front of a large crowd, knees shaking. With paper cutting, I like the idea that there’s this quiet interaction between my work and someone who’s sitting down and just looking at it or reading it – one person at a time.
AB: How did you first publish your books? Did you have an inroad or was it do-it-yourself?
NM: I’d just go to Kinko’s, then local press. But when I first started out, making something like All in a Day with Cynthia Rylant seemed like an impossible other world.
AB: What led you to illustrate All in a Day?
NM: The calendars – I call them my spores. They go out into the world. I’ve been doing them for ten years now and have doubled the volume each year. This year I’m publishing 15,000. They work better than any kind of portfolio or calling card. They end up in places like Patagonia design. This was also how I got a call from Steven Malk, asking to be my agent. That felt too easy. People ask me, “How do you get your foot in the door?” and I think, “I don’t know– I went through the back door. I don’t know where the front door is!”
I was in the punk rock world where people don’t have agents. I felt I could continue in the realm of self-publishing, but at the same time, I was limited in production quality. Paper cutting reproduces well, but four-color print jobs had been too giant for me.
I became aware that if I wanted to do more, I would have to work with larger companies. I looked at who Steven represented. He’s working with Carson Ellis. I emailed her and asked about Steven. She was exuberant, saying, “He’s gotten me all of these book deals!” And he represents Cynthia Rylant, an established writer. Carson’s great and talented, and I could relate to her story because Steven had approached Carson in the same way and she had been new to the book publishing world. But Cynthia Rylant was a veteran. So I decided to try working with Steve.
And I had already been working on a collection of my artwork called Collect Raindrops (Abrams, 2007) and asked him if he’d help me with negotiations. It made things smoother and the communication more pure. Eva Prinz was my editor at Rizzoli, but she left when she refused to publish a paper plane book with war planes in it. As a mother of a young child, I admire that. So she went to Abrams and the first book she brought over was mine.
AB: So next up came All in a Day?
NM: Yes. Steven showed me what Cynthia had written with my images in mind. She had bought the calendar at this small fine paper shop in Seattle called “de Medici Ming”. When I first went to de Medici Ming trying to sell my calendar, the lady insisted she didn’t have room to sell it. I said, “Yes you do! Here are three. If you sell them, you can pay me and I’ll give you more. If you don’t, then don’t worry about it.” Now they sell around seventy. I just love that connection- that Cynthia Rylant found my calendar at a store that almost didn’t carry it! And I love Cynthia’s writing. It’s really comforting. Her books make you feel good in a way that’s not sugary sweet.
AB: I get that same feeling from your work as well, so your collaboration feels like a natural synthesis to me.
NM: Writing my book after working with her made me realize that she uses the perfect words, perfect cadence, perfect message. She makes it look easy, but it’s so hard! I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to work with Cynthia.
AB: You sent out your spores. You’ve earned it! As Seneca said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Who was your art director for this book?
NM: Chad Beckerman is my art director and Susan Van Metre is my editor for the children’s books at Abrams. Together we worked out what a day would contain. Susan, working in New York, initially had the idea that the child would go out into the big world more, but I was interested in exploring all the possibilities of a young child’s world while keeping it close to home. I went to a park down the street for inspiration, which is where my family often was while I was working on this book. My son calls All in a Day his book since he’s prominently featured in it, so it’s very personal to me.
AB: Like Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” The best art does.
NM: All in a Day was the first project I made in my new studio. The birch trees outside the window became the fixed point in the pictures throughout the book. All the action happens around them. It was really symbolic for me, too. When I was thirty I bought this house as a self-employed artist and used every penny I had. I had no idea when I planted these trees that I would one day look upon them and feature them in a book and watch my family grow around them. So yes, All in a Day is bliss based, but different than the kind of carefree bliss I felt when I had done prior books. All in a Day was intentional bliss.
AB: Someone who reviewed All in a Day on Amazon said it had a “retro feel”. I thought that was interesting, because I haven’t seen your work as “retro”; I see it as “now”.
NM: Well, my child actually does wear suspenders every day! That is his outfit. He wears a wool, long-sleeved shirt and suspendered pants. He calls our home a farm, but it’s not in an Amish town –
AB: -it’s in downtown Olympia!
NM: Yeah! But I do love older children’s books by people like Robert McCloskey. Paper cutting is also a traditional art. And through my art, I’m always looking to accentuate the positive elements of being human. We’re really good at communicating, working together, using tools, telling stories, imagining, and working with our hands. So how do we use these skills to fix some of the parts of society that aren’t working? I don’t want my art to say, “Don’t do this!” I want it to say, “Keep doing what matters! Sweep your floor!” [laughing] Even when I sweep my floor, I’m aware of a basic link we have with humans who once lived in caves. Links we have with all of humanity, just through simple acts. If we lose sight of that, we lose our connections.
AB: I think your art works like a meditative bell: Remember!
NM: And remember Blueberries for Sal! [laughing] That’s a really important book.
AB: I’d love to know what books you grew up reading as a kid.
NM: Blueberries for Sal was definitely one of them. The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright, with super creepy black and white photos of a doll, but beautiful, too.
AB: You really gravitate to the contrast of black and white.
NM: And the pink gingham of The Lonely Doll! I also really liked The Black Stallion. And Moomin Summer Madness by Tove Janssen. Her illustrations are incredible and her characters are so real. They have their flaws and the black and white illustrations are so great. Also, I could read Wind in the Willows every day forever. We pretend we’re mole and ratty often around here.
AB: Had you read The Box of Delights (NYR Children’s Collection, 2007), and The Midnight Folk (NYR Children’s Collection, 2008) by John Masefield before you illustrated the covers?
NM: No, but now I really like them a lot. The first one has a lot of gun action, so I haven’t read it with my five year-old son yet, but I will soon. Have you read the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome?
AB: You’re the second person I’ve interviewed who has recommended it to me, so I definitely will.
NM: We just finished Coot Club last night. All three of us stumbled into bed for the conclusion. A dear friend of mine has been giving them to my son, and they really capture the feeling of being a child. They don’t take place in a magic land like Harry Potter; but there’s magic in how the children interpret real adventures through their imagination.
AB: You have two books in the pipeline which you are both writing and illustrating. Tell me about your upcoming book Mama is it Summer Yet? (Abrams, 2010)
NM: One day in March, my son came out in his bathing suit and asked, “Mama, is it summer yet?” I thought that could be a book about a child wanting it to be summer, but having to wait. I wrote minimal text and made it into a conversation between the child and the mother.
My initial set of full-sized sketches was kind of too cheeky – in one scene, the child was dressed up in a snorkel, in another, he was in his underwear. Susan suggested that I work on it more. So I sketched small thumbnails and she approved them. Receiving approval on thumbnails allowed for the freedom to incorporate additional elements in a larger format. I added details that could suggest the current state of the season, like mittens by the window and mushroom drawings in the background. I also placed cameos of some of my favorite books in the art. Comet in Moominland by Tove Janssen , Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton, and, of course, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey.
AB: What about the second book of your own that you’re working on?
NM: To Market To Market is its working title and should be on shelves in spring of 2011. I just went to a farm today to do an interview for it. It’s currently vignettes about farms and local farmers markets- the creation of how things get planted to how they get harvested and taken to market. I took my first pictures today and brought my son along, so we did a lot of tractor touring. This particular farm has been growing rye as a cover crop, and they’ve realized they can feed their chickens with the rye and use straw to grow mushrooms in. This might seem nostalgic and old-timey, but it’s the future, too. It’s sustainable.
AB: Nikki, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve got just a couple more questions. When you mentioned sustainability, it made me wonder: could you tell me about how your books are printed?
NM: I feel like such a Lorax, but All in a Day was printed on 100% recycled paper in the U.S. and Abrams charged $1 more to cover the cost. It matters to me and I think it matters to my audience. When I work with Sasquatch, they print in China, but they use recycled paper. Now, I’m working with Chronicle on postcards called Take Care (2009). They initially told me that they "endeavor to use" recycled paper. But I was the first to get them to sign a contract with 100% recycled paper with soy-based ink and now they’re starting an eco-line!
AB: How about for your next two books?
NM: Abrams felt they couldn’t make that commitment due to the downturn in the economy, so I wrote a note to the president of Abrams and stuck it on the contract, saying that I think it’s really important to print locally and use recycled paper. He called me back and told me that he’d never received a personalized note attached to a contract before, and that they would do their best to try to accommodate my request. So Mama is it Summer Yet? is being printed at the same press as All in a Day and I understand with recycled paper as well. When I make things, I don’t want to cut trees down to make it. I use recycled materials, because I just don’t think I could ever make anything as good as a tree myself.