Papercut artist Nikki McClure offers dreamy escape into Pacific Northwest at Mystic Seaport
For those yearning for a semblance of escapism during these biting-cold winter days, consider this: the Mystic Seaport is hosting an exhibit by renowned papercut artist Nikki McClure in its C.D. Mallory Gallery, and her work, besides being situated in a warm room to hunker down in, beckons viewers to lose themselves in their reverie-like qualities.
Inspired by her life in Olympia, Washington, McClure takes personal memories and moments and morphs them into papercut works of art. Images of sailing along the coast of Olympia, straining fresh picked berries for jam on a summer day, or building a treehouse in a forest of firs are just a few examples of her material on display.
What stands out with McClure is that, though her work is based solely off her own life — a balanced and deliberate dance with nature and family — it also borders on the fantastical. Many pieces feel like something out of a Wes Anderson film, and for anyone in love with Anderson’s worlds, which are quirky and visually distinctive, McClure’s are just as easy to fall into. In this case, think “Moonrise Kingdom,” but with a focus on family and set on the opposite side of the country.
“It’s honest, charming, there is a frankness from it. It is really taken from life,” Nicholas Bell, seaport senior vice president for curatorial affairs and organizer of the exhibit, says. “Sometimes, I feel that it looks a little story-bookish, but then you see the images she uses from photographs and you realize, no, that’s just her son or her husband that’s just taken from her life.’”
Known for her children’s books and calendars (also made from papercut images), McClure has been steadily creating the art form since 1996 — garnering the attention of Bell, who formerly curated at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum before taking a position with Mystic Seaport in 2016. In this exhibit, Bell features 36 original pieces, alongside support materials and videos detailing McClure's artistic process.
“She is a person who really makes an effort to live in balance with her natural world so she makes things. She builds things. She has a sort of rural life but also has a relationship with the water. I thought that would be an interesting conversation to have here,” Bell says.
McClure says in a phone interview last week that the images seen throughout her papercut pieces typically are derived from a “hodgepodge” of personal memories. She goes about her life in a normal manner, and when a particular memory stands out, she will reenact and capture it in a photograph. McClure will then illustrate her own image based on the photograph with a pencil to sketch paper then, with carbon paper, she transfers that illustration onto a piece of black paper; she cuts that image from the black paper with an X-ACTO knife.
McClure’s work is also impressive from a technical standpoint. Intricate and precise, the flora and plant life of her environment are beautifully rendered in paper form — prickly berry plant and ivy leaves provide shelter to a picnic under a tree in “Lunch,” while blades of wheat grass graze a set of knees in “Release.” Silhouettes of drooping fir trees tower in the background throughout many pieces.
She has also mastered an ability to create three-dimensional settings. In “Foster,” one sees two boys gathering sticks in the forest, yet McClure integrates several layers of perspective into the piece (we see her hand in the foreground, her son in the second layer, another friend behind him and forest behind the friend). For Bell, this is a remarkable control in perspective.
“When you consider that you are looking into several layers of forest and that that is created on a flat plain with only two colors, black and white, and to create a three-dimensional world from that just impresses me so much,” Bell says.
“What you’re really picking up on, when you see her work in person, is how fine it is, how it dovetails nicely with the work that we do here at the museum,” he says. “It’s a different perspective of fine craftsmanship.”
"Life in Balance: The Art of Nikki McClure," through March 4, Mystic Seaport, Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; regular seaport admission is $28.95 adults, $26.95 for ages 65 and up and for college students with ID, $18.95 ages 4-14, free for kids 3 and under; (860) 572-0711, mysticseaport.org.
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