Interview with Penny Nickels

Aluis- Hand embroidery, 9″x12″

I recently interviewed the amazing and talented Ms. Penny Nickles.  She kicks more ass with her little finger than most people do with both feet.  I think that’s why I like her so much.  Her work is conceptual and narrative.  She rips it right out of her guts.  Enjoy!

How did you learn fiber arts?

I got my first loom when I was 10 years old or so. I made a table runner that seemed to take months and months to complete. Then it accidentally got thrown in the wash, and it felted and shrank in different places because I had used all kinds of fiber. That kind of put me off it for a while. Then when I went to an arts magnet high school, and all freshmen students in the visual arts department had to spend six weeks in each studio to figure out what their concentration would be, one of which was fiber arts. That’s where I guess I had my first real lessons. But I was still wasn’t really taken with it and pretty much studied printmaking exclusively up through college.

I guess around 2002 or so I started knitting, and once I realized that I could do more than scarves, I started mainly doing sculptural pieces. Then I started spinning. I tried embroidery around that time, just to give it a shot. But it seemed like it was mostly about tattoo flash art and sparrows and pin up ladies, so that kind of put me off too. But I realized that the same way I had approached printmaking would easily work with embroidery, so I started stitching some of my early prints and voila! These days I work more in fiber and only occasionally go back to printmaking.

What are your artistic influences?

Literature is a huge, constant influence. Most of my pieces are illustrations of some kind. The work that I find most satisfying and authentic tends to be real explorations of the characters and motivations. Pieces that don’t gloss over our monstrous and mediocre qualities but still let real beauty shine through. Dostoevsky, Seneca and Céline are great at it, so is Brautigan, though unfortunately, most of his best books are out of print. I tend to be drawn to visual artists with similar sensibilities, and many of my pieces depict “morally gray” characters. When it comes to the less abstract, nuts and bolts of influence, I would say I spend a lot of time researching traditional, cultural arts. That’s where I go for palette suggestions or what we might consider unusual materials. But I try to be mindful of those traditions and their significance. Gross appropriation really annoys me. So I might look to mola or doga (central asian wards) for color schemes or stitches, but I would never make one. It verges too much on debasement for me.

Name some non-fiber artists that inspire you.

Like I said, I love artists that show human complexity and contradiction in a plain way, not gilded or romanticized. The ones that don’t shy away from common grotesqueness. So I’ve always been fond of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Oskar Kokoschka… Basically those artists born at the end of the 1800’s and lived around Germany and Austria. I think I like the idea of the Vienna Succession and Der Blaue Riter more than I like the majority of those groups’ work.

What other kind of art do you make?

I still do printmaking and drawing. I can really only draw well from life, so I take a lot of photos and use archived photo references so I can draw the things I can’t see. I have some large sculptural pieces in progress, but they take so long to complete I fear I’ll be working on them for years.

Why is mythology so prevalent in your work?

I just think if you really, really look at those stories, they’re incredibly relevant even today. For example, if you look at the story of Medusa, she’s raped, she gets scapegoated and punished for being raped, her family is brutalized, and she lives on an island where all these men repeatedly flock in an attempt to “conquer” her. When they approach, she turns them into stone and they are unable to get near her in any way. And the rape was used as tool by someone who was threatened by her as a way of very literally demonizing her, and to set all these other injuries against her and her family in motion. It’s an example of really classical hubris, re-victimizing the victim in order to feel/become powerful. And it’s kind of classic power struggle stuff. If you want to discredit someone, typically you shame them and then use that as fuel and turn them into a monster while you knock down all of their supporters. I just feel like you can’t open a newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing a very similar story.

Or Clytemnestra. She’s often thought of as a femme fatal who cheated on her husband while her was away at war, and then killed him with the help of her lover when he returned. But that doesn’t address her full story. Agamemnon killed her first husband and murdered their baby boy, and then forced her to marry him. Then later, he sacrifices their daughter and leaves for ten years to go fight a war started because Clytemnestra’s ridiculous sister was abducted for a second time. And then when he does come home, he brings Cassandra as a concubine, part of his spoils. Seriously.

The whole thing is so bloody and absurd, one can hardly blame her fury. But I find it fascinating that commonly the events that make the murder of her husband understandable are rarely discussed. As if she’s only allowed to be a treacherous slut that killed the good patriarch. I think this kind of characterization and oversimplification is still prevalent today when we look at how modern cases are presented. Everybody wants everything to be black and white, these stories show us all the shades of gray.

What inspired this series of masks?

I guess it started as a function of exploring my need for privacy. I lived pretty loudly for a long time, but it became exhausting and over the last few years. I’m at the point now where I’m just trying to regain some peace and privacy. So obviously, something that obscures identity is an attractive item. And masks have power. If you look at any mask tradition, they tend to be used for specific rituals. Also, if you look at decorative fiber art traditions that have been maintained consistently, they also tend to be worked and used ritually. So when I made the Invisibility Mask, I spun the fiber on a drop spindle (BFL) and plied it with stainless steel thread to make it “impenetrable”. I dyed it a watery color that I felt like was pretty forgettable. I shaped it with short rows and fulled it so it was extremely fitted. Then I covered it in shisha mirrors, which are still used in some regions to confuse and dazzle evil spirits, to make the wearer invisible. I think it’s interesting that it reflects everyone except the wearer. It’s play on how people see us or rather, how people tend to have rather unyielding ideas about the nature of someone. Like whether they’re “good” or “bad” or stupid or attractive or clever. It’s a caricature of the real person, and this mask is a literal play on that. It reflects the viewer’s expectations rather than the identity of the wearer.

The sleep mask, Dirt Nap, is fairly straightforward too. Again, I spun all the materials (baby llama and BFL) and dyed it variegated brown. I worked the collar in lace to reflect lacy nightclothes, and the poppies over the eyes are a nod to Hypnos and Thanatos. I have a sleep disorder that occasionally causes me to question what is real. It can be very disconcerting, and actively creating something that speaks to that helps me feel like I have some control. I’m working on two more, they’ll take months to complete.

What other themes run through your life and work?

I guess I’m fascinated with the gray areas, with liminal spaces. I’m interested in sussing out the layers. People work so hard to portray a specific image or attractive characteristic, and it comes off as really transparent. I’m interested in the mud, the authenticity. I use stamp motifs over and over in my work because of their connection to communication as well as commemorating events and people.

Tell me about spinning. What is it like for you to spin your materials for a project?

It’s absolute magic. To me, making your own materials really gives the piece depth. It gives it a weightier subtext. If you’re spending that much time and labor on something, you’re probably taking it pretty seriously. And that’s reflective of fiber art traditions as a whole. There’s a reason there’s a world wide, spiritual significance to this kind of work.

How do you want people to feel about your work?

I don’t really care how they feel about it, but it would be nice if they actually thought about it. Like, actually dug deep and used their brains. Particularity before making comments to me about it. Luckily, I’ve fallen in with a good crowd, (Like You!) and I can count on you guys to say something with thought behind it, good or bad. Instead of the usual, “You should use brighter colors and happier subjects… I’m going to copy that for my Etsy… ” comments I get from bores.

How do you know when a piece has crossed from Craft to Art?

For me, art pieces always start as art, and craft always starts as craft. I believe that art is the story I’m telling the viewer, and craft is the prop I’m making to enact a story. If I’m making something for someone I might think, “I’ll weave them this scarf and it will be really bright colors and they’ll laugh when they open it. They’ll wear it and people on the bus will smile at them.” The piece is a function of the story, a prop. It is not the story. That makes it craft. With art, it’s always about a story I’m telling the viewer. It’s a more personal dialog, even when I’ve rendered it in part with a craft method. For example, I did some pillow shams using my myth pieces. Now, aside from what those pieces are depicting, the use of craft, (quilting, pillow shams) adds an intentional subtext that alludes to nightmares and bedtime stories. The craft element serves to enhance the story. I don’t build a story around those, they are the story. Of course there are always people who buy art to match their wall paper, thereby turning art into craft/prop, but that’s whole other deal.

What is your process like?

It’s long and tedious! First I think about what I want to explore, and then I decide on the method. Then, by the time I’ve completed the piece it’s taken so long I have trouble telling if it’s any good. 🙂 I guess the creating the composition is almost as intensive as the actual stitching. Depending on the subject, I usually try to go with shapes, colors and arrangements that reflect the theme of the piece.

Why are you so awesome? Tell me, damn it!

I’m grown! I do what I want!

Any advice for the awesome-challenged?

 I’ll go with Céline- “People don’t deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them.”

 Anything you want to say to the posers and haters?

Well, I think it’s mostly pointless to even speak to it. It’s like Dorothy Parker said, “You can lead a horticulture…” But you know, I’m also fond of this sentiment from one of the greatest thinkers of my generation

Clearly You Haven’t Earned Them Yet- Hand embroidery on hand dyed silk with pheasant wing 14″ hoop

Nightmare Diptych- relief print 6″x10″


8 thoughts on “Interview with Penny Nickels

  1. Thank you so much for including me! This was one of the first blogs I started reading, and I’ve always been so impressed with your work and your vision. It’s a real honor for me.

  2. What a wonderful interview! I love hearing the stories and reasonings behind pieces, and Penny, your stories are some of the most interesting! It’s very inspiring- both the interview and the subject!

  3. Penny,
    …but you can’t make her think. ” You know all the good lines. I knew that I liked your work so much at times it hurt me. However, until I read this interview I had no idea we thought so much alike.
    Among the things you do well is this: you take the stories from strong time and retell them again with a stunning amount of bravado, pananche, and erudition. Your work is also beautiful to see.

  4. with each interview and article, penny shows herself to be deeper and more fascinating. so much to think about (and admire) in this interview – thanks alex and penny!

    it’s funny too that when i’ve thought of therapeutic phrases to embroider, i’ve considered “get back mufukka, you don’t know me like dat”!!

  5. Thanks everybody!
    All the sweet words and encouragement is making my face hot!
    And god bless Luda. I love that guy. Dru- I also love, “MOVE Bitch! Get out the way!”

  6. I love Penny’s work & it’s always fascinating to read the thought process behind them. The part on the masks & the shisha mirrors here is a favorite part in this interview. The labels people try to put on us really do say more about them, than us. I prefer throwing them back to accepting them. Thanks for posting this great interview of a fascinating artist.

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