Gallery 224

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November, 2017

Featured Artist

Nicole Shaver

Nicole Shaver was born and raised in Port Washington, Wisconsin where she skipped stones and watched fisherman gut salmon as a child. She received her BFA from The University of Wisconsin-Madison and MFA from The University of Iowa. Her practice involves ideas of place and belonging using geographical sites as a metaphorical compass in order to catalog personal experience and explore the potentiality of the seemingly divided space that separates things. Her work is about the instinctual notion of absorbing current environments and the things that remind us what it means to dwell.

Visit Nicole's website at



A Conversation with Nicole

by Don Niederfrank

Nicole and I met at the Daily Baking Co. on a Friday morning. Fortunately, it was late enough so the morning crowd had pretty much abandoned the place, allowing us to meet in a (mostly) quiet corner for our conversation. We began by first going down to the Gallery 224 Studios. I wanted to see some of what she was working on. After viewing some of her work, conversation about art began quite naturally, so we returned upstairs to continue. What follows is an abridged account, leaving out the interesting but irrelevant tangents.

I'd like to start with your childhood. What art do you remember doing as a child?
I grew up in Port which is a wonderful place, especially after coming back here. I guess I was creative in that I was  always wanting to make my own world all the time. My parents would lose me a lot in closets or under beds. I would make spaces, installations. I would take all my knickknacks in there. I had one under my bed for quite a while with my note books and lights. And now that I think about it in relation to my work, I'm still aware of space. For a while I painted interiors to memorialize them but now my work has moved outside.

Have you ever painted a room?
Yes, I still do. Here's one. (She showed me a drawing in her sketchbook.) I always do them in pen because I like that commitment to the page. You can't go back and erase and get the lines just perfect. That's not enjoyable to me. I would do bars and restaurants. It's memorializing an observed space. These end up being whimsical and playful, which is exactly the attitude I want toward the space.

Did you draw as a child?
Yes. I remember drawing. I still have the diary from when I was five. My teacher at the time had us keep a diary and illustrate every day. I went to St. Mary's (Catholic School), and that's where the drawings were done. I still have it, and they have this religious undertone to them and are very serious. Reflecting on my family and important things to me. Some of them were totally made up, like one about getting a kitty and my friend Maria having a kitty. But I never had a cat; they were just important to me because I liked them.

So from early on your art was about getting what was inside out and onto a page.
Absolutely. I think like any other form of art, it's a record. I always remember the first image is the hand on the cave wall. It's that person being in that place and marking that place. That's basic about art for me—How to record myself being in that place through what that place is.

So in high school you were a student of Jane's?
Yep. But I wasn't a good student, to be honest. Because I've always had this mentality—I want to do this. I don't want to do that. I don't want to be told what to do. Especially for art I still have that attitude where no one else matters for this. It's totally a selfish act in that way. But this is my prayer, this is my exploration and meditation.

It makes sense then that being a student, that assignments, would be seen as burdens rather than opportunities.
Yeah. I remember skating around assignments and I still do. Even in grad school for my thesis I skated around things and bent the rules. A part of my thesis is automatic writing. I knew it was going to be sent to some vault somewhere, and I just wanted it to be just what it was. My professors wanted me to edit it all down, and I was, “No. It's going to stay the way that it was written.” Almost like drawing with the  pen. I don't want to go back and 'fix things up.'

At what point or process did you see yourself as an artist?
I don't think I had an epiphany about it. I went to LaCrosse my  first year, and my major was Communication Art. I knew I wanted to do something creative. I also knew I needed to get a job with it. So I was steering toward graphic design. Then I transferred to Madison, and they had a cohort program there so I declared myself BFA. That meant I was taking four art classes and was locked in. I think my decision to do that committed me to it. Then I was exposed to working with Fred Stonehouse ( and Nancy Mladenoff ( and T. L. Solien ( Their kind of work is whimsical and unapologetic toward a narrative. I wasn't exposed to that sort of art before, and it felt a little bit outside, but a commitment to making that kind of work. I loved that, and I still love their work. I see a reflection of working with them in my work still. After that I didn't look back and just kept going.

You mentioned earlier that you taught drawing. Did you like teaching?
I did.

Would you like to do it again?
Probably. I'd love to be back in the university teaching. I taught Drawing I which was like the first drawing class that undergraduates take. I taught it for art majors and another session for nonart majors. Which was really exciting, because I would get all these left brain people. They would come in with all these apprehensions about drawing, and I would show them outsider artists and tell them it's not about perfect drawing. It's about being committed to the work you want to do, and having it come from you, being honest. I did teach exercises, draw what you see, the first half of the course. I would tell them you have to do your exercises, just like in the gym.

Do you listen to jazz?
Sometimes. I like the improv. Because once you play it can't take it back.

So what are you doing now? You have all this time to do art?

How nice!
I'm looking for jobs right now, but I'm really trying to use this time while I have it. So I'm using it as an artist's residency so I can totally do the practice, whatever that is. The hardest thing is doing the art, because if you're not going to do it, then no one is, no one's going to do it for you. It's following through on all those curiosities.

So your family is supportive?
Oh yeah, they're very supportive. I have a lot of family in town so that's good about being back here.

What do non-artists not know about doing art?
I think a lot. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what I do—whether it's valid, whether I should be doing it. I think a lot of artists ask the question, “Is this a valid use of my time? A valid use of resources?” I think the answer is, if you want to tell a story, even if it seems narcissistic, I am a person living in this world. I have to believe that my story is just as valid as anybody else's whatever form that takes, because if it is a true story that I'm telling, and I'm going about it in a very genuine and original way, then that has purpose. I would say that to anybody who wants to make art. And of course you have to make art. There are studies that prove it is good for you. It's sad to me when people say to me they aren't creative, they aren't artistic. It really doesn't matter at all. It's about a commitment and an effort.

What's the hardest part of doing art for you at this point?
It's not a thing that's hard for me. It's kind of like I don't know how to turn it off. I'm really prolific. I have things going on in all kinds of corners and projects that I'm interested in doin--out of curiosity a lot of the time. I want to see what it will look like. I worked with an artist in Charlotte named Joseph Hersher ( who makes these complex Rube Goldberg machines out of everyday objects. His whole practice is about play, and the only way to find out what happens if you do this, is to do it. He talks about how important play is.

And you have an emotionally filled process that evokes something.
I think you could say that about almost any art form if you think about it. Even exhibiting something is like performance art. It's out there. It's not in the drawer anymore. And then conversations help me flesh out ideas and hearing feedback from other people. We've been talking about art from a maker's point of view, but how  people observe are is just as important to me as when I make it, because I'm not always sure how I feel about something. I can write and think about something all day, but until you have a are really opened up.

Yes, I'm guessing that most artists want someone to stand in front of their work and talk to them about it.
Yes, yes.

(Then followed a visit about viewing art, visiting with artists and going to openings and museums)

What's the most joyful part?
The potential of it. I like opening up all those possibilities that are there, seeing what happens, those interactions, those conversations. That means finishing the piece; that means putting it out there in the world; that means talking to someone about it. There are a lot of 'yeses' you need to give yourself to be an artist, to show a piece.

You're very articulate about art.
Well, definitely going to school for art helps that, because they help you become a maker, but then they really grill you on “What's the concept here?” And I was like that as an instructor. Content needs to come first. You can draw a flower all day long, but I'm not interested unless you can tell me about it. That goes back to talking to people in the gallery. It only informs the work more.

I'm guessing you can write good artist's statements.
I go back and forth a lot between three kinds of statements. One is definitely that academic in me, philosophical. And for number two some people are really interested in process, which is not my favorite kind of artist's statement, because I already know what I did. But that helps a lot of viewers know what your process is. Then number three is almost too artistic of an artist's statement, abstract. So I'm always trying to get those three married into what someone wants out of an artist's statement.

What would it mean to be a “successful artist”? Does it feel like that now?
To a certain extent. I'm still showing and making art, and that's pretty much all I could ask to do. Hopefully, one day that would be all I would do. I don't see myself slowing down or losing interest. It's like a prayer, a meditation.

How has doing art changed you?
Let me think about it a minute ... In a couple of ways. First, it's an amazing community to be a part of, a very cool club of people who are interested in exploring the potential of materials and making. I think a lot of people who consider themselves not members push it away, but us on the inside, we just want more people to join the club. So having conversations about what artists do is really important. Because it is a very fun thing to do. So many people don't give themselves permission to do it. Which is a tragedy for them. Two, because it is so much about being mindful of a place, opening yourself up to all the potential and materials in that space. Art changes the way you look at something or are invested in that space. It changes the way you look at the world. Suddenly you start to notice flowers or the tops of buildings or whatever it happens to be. That's why I will never slow down, because I'll see different things and have different ways of recording them.

So that practice of mindfulness is part of the life of an artist.

Along with the craft of moving from the observation to the recording of that.

When you were talking before about doing art, you were saying it was very personal. But on the other hand, there are other artists, begin part of a community.
Yes. That's basic.

So when you talk to other artists about going through a dip, they know what you're talking about.
Yes. But I think that is applicable to other things as well. For whatever you have a passion for.  People who go to the gym, that's their practice, their prayer. They are constantly affirming themselves in their practice. There's a community there. They talk to their friends. With any passion you want to keep learning about that one thing and know more, and be better at that.

A lot of the joys and struggles of art are joys and struggles that happen elsewhere too.
I think so. It's interesting with art in that it takes a very concrete form. That's why art might be different for people. You're making a thing that hasn't been there before. You have to give yourself permission to do it. And everything else along the way you're responsible for.

Some people just can't bring themselves to color outside the lines, so they do their very best inside the lines.
That's why it's so much fun to color everything outside the lines. Art is so much fun, because it's so forgiving in a way. This (showing me a drawing) accounts for nothing. I could throw the whole thing away and no one would ever know. I could color it all black. So that's why those potentials are so exciting. Maybe I don't want to do it like that. Maybe I want to do something completely over the top of it. There's a lot of fun using intuition and improv that way.

Not everyone lives that way.
I know. I'm having so much fun being an artist, living this way.

If you didn't do art, what would you do?
I don't know. That's the thing—it's always going to be there to do. That's comforting to know, that you can make art in any place. And you don't need anybody to do it with. You can do it by yourself all day long. So no matter what it is, finding a creative way of working is important to me. No matter what it would be. In a museum or teaching or workshop or art centers—I know there will always be that way of being creative and being around creative people. I can let my freak flag fly, you know. I can be closer to myself in that way.

Have you ever not wanted to do art? In the book Art and Fear the authors talk about the high percentage of people with degrees in art who are not doing art ten years after they graduate. Has it always given enough back for you to keep doing it?
For now it has. I remember when I was younger wanting to be a restaurant or hotel manager. I knew it meant you were in charge, and you could do what you wanted and had a whole space to yourself. And now when I think about it, it makes total sense to me. I don't want to ask permission. I want a lot of space to play and be creative. So that makes sense to me now. All I wanted to do was be in charge of my own life and have a big space to play in. And maybe people to boss around!

Are you a first-born?
No, I'm the youngest of three daughters. My parents separated, so I went back and forth remaking my own space.

So that makes perfect sense about owning and claiming space.
Right. Even though I had my own space in each place, I was always wanting the thing that wasn't there. Having my own place didn't really happen until I moved away had my own apartment. Then I could look around outside of me and say, “This is where I am. This is home.” So coming back here has really had an effect on me. Accepting that I'm here, then going out and seeing where that is. Martin (Morante) has said you need to go out and explore a city to know its character, to appreciate its identity. I think that's really true.

I think people get caught up in expectations too. If you're going to a city and you have your itinerary all set, and you go to that restaurant you always go to and it's closed then you're disappointed. But if you go it with an open mind and someone suggests going to the library booth and getting enchiladas, it's going to taste way better.

Which is how you do art. And I'm guessing how you live.
Yes. I go in that way too. I spent some time in Iceland two summers ago. My friend was there doing a residency. It was amazing. We were on the opposite side of the biggest city in a little fjord town of 200 that had three artist residencies. So we were just open to anything that happened. We hitch-hiked around the country on the only highway, and being open to any interactions was really interesting. Everybody is so lovely and accepting. It was an amazing experience.

You've known a number of people who have done art. Do you think artists tend to be on the liberal end of the political and social spectrum?
Just like anything, there are exceptions to the rule, but I think artists are more mindful of seeing things in different ways than the public. I think they are more open to influences around them and more empathetic to those surroundings and people around them. But you have to be more open to other people's intentions, even just in art. You have to step into the artist's shoes, so that might have some affect on social/political ideas. And art is a different language, a visual one, so that makes a difference.

(We then spent some time comparing teaching experiences. Don't ask me how we got there...)

Is there a part of art that you find to be drudgery?
Yes. A lot of things. Like sculptural pieces I'm working on at home need a back on them, and I want it to be a good backing. I know that I'm going to have to sand them. And as I'm doing that two or three hours in I'm saying, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” It's a little torturous. And then after it's done I'm so happy I put the time in. It makes it so much better than if I shim-shanned it together. I try to be as into the making as I can be so it doesn't seem so long. And taking a lot of breaks and drinking a lot of coffee is nice. I have printmaker friends who are woodblock artists who do real detailed carving. And I ask why? But you need to keep working on it; you need to get past the dip, otherwise it will never exist. A lot of things are like that. You need to chip away at it and walk away. Take a lap before you make a final decision, before you decide to put that last layer on. Take a lap around the building, get a coffee, get your mind off it before you come back with fresh eyes on it.

Last question. When you're doing a piece is there a moment when you say, “That's it” and never touch it again. Or do you do a piece and then three months later you're thinking of that piece and come back to it?
Both things happen. Maybe the latter happens but the right amount of time hasn't happened yet. I'm always very open to new interpretations, new potentialities of a piece. So I like that some pieces are never really done. But there's a point where the layers are too thick and really you shouldn't do anything else to it. I am a very open artist. I have done a whole bunch of paintings and cut them up and did something new with them. But I'm always comforted to know I made them and can make it again. It's not like a table from Ikea that I cut up, and it doesn't go back together. There are painting from undergrad that I have redone the background on. I'm the manager. I can do that. That's so fun and refreshing. There aren't a lot of things in life when you can do that.

Okay, I'm not going to take up any more of your time. Thank you.
Oh, it was fun chatting.

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