Long before MSNBC re-purposed the words into a vacant slogan, I had been calling a certain gallery occurrence the 'lean in'. Every artist knows about the 'lean in'. It's that elusive moment when a gallery patron (or gasp, art critic) is so taken with a work of art that they lean in to read the tiny title card. Artists live and die by the 'lean in'. Gallerists watch for it. It can mean sales. It can mean future shows. It can lead to name recognition.
My first encounter with the work of Nicole Bruckman wasn't exactly a 'lean in'. It was more like I had been lassoed and pulled across the room. It was a painting called "Hollybird" (seen above), a vertical portrait of a young woman holding a glass box with what I first thought was a dead fish. Upon closer inspection, you can see it's a bird. It's status is vague. Is the creature sleeping, injured or deceased? The box is coffin-like, but the lid is open. The woman appears to be biting her lip, but betraying little else as far as clues are concerned. Her eyes are wide and fearless. No sign of tears. She stands before a scratchy, brushed gold field that holds echoes of Klimt. It's a really strong piece, loaded with mystery. There's an informal balance to the composition that I would later find in many of Nicole's paintings. Informal balance is a tricky business, but when done right, there is magic in the negative spaces. Nicole does it right. I was a fan immediately.
Since then, I've seen Nicole's animal rich fables exhibited at a number of venues. They always stand out. They always pull you across the room. There's a lushness to her fields of grass that just floors me. She manages a storybook charm in all work. Detailed, without being too fussy. Surreal, without being alienating. Even her most melancholy pieces exude a certain optimism. They still manage to feel familial. You never feel detached from the work as a viewer. You're inside it. She's speaking directly to you, 'I made this painting for you.' That's not an easy thing to pull off.
I've had the opportunity to work with Nicole in her role as art director for Flower Pepper Gallery. I've hung out with her while she painted a mural. She is, much like her art, warm, embracing and amiable. When you first meet her, she makes you feel like you've been friends forever. I've never asked her about "Hollybird". Oftentimes I much prefer the questions art raises to the answers. But I've wanted to do this interview since I first saw that painting. We barely scratched the surface here, so I hope it's the just first of many.
So, I know you studied art in Ohio. Were you born there?
Yeah, I'm from Mentor, which is a suburb of Cleveland, and then I went to school at Columbus College of Art & Design, which is right across the street from O.S.U. But it's like a small art school. Then I moved to London for about a year.That was right after college?
Right after college. Like, right away. I worked at a pub there for six months, then backpacked/traveled for six months after that. Then I moved back to Cleveland and did some freelance for Cleveland Magazine, and the Free Times, which is kind of like the LA Weekly. I did some illustration, and I waitressed, saved money and moved to Los Angeles a year later.Where you making any art in London?
No (laughs). I should have been, but no. I was just basically traveling and partying. I did go to a bunch of art stuff, and even did interviews, but it was like 'Well, your visas up, so...'Knowing how connected you and your art is to animals, I was wondering if you ever considered being a veterinarian, or did you always want to be an artist?
No, actually the animal thing is kind of new. When I was in fifth grade...I always kind of knew I was good at drawing, but I was also really bad at everything else, like athletic stuff. I was good at fashion. I was good at art. I tried music but I wasn't good at it. But I liked artistic stuff, and I was always that kind of way. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher told my mom that she should really put me in art class. So, I started taking after-school classes at this little studio. Basically she ripped out pages and you copied them, like calendars and stuff, and she helped you with different techniques, pen & ink, pastels, etc. I really liked it and I made some friends. I went to Catholic school until sixth or seventh grade, but they didn't have a lot of programs. The public school though was the largest public school in the whole state, and they had really good funding.They had a really good arts program. Like they had printmaking, jewelry making, photography. They had all kinds of stuff. So, I went into the arts program there, and my friends from the art class were there, you know? So, I just stuck with it.Then you decided to focus on art in college?
Yeah, I knew I was going to apply to go into art, but I didn't know if it was going to be art school, or like a college that had art. So, I still had to take all the annoying French classes and math classes, even though I wasn't going to end up needing them. I really wanted to go to the School of Visual Arts in New York, but my parents didn't want me going too far from home. So, I went to CCAD, and they gave me a big scholarship, and I had a good friend who was going there as well. They had a really good illustration program.Then you moved to L.A. about two years after CCAD?
When I moved out here, I actually moved to Huntington Beach, because my friend from high school was there, and I knew that Anthony Ausgang was kind of from that area. You know, when I was in school, Mark Ryden was huge. It was like Juxtapoz, Ryden, Joe Sorren, those guys...and my teacher, Chris Payne, took us to the Society of Illustrators conventions. Those guys were never there but we talked to everybody about them, and that was the era when illustration was becoming fine art, and La Luz was just huge. So I thought, yeah, I'll move out here. That'll be really cool. But I didn't realize how far Huntington Beach was from L.A. and I found out how terrible it was. Just the worst. There's no art, nothing. So, I moved to Los Angeles and started waitressing at The Standard...where I met my husband...and I made a lot of cool friends there. Everybody who worked there was like artistic and amazing. The people who came in were terrible, but the people I worked with were really awesome. We all stayed really close. I started showing with Cannibal Flower right away. Then I did The Hive, and it kind of went from there.So Cannibal Flower was your first gallery show?
Yeah, Cannibal Flower was the first. I was doing commercial stuff in Ohio, illustration. Then when I got out here, I did a bunch of restaurant projects. Because I was working at restaurants, they hired me to do logos, and some big paintings for their wall. But even that is all commercial stuff, you know? But I really wanted to start showing. I wanted to be in La Luz, and I liked Thinkspace. So, I met with L.Croskey , and he was just so helpful! Like, I don't know if I ever would have started showing if I hadn't met with him. I wanted to, but I didn't know how to go about it, or what to focus on. L.C. was just really, really helpful. Because I was really nervous, and he's very nurturing. He's really calm. He can get harder on you later, but in the beginning he just gets you excited about showing. He tells you what you do that's different from someone else, and what you should focus on. This is what's good, so work with this. He put me in a show right away, so I had to make something. I was just used to making stuff for projects, like for spec. I had to come up with something last minute. I was really scared at first, but once I started showing with him it just became a lot easier. Cannibal Flower had shows every month. Then I did The Hive, and I had something at C.A.V.E. once.Well, I first saw your work at WWA Gallery.
Well, that's really interesting. I was working at New Stone Age...they're kind of like Gold Bug but not as dark...artsy jewelry and stuff. One of the girls I was working with, her sister was an artist, and she was an actress. We became really good friends, and she was friends with Gaston, who owns Meltdown Comics. She had done stuff there before, and we started curating shows there. She knew people too, like Tim Biskup, and would put them in the shows. WWA had just started, and they came to all our shows. Then they put me in shows, and we put Rob in shows. He had just started to paint. Then Stephanie and I did a show at Cella together---and Marcos Saldana and I curated The Hounds of Love show there last year.And now you have shown at La Luz!
I have shown at La Luz! I did one of their group shows, the Kitsch'n Sync, and I did the coaster show last year. I did the Kiss dogs!When you were growing up, did you go see a lot of art as a kid?
You know there wasn't a lot of galleries, or anything like that where I grew up. But Cleveland has a really good art museum. My mom used to take us there all the time. She didn't work, so we would go there all the time with her and my grandma. I loved Renoir! That was my favorite. I was obsessed with his stuff. I was really into the impressionist stuff.What else were you drawn to?
At one point, I thought I wanted to be a ballerina. We used to go to ballets all the time. but I was not good at it, and had no patience with it. Then it quickly became that I liked the ballet because of the aesthetic of it. I wanted to do the sets and that part of it. I was always into fairy tales too. So, I really wanted to make the books come to life, you know? At first I wanted to move to New York and paint backdrops for Broadway or something. Then I found out that's not as glamorous as you think. It's not really about painting, and you don't make any money.What's the best thing you learned in art school?
Chris Payne's seminar was really amazing for me. At first, I really wanted to do children's books. But the amount of work, to do every page as a painting...plus the amount of money they made? Chris did start doing some children's books, but mostly like covers. Anyway, he taught us so much. He did all different things. He taught us to use tracing paper, which is really fun. It's cheap for one thing, but also you can do your sketch, and then you can go over it and correct your own sketch, instead of erasing and erasing. So, for concepts, that was really helpful. He would bring in, like, John Wayne movies, and he'd say 'Check out this lighting. This is what you should be looking at.' He was the biggest thing for me then. The color concept class too. Color is really important to me, so I was really into that.And now you're the art director of Flower Pepper Gallery.
Yeah, so I had curated the shows at Meltdown and a couple at Cella. Also, Flower Pepper had a bunch of products in there that we used to sell at New Stone Age. So, I was familiar with the products. They had the show Painted Sound going on, and Nom Kinnear King was in it and I had done lots of shows with her. So, I was like 'Oh! This is in Pasadena. This is close to my house. I'm going to have to go check this place out.' Then I found out they were hiring---and they kind of tested me out by letting me curate a show, which sort of led to me getting that position.Let's talk about influences. You had mentioned Renoir, who else has made a big impact on you?
When I was in college, it was, for sure, Mark Ryden and Joe Sorren. They were huge. That was like everything. Camille Rose Garcia. I love Walton Ford, his technique is incredible, but I love the stories behind his animals. There will be a starling eating a piece of chocolate because starlings moved here, or were transplanted here but shouldn't exist here, just like they shouldn't be eating chocolate. Very nature involved, intricate story lines in beautiful old fashioned compositions. So, I really like his stuff. I always liked Lucian Freud paintings. There's a wide swath there.What do you find the most challenging thing to paint?
Trees. I love them, but the bark is tricky, and leaves are very time consuming. It is hard to know how much detail to include and when to stop.Lastly, I'm kind of in awe of how you render leaves of grass. What's the trick to painting grass?
First I paint the sky to cover the whole panel. Then I mix a few different greenish colors, adding some of the sky color closest to the horizon to make it seem in the distance, and I basically paint every blade of grass adding more dark and more light to certain areas for depth. Fairly simple, just kind of time consuming.
You can currently see Nicole's work in the Pandamonium show (which she curated) at:
Flower Pepper Gallery
121 East Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91103
Next Saturday (6/21/2014), you and your kids can make some art with Nicole, myself, and other artists at Flower Pepper from 1pm -4pm (see flyers below)
You can see Nicole's "King Atticus" mural at:
3126 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA. 90057
Coming up in August, Nicole will have work in the "Baby Animals" show at:
...and much more after that! I'll keep you posted.
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