Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Nikki McClure

h1 May 10th, 2011 by jules

I suppose it’s not often I’ve featured papercut artists here at 7-Imp, but I’m happy to have one such illustrator, Nikki McClure, visiting 7-Imp this morning. Nikki—a self-taught artist, who began her work in 1996—cuts illustrations away from a single piece of black construction paper with an X-Acto knife in a process that, to say the very least, is time-consuming and intricate.

Nikki produces her own merchandise (posters, books, note cards, tee shirts, and yearly calendars), designs covers for records and books, and has contributed illustrations to The Progressive and Punk Planet.

But in the realm of children’s literature, Nikki has also brought us her delicate, beautiful papercut designs. In 2009, she illustrated Cynthia Rylant’s All in a Day, followed by her own two titles, 2010’s Mama, Is It Summer Yet? and this year’s To Market, To Market, just released this month (and all three published by Abrams). About Nikki’s illustrations for All in a Day, School Library Journal wrote, “Astonishingly detailed, the artwork evokes the feel of classic 1940s and ’50s picture books…. They successfully capture the magical childhood sense that a day can go on forever.” Kirkus added, “McClure’s bold cut-paper illustrations make such nebulous concepts as hope and renewal accessible to young readers. Her touching black-and-white tableaux, satisfying and solid with thick lines and sharp reliefs, offer simple scenes of rejuvenation.” With bold lines and textures and complex, meticulous papercuts, McClure’s artwork delights.

Nikki’s husband is going to treat us to pancakes while we chat this morning. “Every morning,” Nikki told me, “my husband {Jay T, pictured right} gets up early and makes blueberry pancakes. Giant ones that fill the whole pan, with blueberries that we gathered by picking every day in August and September. Sometimes I break with tradition (he’s been doing this for years and years and years) and make some kefir smoothie concoction. But today it will be pancakes again. They are so good, you really don’t mind the same thing everyday. Someone in Japan once made a movie about it.”

Well, I thank Nikki for visiting, and I thank Mr. Nikki for the breakfast treat. Without further ado, let’s chat a bit more with Ms. McClure about her work…

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Nikki: Illustrator/Author. The pictures usually come first and are the easiest part. I do look forward to the next book where I am just illustrator. It will be so relaxing! But first a wordless story is in the line-up. Does that make me just an illustrator for that one? Maybe it will be relaxing as well.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Cover art for To Market, To Market

Cover art for Cynthia Rylant’s All in a Day


Calendar sketches

Final image: “We are building a treehouse.”

Calendars (I consider these temporal books)

  • 2011- Endeavour
  • 2010 – Revive
  • 2009 – Wake Up!
  • 2008 – Things to Make and Do: Volume 10
  • 2007 – The Time is Now
  • 2006 – The Next 1000 Years
  • 2005 – Wishes & Dreams
  • 2004 – Onward! A Toolkit for Humanity
  • 2003 – Work With Care
  • 2002 – A Manual for Modern Living
  • 2001 – How to be a Cat
  • 2000 – Things to Make and Do for the Next 1000 Years

Calendar image…

…and its sketch.

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Nikki: I cut my images from black paper — papercuts. Sometimes I add another color layer with paper, but it is hard to find good paper just the right color, so I add color sparingly with the aid of a computer. I say “I,” but I have a friend do that part. I like to draw and make things, not sit at a computer more than necessary (except to answer interview questions before breakfast. No pancakes yet. He is just waking up to make them for us now.)

(Click to enlarge)

“Thank you, Colin and Genine, for this sweet and happy kale.”
— From
To Market, To Market.
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Nikki: I feel as though I have illustrated for all audiences. Baby to great-grandmother. Mama, Is It Summer Yet? was for the younger crowd, but also for mothers. You can put birds on shoulders in books for children. Magic can happen.

To Market, To Market was written for children, but it has a lot of information for curious adults, too. No birds on shoulders in there, though. I guess that makes it non-fiction.

(Click to enlarge)

“Michael is here. We have waited all summer for his fresh, sweet apples. Michael sets out small and crisp Akane apples. He picked them yesterday in his orchard.”
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Nikki: “I like the original — how he is part tree. But it seemed a bit creepy for a kid’s book. So, I lightened up the shadows some in the book art.”

“Thank you, Michael, for these crisp new apples.”
— From
To Market, To Market.
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Nikki: Olympia, Washington. I am a Puget Sound Lowlander. Within Olympia, I live at the top of a hill. Downtown is down the hill twelve blocks. I can be found at home most days, the Farmer’s Market, the bakery, at the barber shop (getting my haircut and where I show my art), and at the beach just north of town. Oh, and in the blueberry patch when it is August and September.

“Thank you, Benjamin; thank you, bees; thank you, flowers, for this sweet honey.”
— From
To Market, To Market.
(Nikki: “Honey! I got to wear a bee suit for this one.
The sound was amazing. No stings!”)

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Nikki: I didn’t wait for permission or the magic phone call. I just started making my own books — hand-coloring photocopies and binding with a ribbon. Apple was my first papercut story. It will be published (for real) by Abrams in the fall of 2012 (!!). After I made that book, I made a calendar which I also self-published. I hand-printed some books as well and kept making the calendar, which served as my spores, my calling card. Eventually the calendar landed on the desk and walls of an editor at Rizzoli (who moved to Abrams and took me with her) and a children’s book agent. They both called me around the same week. The magic phone calls eventually happened. I made Collect Raindrops, and then my agent asked Cynthia Rylant to write something for me to illustrate, and All in the Day was made. Now I have four more books planned for Abrams. I am really happy with how it all happened. I couldn’t have planned it. There was no map to follow.

“The band plays one last song and the bell is rung. Market Day is done.”
— From
To Market, To Market.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Nikki: It is pretty bare bones. It’s the computer and all that sitting. I tweet a bit. (I have to hold back on the bird sightings. I like to tweet about what happened last week, more like a postcard delivered in the mail.) My calendar is my blog. It is my life and what I do, but with a time delay of up to a year-and-a-half.

Cover sketch ideas for Nikki’s Mama, Is It Summer Yet?

(Click to enlarge slightly)

“Mama, is it summer yet?”

“I added some mushroom drawings and snowflakes. I loved cutting out the tape.”

“Not yet, my little one. But the buds are swelling. Soon new leaves will unfold.”

Early sketches from Mama, Is It Summer Yet?

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Nikki: Yes, I do school visits. I usually dread them, but in the end totally enjoy them. Nothing like a school full of inspired children who think that you are a magician and a rock star to enliven the day. I wish I had artists visiting me when I was young. It would have made the path a little less uncertain. Dreaming of being an Artist could have been a real possibility instead of being akin to wishing I was a Princess. It also gives a sense of scale. When they started school in the last year, I started my book. Now another school year will be ending…and the book is just coming out. And that is quick. I just got The Song of Robin Hood, illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton. That took her three years just to make the pictures. What patience! I wonder what book took the longest to illustrate? Do you know?

{Ed. Note: I do not! But now I’m curious.}

Cover ideas for Cynthia Rylant’s All in a Day

Sketches from All in a Day

Ideas for All in a Day that “didn’t make it”

Jules: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Nikki: I teach very rarely. It is enough to be a mom right now for me. And that influences my work greatly.

I taught last summer for three days. The class ended in tears (the good kind…think transformative energy), and it was in the mountains. Class ended everyday at 4:00, so we could swim before dinner.

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Nikki: To Market, To Market is out now. It is a book about my farmers’ market and how the food I eat gets made. It is also about who makes the food. All the work, skill, patience, and tools that go into the making of my sustenance.

I also have a journal for pregnancy, Embrace, coming out from Sasquatch Books, to follow up with the success of my baby journal, The First 1000 Days.

Poster print; Click on image for more information.

Apple, which features my first papercut ever, will be published in the fall of 2012. I am making a companion book as well. Hopefully, it will be wordless. Writing To Market just about did me in.

I have two images done on my 2012 calendar, exploring interdependence. 1/6th done! I am such an optimist.

And I am illustrating May the Stars Drip Down, a lullaby song by Cub Country. With tidepools and desert vales.

Mmm. Coffee.Pancakes are finally on, and our table’s set now for our breakfast interview. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Nikki again for stopping by.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Nikki: Process? I guess I should have one!

I’m just making this whole thing up as I go along. I mostly initiate my own stories, so it comes from a moment, a question, a need to explore an idea. Then the images start to arrive and lead me to the next page and the next. Then the words come into focus, and the pictures follow once again, becoming more refined and clear. I then show it to my editor and sometimes start running in a whole new path (usually excitedly, sometimes not). I make several pots of tea and eat chocolate to write text. My sketches get smaller and smaller as I work. The sketches for Mama, Is It Summer Yet? ended up being 1”x2”. These were approved! It was delightful, because I could still have spontaneous experiences happen in the final cutting out of the artwork. I like to be led by my muse, but this sometimes gets lost in the layers of the publisher’s approval process.

(Click to enlarge)

Nikki: “Sketch of blueberry turnover-making for To Market, To Market.”

Nikki: “Original art.”

Final art

“Thank you, Jessie and James, for this juicy, oozy blueberry turnover.”
(Click to enlarge)

Nikki: “Final sketch for To Market, To Market.
I trace this onto black paper and then start cutting.”

Nikki: “Papercut with indigo paper — not quite fitted yet.”

“We need a napkin! Let’s go find Yukie. Yukie dyes fabrice with indigo,
using traditional Japanese methods…”

(Click to enlarge)

Sketches for To Market, To Market
(Click to enlarge slightly)

Nikki: “More To Market, To Market sketches and goat teat.”
(Click to enlarge slightly)

“Thank you, Heather, Gary, Zach, Katelyn, and the mama and baby goats
for this fresh cheese.”

Illustrating is another story. It is a bit intimidating to take an author’s story and add a visual narrative to it — with no contact, no interaction at all between each other. Working with Cynthia Rylant for my first illustration assignment was daunting. Her words were so perfect, and then I had to scrawl my own story on top of them. I hoped she would be okay with that. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that she wrote it with my work in mind. So, I made my work. I looked out the window and started with my birch trees and my son climbing them and my chicken sitting outside my studio door keeping me company.

Nikki: “Notes to self.”

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Nikki’s studio in July

Nikki: “The dirt pile.”

Nikki: “My desk with cover of To Market, To Market.”

Nikki: My studio is in my backyard. I walk about twenty feet, and there I am. It is big and red — the heart. My desk has windows to the north and west and a commanding view of the garden, digging pile, trees, bird visitors, and I can even see through my house (through windows, not super powers) to the front door. Helpful for UPS deliveries and guests bringing pies. The walls are thick, so it is very, very quiet. (I used to work downtown over a music company and next door to experimental noise artists.) It has a loft for guests or to read poetry to my son.

Nikki: “Trying to focus.”

Nikki: “Finn working behind me. He had a prolific mushroom phase.”

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Nikki: Blueberries for Sal. Moominsummer Madness. (I only now understand the story! But the pictures are burned into my memory.) The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. The first Boxcar Children, Maurice Sendak, and Garth Williams are others that come to mind.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Nikki: Tove Jannson, Maurice Sendak, and the D’Aulaires. (I know that is four.) Tove and I take a walk along the beach afterwards and go swimming at sunset.

{Below are some of Nikki’s sketches. Click each to enlarge. “I like drawing tiny!” she said.}

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Nikki: Santogold, Bob Marley, Dead Meadow, D+, Karl Blau, Tender Forever, Fela Kuti. I put on music for wild dance party breaks. But I mostly just listen to the birds.

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Nikki: All my cars have been at least twenty years old. I have a 1987 Volvo that feels new (to me!) — and, yes, it is a station wagon. Dark blue and in need of a wash.

7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Nikki: Can I come blueberry picking with you?


Nikki: “The floor when I am done or can’t think of anything to do.
There’s always sweeping!”

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Nikki: “Catawampus.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Nikki: “Stupid.” (Next up= “fat” and “shut up.” I never read them. I always switch words when reading aloud. Sorry, authors.)

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Nikki: Lying down on the spinning earth.

Jules: What turns you off?

Nikki: Going to GiantOfficeSuperMax to get printer ink.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Nikki: “Onionsauce!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Nikki: Wasps scraping wood to make paper for their nest.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Nikki: Dogs barking with no rhythm.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Nikki: Weaver.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Nikki: ER doctor.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Nikki: “Welcome! Everyone is here, except that old man who yelled at you while you were using a payphone in Chicago.”

* * * * * * *

For more on Nikki’s artistic process, kick back and enjoy this:

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images (with the exception of the book covers) used with permission of Nikki McClure. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.

23 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Nikki McClure”

  1. We’re big fans of Nikki McClure’s work. Thanks for this wonderful interview.

  2. Wonderful interview of a gifted artist!

  3. Absolutely gorgeous. I adore the tiny little sketches and hearing all about Nikki’s process.

    And, I’m so jealous of her beautiful studio. Sigh.

    Thanks for posting such a wonderful glimpse into an incredible artist’s world.

  4. Really beautiful work. Great feature, thanks to Nikki for sharing.

  5. What can you say after that other than WOW? (If you’re not rendered speechless, that is.)

  6. fantastic to see your process/sketches matched to your final work. amazing.

  7. Love this stuff, thanks Jules for such a big juicy post!

    Every time I see her work I think about getting a new tattoo. I got a whole leg with nothing on it!

  8. Fantastic pictures! Thanks for a great interview.

  9. i LOVE this work. reminds me of using my Dad’s x-acto knives to cut out pictures in his studio…my best was a circle that looks more like a lumpy apple. LOL.

  10. Wow, beyond awesome. That studio is outrageous, and as always, I love the art-in-progress almost as much as the finished products. Fantastic stuff.

  11. I am a fan! I received How To Cook the Perfect Day as a Christmas present. FYI, there are some gluten-free recipes in there. Things to Make and Do is the notebook I keep for when I have drawing requests from my husband.

    Nikki, I would happily, happily go blueberry picking with you! I’m only 3 hours away….. Farida

  12. I’ve been following Nikki’s work for years, and whilst I’m about as maternal as a tea bag, I really enjoy her warmth and belief in nature and community.
    She really makes me feel optimistic.
    Thanks for this interesting interview.

  13. Nikki’s work is so lovely and her lines are full of wonderful swishy motion. I’m a big fan! Thanks for sharing this interview!

  14. Great interview Jules! LOVE Nikki’s work, and enjoy seeing it everyday with her calendar on my studio wall. Thank you.

  15. Love your work. This is the first time I have sent off a comment so I hope it works. I am moved and delighted by what you have done.

    I am in my 70s now and am for the first time putting together a podcast and blog site of my odd paitings of Anna’s Bittersweet River which I think will be as absr (not out yet, no web site, 83 paintings and ‘pieces’ of writing in all). Maybe on Canada Day. It is not anything like your work. My but I do love your work, your talent, your warmth. Elizabeth

  16. Fabulous interview, Jules and Nikki! I am a big fan, and loved reading (and seeing!) more of your bookmaking process. Look forward to picking up a copy of To Market, To Market!

  17. […] The newest book from Nikki McClure, one of my favorite illustrators, is To Market, To Market.  The unique paper-cut illustration style, which she creates with an x-acto knife and black construction paper, have a classic feel that is a perfect fit for a story about a family trip to a farmer’s market.  To Market, To Market alternates story and information.  We learn about the vegetables, crafts, and other goods that are at the market from how it was grown or produced to how it ended up at the market.  The result is a great blend of fiction and nonfiction that will appeal to a wide range of ages.  Learn more about Nikki McClure’s work in this interview on the fabulous children’s literature blog  Seven Impossible Things Before Bre…. […]

  18. I love Nikki McClure’s work. I really liked this interview! The photos of Nikki and family lay to rest the possibility that she could be Asian! Her art style and some of the people in her pictures and some of the subject matter seem to have an Asian tone, whatever that may be! At any rate I love her work!

  19. […] a beautiful board book with more of McClure’s cut-paper artwork. There’s always her May 2011 7-Imp interview, though, if you’re mumbling juicy curse words under your breath at me for having forgotten […]

  20. […] how just last night I told you I didn’t have any art from Nikki McClure’s beautiful board book, Apple (Abrams Appleseed, August 2012)? Well, I was just testing to see if you […]

  21. […] on the endpaper of the book.  If you want to know more about her and her artwork, there’s a spectacular interview with gobs of pictures on one of my favorite children’s lit blogs here.  Anyway, these We loved the beauty of the produce in Pike’s Place Market, […]

  22. Great, great interview! Printed it out and read it several times this week. This was wonderful, and thank you for that.


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