Interview and photos by intern Nina Doering
How long have you been making art?
I started doing graffiti when I was 10, 11. I’d go to the post office and get those little label stickers, draw on them and slap them around town. My older brother and his friends were doing it. Once I got into high school, I met a kid who I became attached at the hip with and we’d just skate, sit and draw in our sketchbooks for five hours at a time. That’s when I got really into it-- drawing patterns… waves, suns, mountains. In high school I had a friend say, “Are you ever gonna not draw a wave or a sun?” I told him to fuck off. Then I thought about it, like yeah I should probably switch it up.
When I first got to college, I went to Chico State, I didn’t want to study art. I thought, I love doing art. But I thought school was going to change it for me, turn it into a chore, instead of something that I love to do. I realized soon enough that wasn’t the case. I’d have assignments for other classes and think, this is a total waste of my time because I want to be doing this other thing. And finally getting into that mode of studying art was awesome.
How did majoring in art help you improve your skills as an artist? Or did it?
That’s a good, uncommon question. People think when you go to art school that they’re going to teach you how to… “make art.” Which they kind of do-- the fundamental kind of stuff was early on. But what it really taught me was how to work my ass off. Five studio classes a semester, five assigned pieces a class- it keeps you working. It also teaches you how to think about what you’re making. You have to have a solid body of work that’s cohesive and has meaning behind it. There are some people that “finish art school” without solid painting skills and drawing skills. It’s all about how much time you put into it. I had people in my classes tell me, “I like working on a project in front of the TV.” And it’s like, you’re not focusing, I don’t think.
Why did you pick Chico State?
I went to San Francisco State and talked to one of the professors there and she told me the print studio closes at 10 -- they kick everyone out at 10. That was it for me. At Chico I’d get a cup of coffee, head to the studio about 10. Stay until 2. That was good.
Your work seems to be really involved with the outside world (trashcans, walls...) Does that stem from your background with graffiti?
I’ve always had an interest in doing murals, getting outside and painting. About two years ago, I got asked to go to Tijuana to paint a mural. I was working a full-time job at the time, so I didn’t go. At the end of that summer I was so pissed at myself for not taking that opportunity that I decided to call my friend who works at a music store in Mission Hills called M-Theory and asked if I could do a mural for them. He was like, “Yeah, that sounds like it could be cool.” Yeah, it’s still there.
My next mural after that I had a day to do. It was on the garage door of this wine bar in San Francisco. That was in May. Since then I’ve just had the itch. When I went back to Chico, I had a lot of spare paint, so I decided to find some abandoned buildings to work with to practice. I ended up painting four murals in three weeks, before I graduated. It’s so much fun, a completely different approach-- super physical. Outside, painting 10-12 hours a day, I like that engagement. With the piece and with the community, having people walking past, talking about it. I dig it.
How has your style evolved as an artist?
I’ve always liked drawing, that’s always been the main thing. Even when I paint, I’ll still draw into the painting. Printmaking is what I got my degree in from Chico State. Which is a very labor-intensive form of art-making. Very process oriented. You plan out your whole print before your start. A lot of drawing, not so much painting. I think that way of working changed my style a little bit. It’s all about layers. Layering different images and colors to get to your final product.
I had this big transition when I was about 19. I started drawing desert scenes. Mountains, deserts. I started leaving out characters, figures, all landscapes. I’m just now beginning to put figures back into stuff. I think part of it is avoiding the figure because I don’t like drawing it. The landscape stuff that I’m painting is far more advanced in its development and style than my figures are, so it seems imbalanced to me. It’s evolved in a weird way. And it’s still evolving.
What’s your favorite location you’ve done a piece?
Yeah, I guess I’ve painted on some weird stuff. Some guitars, some trashcans, some walls. My favorite would have to be the Element skate camp. Biggest mural I’ve done so far, right outside Sequoia National Park. It’s on the outside of their skate ramp.
I painted an abandoned house on a property that belonged to one of my old professors at Chico. He’d been trying to restore it, so it was totally cleared out on the inside. That was something else.
Would you say most of your art is simply creative expression? Or do you want the viewer to get a specific feeling or emotion from a piece?
It’s funny because in school there was a lot of people doing really personal stuff-- I guess it’s always personal because it’s coming out of your head. But it seemed like people were hashing out problems with what was going on in their life-- socially, interacting with others and stuff. My draw to art has always had a kind of philosophical, existential theme. I like to think about reality and perception. About how we perceive the world around us, how you see the world as opposed to how I see it, even seeing beyond what the eye sees. I like to find the patterns in nature that we can find in our own bodies, and portray that connection. I feel like I learn through my art, like it’s teaching me about the natural world.
I also like stripping away a few layers. I’ll think of an idea, and the first image that comes to my head is showing that idea flat out, but I don’t like doing that first initial thought. I have to dilute it, make it a little harder to understand. I want people to get in there and stare at it not only because it looks pretty, but because it makes them think. I want them to make connections and come to their own conclusion.
What is your creative process like? How long does it take you to make a piece that you feel is finished?
It varies a bit. Sometimes I’ll revisit things later on and they’ll take a different form. I’ll start things out, mess with a certain theme. Put them down and pick them up a month later, and they’ve turned into something completely different. Deadlines are good because you get things done and you don’t dwell on a piece for too long.
Is there a culture in particular that inspires your work?
There was a time when I was 19 or so, where I was really inspired by Native American patterning. Motifs, colors, patterns. Then I got to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable painting that stuff. I felt like I was trying to identify with a culture I’m not a part of. So I steered away from that. I do still love North and South American patterning and their art’s complexity. I love the bright colors of Mexican and Central American art. A lot of my patterning is inspired by the earth, by nature.
Nature and geometry?
Yeah, that’s kind of a fun balance I like to mess with. I make a lot of stuff that’s very rigid and geometric, and fill it with more organic patterns.
What concepts are you working with specifically for your solo show with Thumbprint in January?
I went to Thailand last summer, and on the plane as I’m flying over the Atlantic Ocean, I’m thinking how I’m in this tiny little capsule, really safe and protected. It’s quiet. And I look down into the middle of the ocean and from where I’m looking, it looks totally still, like a blue space with some crazy pattern. And then I put myself in that water, just swimming there, floating there. Because let’s say someone’s down there in a little boat hitting these big swells, I'm looking at it like it’s just this flat surface. It seems simple to talk about it. But the realization of it was something quite crazy, that two people could be looking at the same thing at the same time but experience a huge array of emotion or thoughts. That started making me think about reality. If so many people have completely different perceptions of things, what is reality? What is real? So much conflict happens because people have different views about things. If our perception changes depending on where we are, what’s the real shape, the real essence? That’s an idea I’m basing the show off of. Perception.
Does your artistic style change based on your environment?
I don’t think it completely changes. But yeah, I am definitely influenced by the stuff around me.
What do you feel is the most difficult thing about working as an artist?
When it rains it pours, and then you go into times of drought. You get a bunch of projects, they all come at once, and then it just shuts off and there’s not much to do for awhile. If there isn’t something to do, you gotta keep doing something regardless. You also have to be your own promoter, your own boss. Make the art, and then get it out there in a creative way. At my level (as an “emerging” artist) you have to hit the streets, talk to people, establish connections. But that’s also the fun part. It’s a good challenge.
I’ve always thought of artists as relatively introverted. You don’t seem to fit that profile at all. Do you think there’s a certain personality type artists tend to have, and if so do you identify with that?
I think I have both ends of the spectrum. I can be sociable, but I really enjoy being solitary. Too much of one thing is going to make me go crazy. I’ll paint for four days straight, then I’ll go out for a few days and drink beer with friends. I think to an extent an artist needs to have that ability to not have to be constantly stimulated, but there are some very extroverted artists. I think it really depends on who the person is.
The concept of creating art hugely involves vulnerability. Was that ever scary to you? Or have outside judgments of your work never really been an issue?
That was always what was so exciting about it. I loved sharing it with people. It brought me just as much joy to present it as it brought me to make it. I'll sit in my room talking about these things and making them in solitude and it’s nice to bring it out and talk about it. People can also give you totally new insight into what you’ve done. School on the other hand-- formal critiques, pinning your piece up on the wall and everyone talking about it-- that’s kind of intimidating. Early on in school someone would say something about a piece, and the first thing that comes to my head is “Fuck you! You don’t know what you’re talking about.” But that is something you have to get over. There’s parallels even in life. You’ve gotta be able to take criticism. You can’t let others’ opinions affect you so much. You’ve gotta be accepting of other peoples’ views.
Do you feel like writing and art go hand in hand?
Yeah. I love writing. I thought I wanted to be an author when I was young. Then I got into drawing. A majority of my sketchbooks are a hybrid of writing and scribbles.
What do you do for fun?
I like walking and staring at weird things. That’s my favorite past-time. I’ll grab a camera and an orange, tromp around, look at stuff. I like going to natural beauty and nerding out on rocks, animals, growths. I don’t like sitting on the sidelines and taking a picture of the pretty view. I like walking into it and getting lost for a little bit.
What’s your favorite color?
About a half hour after the sun goes down, there’s this beautiful blending of colors that is my favorite color(s). It is so ingrained in me. When it’s almost dark, that’s when it’s perfect. There’s a faint little bit of sun left on the horizon and then a really abrupt, beautiful change in blues. There’s a little teal strip that’s my favorite. You’ll see that one in a lot of my pieces. The blending in the sky is something that you can’t replicate but I try to all the time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I had a professor one time tell me not to covet a piece of artwork. He told me as soon as you finish a piece you should be able to rip it in half and move on to the next one. I think it’s good to have a balance between being able to make art and sell it. On one end of the spectrum is “I just want to make this thing really quick so I can make this money.” But then some artists put so much into a painting, thinking “I want to sell this for 8,000 dollars!,” when they’ve never sold a painting for 200. You should be okay with putting work out into the world. That was a pretty good piece of advice.
Where would you like to end up?
I don’t know. I want to travel, though. Whenever you change locations there’s this even balance of being sad and lonely, and being completely elated and energized by seeing a new place. San Diego’s beautiful and comfortable, but in the future I’d like to be somewhere else for awhile.
What are your plans for the near future?
I’m leaving in a few weeks for Detroit. I’m assisting an international street artist. It’ll be me and him for two months straight. I’m gonna be his print-bitch for two months, which is cool. I actually want to go to graduate school and get my masters. I like that environment, that challenge. So we’ll see.
What do you see for the future regarding your art?
I think it’s a big transition period right now. Not knowing what I want to do, where I want to live. I’m designing some shirts for a clothing company in Laguna Beach right now, designing some skis for a company called Armada Skis, and actually designing next year’s skateboard for the Element Skate Camp. I’d like to keep doing things like that. I want to be able to have my input into a bunch of different things.
Interview and photos by intern Rachel Kim
Who are you and what do you do?
Nick McPherson. I have been doing art and design in San Diego for around 9 years now. I am originally from Texas where I got my degree in design from TCU.
What work do you most enjoy doing?
I would have to say illustration work and working out an idea from start to finish with just pen and paper. It's hard to really say. I really just like the creative process for any project. I wanted to do design so I had access to any kind of medium I wanted. Whatever works best for the idea, I could do. Printmaking, photography, sculpture, whatever creative medium was available for the project, I could use and knew how to use was always important to me.
What's your strongest memory of your childhood?
Sitting in church and drawing because my mom would not let me bring books or toys so I would draw and I think it really helped me develop as an artist.
What are you using for reference in your illustrations?
I hardly ever use reference, but I think I should do it more. Figure drawing class in school was the best thing for me as far as becoming better as an illustrator, but most of it I make up as I go.
Do you have a plan when you start a piece or is it something that happens organically as you are working?
It starts with what I picture in my head and then you fight to make that image come out exactly as you see it. Sometimes it comes out perfect, and sometimes not but you can surprise yourself and it turns out better than you expected. I would say there is an organic thing that happens. The idea builds upon itself once you get it down on paper.
How did you come upon using vintage photos in your artwork?
I found some old photos piled up on a table at the swap meet. I tend to collect things and think that I am going to use them in some project, which usually results in stacks of various art projects. I had these photos and started doodling on them and I posted a few and I got a lot of response so I kept it going. It was just a little side project that made me laugh and it's turned into something bigger. I think people react differently to old photos, some of them are kind of creepy and realizing that these are real people. When I draw on them I think I am taking out the seriousness of it all and when they make me laugh, I know they are good.
What influences your work?
I would have to say vintage cartoons, Mad Magazine, vintage toys, old stickers, and architecture. I can really list things forever. I think it's very important for artists to be very observant as the creative process is always going and what is around you can really influence new ideas.
What is your dream project?
I can't really say. I would like to do more murals, work bigger. I want to keep being creative and have the opportunity to do more and more projects with new tools or mediums to make something that I have never made before. New and different stuff.
What's next for you?
More art shows coming up, new book with more photos soon, action figures, some backpacks and luggage, and always staying busy. Making new stuff everyday.
Our friends at Disconnected Salon in North Park have asked us to curate month long exhibitions for September and October. This month, you'll get to enjoy some great work by local artist Paul Brogden as well as out-of-towners, Marcos Lafarga (Concord, CA) and MR PRVRT (Rochester, NY).