An Interview with Tucker Nichols

Artist Tucker Nichols talks about why he likes early thoughts and exposed decisions, and the importance of not giving other people the keys.

Tucker Nichols

Photo credit: Lisa M. Hamilton.

How would you describe your creative process?

Recently I realized I’m trying to make work that freezes a moment in time that I would otherwise discard (or refine to make look like other images already in the world). In a text piece, that means writing something down that I’d otherwise pass by and then making a drawing of it later where it’s totally out of context. Or coming up with something slogan-like on the spot and painting it across a storefront window…. Planning a drawing is tempting, but I’ve found it rarely works for me.

With my abstract drawings, it’s more of a puzzle where I make up the rules as I go — like, what would it look like if everything’s being pulled to the edge on the left and there can only be two things and they have to be really different. I’m always trying to stop short of a completed thought because once it’s fully formed, it tends to lose some of its juice for me. Early thoughts have so many different possible outcomes; I prefer thinking about where other people might take them.

And then sometimes I have to draw a glove or a ketchup bottle or a branch because it feels like the right thing to do, and to not draw it would be adhering to some arbitrary rule about what kinds of things I am supposed to draw and what kinds of things I am definitely NOT supposed to draw. The early parts of thoughts don’t obey rules very well.

Are there particular tools that you rely on to gather and develop new ideas?

Absolutely. I go through about fifteen small orange Rhodia pads a year. There’s no set order to the pages, I just fill them up with thoughts or road signs or overheard phrases I’d otherwise forget completely. Then when I’m in the studio I can leaf through them and see what’s worth pursuing — and a lot of it is definitely not worth pursuing. I try to be quick when I take down a note because usually I’m quoting something someone I know just said, and that can be kind of awkward.

I just bought a digital recorder for the car, which was great for a drive on 99 recently but is a bit harder to take ideas off of. Fun to speak into though. Sometimes I feel like I could talk into my thumb and it would be just as useful.

If the galleries aren’t liking what you make, come up with your own way of showing your work… most of those gatekeepers are there to screen out the people who aren’t committed. When you give other people the keys, you give yourself an excuse not to make the work, and then you might as well just go to a baseball game.

Do you have a routine or discipline you try to stick to?

I’m an obsessive list-maker — every day, sometimes more, I write down things to do, things to pack, best order of errands. Working for myself, it’s the best way to have the equivalent of a daily meeting where everyone in my head goes around and says what they’re working on.

I like to draw in the morning, and then with tea in the afternoon, and sometimes at night. I take long walks and jot things down or think about how I’ll handle some part of an upcoming project. I have a couple key people who I’ll talk through certain projects with too.

As for actual routine, I started a website called “What A Day” where I post a small drawing every day, usually from the day before. It’s about the third thing I do each morning (after the cats and cereal). Also in the morning, I throw away most of the drawings from the day before.

My studio is in our house and that’s how I like it. I putter around a lot and like to dip in and out of my studio constantly…. Recently I’ve been hacking away at bushes and small trees in our overgrown yard. Something about gloves and big clippers really clears my head. It sounds like a slacker life, but I really never stop working. The days go by too fast, and I’m tired and I don’t know how to take a break very well but I just really love it. I suspect that it will all come crashing down any day now.

I send drawings in the mail most days, so that helps with the routine as well. I have a clear idea at all times of whether the mail has gone out yet (and when it’s come in too). Getting the mail is the most exciting — and disappointing — part of my day, and I check to see if it’s here more times than I will admit. I’m sure the neighbors have noticed.


Tucker Nichols has had solo exhibitions at ZieherSmith Gallery (New York), Kunstpanorama (Luzern), Lincart (San Francisco), and the Brattleboro Museum (Brattleboro, Vermont). His work has been featured in numerous group shows internationally, including Rocket Gallery (Tokyo) and John Connelly Presents and the Drawing Center (New York). An exhibition of recent work will open in September 2007 at ZieherSmith Gallery.

Nichols’ book of drawings, Postcards from Vermont, was published by Gallery 16 Editions last fall. His work has appeared inMcSweeney’s, The Believer, Zoetrope: All-Story, and the New York Times. He also maintains an excellent image-of-the-day website called “What A Day.”

Tucker Nichols on the Web: What A Day,Postcards from Vermont, online gallery

Why did you start your image-of-the-day website?

I started “What A Day” to force myself to keep showing what I was doing between gallery shows and to keep up the practice of making these small drawings that had no home. Also to do something casual and not so serious. It’s hard to take the art world too seriously when I’m drawing on index cards and putting them on view each morning.

But it’s turned into something so much better because viewers have used the drawings as starting points for their own creative projects. “Helene” writes fiction snippets that somehow incorporate that day’s drawing. Others chime in with haikus, lost-item announcements, movie treatments that extend across multiple days. There’s even someone who appears periodically to break down the drawings through numerics. My brother (one of the few commenters I can recognize) often describes memories from when we were young that are brought on by that day’s drawing, something he has an odd knack for. A precocious three-year-old girl has been dictating to her mother what she sees in the drawings (lots of bunnies and cats, recently). Needless to say, when I show at galleries, I don’t get to see all the directions people take the work….

I like the collision of low tech and high tech. I also like that it’s there for people who are into it and immediately dismissible for everyone else. I used to think being an artist meant trying to get as many people as possible to like what I made, but it’s hard to concentrate when you’re trying to impress everyone. What’s fulfilling is letting most everyone go and engaging with the small percentage of people who want to stick around.

Do you have any other habits or techniques that help you tap into your creative side?

Walking is the best form of thinking for me — not so much for specific drawings but for overall thinking about a project or a show or a direction I want to take things. I like to walk near my house out to the ocean. Also, my brother is a wonderful musician (old-time music, experimental jazz, etc.) and drawing to his music is great. He comes to the studio or I go to his or we both go to the ocean and set up on a log on the beach. Sometimes other friends join in.

I find the blank white page a bit unsettling. I like to have a context for a drawing — it can be as simple as tearing the white page in half or using lined paper, or as laborious as driving out to the Mojave for two weeks and drawing there by myself. I made a drawing waiting at the dentist today. It was horrible and I threw it away immediately, but now I know what it’s like to draw at the dentist’s. So if things aren’t working in the studio, I just leave and go somewhere else.

Drawing is not like writing for many people I know — it’s not tortuous, it’s not a huge weight. It’s only work because I spend so much time doing it, and somehow I make a living doing it.

Do commercial considerations play any role in your art and your creative process?

For the past few years, I’ve been doing corporate commissions where I kind of fake-work at companies and make big wall drawings in their offices based on what I’ve learned. In they end, they look like a brainstorming session gone awry, with jargon and diagrams and charts all related to their business. It’s like [being] an artist in residence. Most people spend most of their time at work, and yet it’s a place people don’t reflect on very much. That makes for fertile territory as an artist. So just interviewing people about what they do and why they work at that company leads to some pretty amazing conversations.

I don’t feel conflicted about those projects at all — they feel very relevant and accessible, and it’s a totally new experience every time. When I was first starting out, I got a lot of advice about how I ought to make greeting cards. That would be more of a commercial conflict for sure. Fortunately, I didn’t listen to any of those people, and now I’m getting paid to write all over fancy office lobbies. It’s much more fun, and temporarily going to these offices has the added benefit of making me feel like I have a real job.

I also do illustration jobs, but they are atypical. Occasionally the art director for the op-ed page of the New York Times will call me in the morning and send me an opinion piece to draw to, and I’ll stop what I’m doing and make a stack of drawings relating (often very tangentially) to the topic at hand. Unlike [with] traditional illustration projects, he doesn’t really art direct me — he just picks a finished drawing and tries to get it approved for the next day. And if he can’t, he moves on to someone else. They’ve accepted some very ambiguous drawings from me for those pages. The idea that some of their readers may think about a topic in a new way on account of a simple line drawing I made is very powerful. But again, that’s not really a commercial dilemma for me. It’s more like a very big stage for a very small drawing.

What gets you excited in other people’s work?

I like exposed decisions in art, the times when you can see where an artist or a musician or a filmmaker chose to do something — like a break of silence in the middle of a song or an unexpected arrangement of objects in a museum. I want to see something new, but only when I can imagine how somebody got there. Then I can see if we think alike. I like it when we do, as much as when we clearly don’t.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about the creative process?

Not sure if anyone ever really told me this, but the best advice I can think of is to get comfortable spending a lot of time alone. Also, don’t let anyone else hold the keys. If the galleries aren’t liking what you make, come up with your own way of showing your work. If you can’t get an agent, make the movie yourself and post it online. If you can honestly stand behind the work you’re making, you can find an audience for it — most of those gatekeepers are there to screen out the people who aren’t committed. When you give other people the keys, you give yourself an excuse not to make the work, and then you might as well just go to a baseball game.

Also, it’s good to learn to edit out the stuff that isn’t working even when you can’t figure out why. This is very difficult for me. It’s easier if you find a way to enjoy destroying the ones that don’t work. I prefer fire.

Category: Visual Arts/Design

4 comments on “An Interview with Tucker Nichols

  1. Really enjoyed this piece. Here’s my favorite line–the one that resonated with me most: “When you give other people the keys, you give yourself an excuse not to make the work, and then you might as well just go to a baseball game.”

  2. Like the photo!

  3. this interview made me laugh–in a good way! thanks to both of you for all the surprises.

  4. Your website is awesome. I’m looking for an incredible artist and old friend by the name of Paul Mullins. Mt maiden name was Debbi Jancik, that’s how he would know me. Can you please guide me in his direction. I would truly appreciate it.
    Many thanks! Debbi

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