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Lit Life

If anyone could be said to live outside the lines, artist Nikki McClure is it. She’s had no formal art training — she took a load of natural-history courses at The Evergreen State College.

She came to art by way of the incendiary Olympia music scene of the 1990s, designing album covers and T-shirts for musicians and friends. Nowadays, she practices papercutting, a form of art known for its populist roots — a folk art all over the world, papercutting has thrived because paper is plentiful and cheap.

But she has succeeded by every conventional measure: She’s internationally known, she has a book contract with an A-list publisher and is currently featured in a solo exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum, “Nikki McClure: Cutting Her Own Path.”

If you know children’s books, you have seen McClure’s work, notably “To Market, To Market,” a 2012 Washington State Book Award winner. Her pictures have a strong Asian influence (she’s popular in Japan) and celebrate the pleasures of the everyday.

Her dramatic images are almost entirely black and white, because that’s what she works with — cutting black paper, putting it on a white background, with a spare spot of color here and there. Her tools: black paper, an X-ACTO knife, a sketch book, a mechanical pencil, a cutting mat and an eraser.

In fact, she got into papercutting in part because the materials were affordable. “There are traditions throughout cultures of people using paper,” she says. “You don’t even need scissors; you can just tear it. It’s not oil painting, or marble — I don’t have to wear a fancy smock.

“When I started out I was making split-pea-soup wages,” McClure, who lives in Olympia with her husband and son, remembers. “You’re down to your last hundred dollars, how do you spend that? You buy a piece of paper and make a book. That costs $70, then you sell them and make $140.”

Post-Evergreen, McClure tried making music, in a scene where everyone was living intensely and on the cheap. “I was never a really good musician, but I was very ardent. I was terrible! I played the ukulele, I played the guitar, I played my body,” she recalls. “It was very brave and scary. It got scarier and scarier, so I started turning to art to express myself.”

McClure’s early images were created for bands like Sleater-Kinney, the girl group whose most famous alumna is Carrie Brownstein of “Portlandia” fame. In an essay for McClure’s exhibit, Brownstein wrote, “I watched (Nikki’s) work, the images appearing like strings, like smoke; they were stories told in streamers … I felt like the figures in her work already existed in the black expanse of paper, like she was merely letting the rest of us in on what she could already see; life from deep within the void.”

Over the last 15 years, McClure’s work has evolved into many forms — calendars (collectors’ items), books (currently published by Abrams) and posters with themes like INHERIT, EXPLORE, SUMMON, PRAISE (available at

“My message is … collaborate, work together, what we need to do to survive, but without being heavy handed and doom laden,” she says. Gorgeous images, snipped from a black void.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.