Nikki McClure was never trained as an artist, but she did draw

Nikki McClure was never trained as an artist, but she did draw in college. “I didn’t study art at all,” she laughs while walking me through her small new sylvan show at Stonington Gallery, Look Closely. “I did biology and natural history, so I just got good at drawing insects and plants, never people.”

But one day in 1996, an art-school friend of hers suggested she try paper-cutting. Discovering the medium was an “a-ha moment,” says McClure, one that her brain subconsciously “knew it should’ve been doing all along.” The highly directional, hands-on art form clicked, and suddenly she became Olympia’s unofficial resident “picture maker,” doing art for company logos, greeting cards, and her friend’s K Records album covers. (Much of this work was seen during her solo retrospective at Bellevue Arts Museum in 2012–13.)

Portrait of the artist. Photo by Lisa Scott Owen

Although the Kirkland-born McClure initially came to Olympia for the punk-rock scene of the late ’80s (she cites The U-Men and Green River as draws), she ended up staying after attending Evergreen College, citing the small-town vibe and the beautiful scenery. The environment figures heavily in her intricately cut work, which bursts with leaves, branches, grasses, and tides. (Remember: She trained as a biologist, after all).

“My art [is] about being a part of the world, and recognizing your part in it,” says McClure. “I live by the water, and I always think about how my body is mostly water too. Or dirt—there’s dirt under my fingers. It’s a part of me; it’s a part of you; it’s a part of everyone; but we forget it when we drive around in these bubbles.

Although Stonington is a gallery for Native-American art, McClure says her work feels at home there: “Here they go, ‘Oh! That’s Indian plum!’  They understand it’s the first thing to leaf out in the spring, and that that’s why I incorporated it in an image. In another gallery they’d be like, ‘Oh, I notice you have floral motifs’ or something.”

Look Closely comprises paper-cuts McClure made for her new 2015 calendar Love (on sale now and through She’s made calendars for years, initially pairing her images first with haiku, then with shorter phrases and now single words. Often the connection between word and image are cryptic, like one image of her son by the fireplace with the word “Myth” above him. The texts’ fortune-cookie-like brevity is what interests McClure—especially the ensuing conversations people have to discern the connections she intended. She makes them to “bolster people’s spirits,” she says.

McClure’s art piece Equal. Courtesy of the Artist

In that vein, she describes her work as a modern-day version of the Works Projects Administration posters federally commissioned from artists to survive the Great Depression. “At that time, the images were, like, ‘Drink Milk!’ or ‘Protect Your Hands! You Work With Them!’ ” McClure chuckles. “Those are the images people needed then, and I’m making the images I think people need now. Now it should be more like, ‘Take a Goddamn Walk in the Woods.’ ”

She points to another image on the gallery wall of her and her son dredging up a tire from a favorite Olympia beach. It’s one of the most emblematic pieces in the series for McClure, one born of a poignant, unexpected moment of reflection, she says. “There’s always a theme that underlies the calendar work. This series is thinking about the fact that humans have been in the Northwest for about 15,000 years, so it’s about a sense of time and scale. There’s this image—it’s of a tire that was always exposed during winter low tide and storms on the beach, and we decided one day to deal with this tire because it would just be there forever otherwise. But we thought, you know, this tire has only been here for what, maybe 40 years? Cars have only been around maybe 100. Just thinking about how much has happened since that is amazing, let alone the fact that humans were here for 15,000 years.”

When McClure speaks, her voice leaps and jumps and flutters—she’s a great storyteller. Her wonderment at the natural world, which has long defined her art, intensified with the birth of her son, now 10, who mirrors that wonder back at her daily. She calls him a “life model,” like a magical human specimen seen after years of studying plants and bugs in college. Look Closely is also inspired by these somewhat new observations she’s gathered about the beauty and growth of a person—the strange, wild shape of the ears or the childlike musings her son delivered one day on the inherent goodness of bird feathers found on the beach.

“We don’t notice these small things,” she says. “You don’t notice unless you go outside and look.” Stonington Gallery 125 S. Jackson St., 405-4040, Open daily. Ends Sept. 27. (Free artist lecture and demo: 7 p.m. Wed., Sept. 17.)

Read more features from Seattle Weekly’s 2014 Fall Arts Guide, as well as a complete calendar of this season’s events, here.