Nicki Green: Queer Myth and Symbol


Keena Tarrant and I spent more than an hour looking at and talking about the sculptural and textile work of Nicki Green. As a ceramicist and textile artist, she is engaging with queer DIY – a line of theory in flux within both contemporary meaning and queer history. Her sculptures reference utility and usefulness, while rejecting functionality in a way that ultimately feels decorative and highly symbolic. Her work leads us down a narrative that questions fine art, and craft – and there is nothing I love more than to debate the values and structures of craft especially as they intersect with queer identity.

Nicki Green is a trans-disciplinary artist living and making work in the bay area. Her work focuses primarily on skill-based craft processes (ceramics, textiles) and is inspired by it’s ability to document history and create legacy for marginalized communities. Originally from New England, she received a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2009, and during the same year, was a recipient of the Schmidt Fellowship for her programming work at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, one of the many now former alternative Queer performance and gallery spaces in San Francisco, CA. Nicki has exhibited her work nationally, notably at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art Annex in New York, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. She has also contributed drawings and writing to national and international zines and publications, including Maximum Rock n Roll (San Francisco, CA) and Bend Over Magazine (Berlin, Germany). Recently, she received a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to develop a body of work about the connection of the ceramic ritual object to the cultivation of a mythos around the divine androgynous body.

Callie Garp & Keena Tarrant We would like to know about your process. Where do these things come from: a thought, a dream, playing with things? Conversations, conquests in grand adventure?

Untitled designNicki My process is quite discursive. I’ve been really interested in ceramics as a material for a long time, and I think my first entry into it has been medium-focused- as in, exploring the material as a material, making lots of different kind of unrelated objects, and then later on as a vehicle for images and concepts. I became interested in blue and white glaze during my undergrad at San Francisco Art Institute really just because of how ubiquitous the surface is, and in doing more research, was struck by the way it has been used in so many cultural heritages to illustrate history, it felt like a great way to depict queer and trans people in an illustrative way. I tend to have these ah-hah moments where my research will fork off into a direction that will lead me to the next body of work, which will lead me to new research, and so on. Right now it’s about transness and Judaism, and I recently started thinking about mushrooms as a metaphor for queerness and have been finding threads to connect out to previous work (did you know that mushrooms were used in anti-semetic nazi propaganda to talk about how untrustworthy Jews were? Wild!)

It's Almost as if We've Existed (Tres in Una) - detail

It’s Almost as if We’ve Existed (Tres in Una) – detail

CG & KT Do you have a daily working routine? A philosophy that inspires you to continue working and moving forward in your practice?

I try to make as much time for the studio as possible. It feels important to just be there, even if I’m just doodling or flipping through books for ideas. I think half the battle is just getting into the studio. Luckily, the materials I tend to work with are all very process-heavy, so there’s always something to do, like mixing and applying base glaze, punching image patterns, etc. I try to remind myself that just by making things, my practice evolves, and I could theorize about the work all I want, but until I just kind of work it out in the studio, things won’t really progress as fluidly. These days, I have so many looming deadlines that I end up pumping work out in a very production-oriented way, this urgency makes for some really great rash decision-making (and also some totally epic fails, but what can you do?)

oriectomy symbology tile #1, 2014. 4" x 8.5" x 2"

oriectomy symbology tile #1, 2014. 4″ x 8.5″ x 2″

CG & KT How would you describe your BFA experiences? How do those experiences inform your work now, six years later?

N I started undergrad at the New School in New York and then moved to San Francisco to finish it up at SFAI. So much of my relationship to school has been using it as a vehicle to get me somewhere geographically that felt important at the time, almost always connected to accessing creative queer and trans community. As a result, I’ve always had a kind of dual life and a really substantial community outside of school. I think this has been really important in developing myself as a politicized queer and trans person when I haven’t really had as much access to queer people at the schools themselves. That said, my BFA was good! It was a lot of experimenting and getting to play with different materials, which was such a blessing. You really get to get your ya-yas out and find stuff that you really connect with – for me it was finding ceramics again and getting to dig in before I graduated. Since school, I’ve taken a handful of community college classes to sort of do the same thing, so that’s been such a great resource, for sure. When I got out of school, I took a break from making work, I think I’ve really had to consciously decide that I wanted to pursue art making seriously to get the energy I’ve had in the past few years. There’s been a lot of rejection and then using that bummed out energy to work harder and push myself.

It's Never Not A Mirror glazed stoneware. 12.5" x 7" x 2.5"

It’s Never Not A Mirror glazed stoneware. 12.5″ x 7″ x 2.5″

CG & KT Has moving from New England to California impacted your daily life and art making?

I love the bay area but I really identify as a New Englander in the sense that there’s this surly mountain lady thing that I associate with the north east and really feel connected to in my gender presentation. I think my temperament is very low key bay area, and that’s reassuring, to interact with more easy going folks and see myself in that, but I think the big thing is being able to be visibly trans and feel relatively safe. I haven’t lived on the east coast in a while, but I feel like I stick out there a lot more, and there’s really something to be said to be a frumpy trans lady walking with my frumpy trans lady friend and we bump into two other trans ladies taking a walk…. people complain about the bubble-ness of queer meccas, and that’s real, but I also think our everyday safety and comfort is a really valid thing, and if we get some kind of quality of life in these bubbles, who is anyone to judge that? That said, it’s fall and the east coast is all autumnal and I’m missing it pretty hard out here in my oatmeal socks.

Sex Objects glazed porcelain with wire stand. 4" x 8" x 2" each.

Sex Objects glazed porcelain with wire stand. 4″ x 8″ x 2″ each.

CG & KT How do you intend for viewers to engage with representations of a trans body in your work?

N I hope that images of trans bodies is validating for other trans folks to see. I think the spectacle of the trans body is something that I’m constantly negotiating, that it can’t always be only for other trans people, cis people are going to see this and respond to it, and that’s fine, but when I see other trans folks, particularly trans women making work, it feels very exciting, very validating, and I hope other trans folks get that from my work as well. Cis people are so obsessed with our bodies that it becomes this really complicated thing, wanting to make work that depicts naked bodies and sexuality because I, as a queer and trans person want to see my body reflected back to me, but also knowing that this innate need to work with images of trans bodies is also this festishy spectacle for cis folks. It’s complicated.

Quilted Lavender Hanky #1. Quilted cotton and polyester. 12.5" x 12.5"

Quilted Lavender Hanky #1. Quilted cotton and polyester. 12.5″ x 12.5″

CG & KT What is your relationship to queer diy, utility and craft?

N I’ve always been making things in a scrappy DIY way, repairing clothes, buying craft sets as a young person and just going to town on them. I distinctly remember being the only (at the time) “boy” in a summer camp rag doll making class and I just loved it. My doll had nipple rings and all the other girls had me pierce their dolls’ belly buttons. I must have been 10 or something. I’ve always been a crafty weirdo. I also grew up in queeny draggy gay male community, making a lot of costumes and very loud outfits. I always wonder what it would have been like if I had had access to dyke and Riot Grrl scenes as a young person and like, punk and DIY culture. I’m not really sure, I think I’d probably be a better lesbian…(I’m kidding, no, not really)

CG & KT Can you talk more about the repeated appearance of floral motifs in your work? What are queer flowers and/or how are flowers symbolic of queer identity?

N Floral patterns started for me as a really basic trope of blue-and-white glaze tradition, making objects floral as a sort of sisification. When I started to research histories of queer people and queer symbols, I found all of these connections to flowers and it felt really perfect – why use any general flower when you can use ones that have all of this charged connection to our bodies and our histories? I use pansies a lot because I identify pretty strongly as a pansy, but there’s all kinds of threads- carnations to flag queerness, species of flowers that have queer functions, like auto-pollinators and such.

Cups Adapted From The Queen's Vernacular glazed earthenware. 3.5" x 2" x 3.5"

Cups Adapted From The Queen’s Vernacular glazed earthenware. 3.5″ x 2″ x 3.5″

CG & KT You have chosen to engage with various queer texts and symbols, such as The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon, hanky flagging and alchemical symbology. Is there a sort of ultimate queer lexicon you imagine?

N I’ve been asked if I could make a sort of legend to decipher the symbols and references I use in my work, and as an avid list maker, this sounds pretty satisfying, but I also think there’s something to be said for making work that is deeply coded for other queer people and not laid out and made decipherable. This idea is directly connected to these dated-but-still-so relevant relics like The Queen’s Vernacular and hankies and such- it’s a way for queer people to communicate in a very exclusive, coded way. It creates a sense of community and a wink wink nudge nudge that’s so intricately connected to this history of codedness as a means of survival. It’s in some ways so much easier to be visibly queer and trans these days, but in others not really at all, and I think looking back to ways our queer and trans elders interacted and supported each other and sustained communities is vital.

cunt/cock star, study for a quilt. pencil on newsprint. 9" x 12"

cunt/cock star, study for a quilt. pencil on newsprint. 9″ x 12″

CG & KT You largely employ a purple glaze over a white/cream ground. Of course, lavender as a color has historically signified queer identity expression, but also is the color of Domestic Violence Awareness, royalty and wealth. Can you talk about this particular color choice and its meaning in contemporary culture?

N Purple, for me, is very much a queer color. My initial draw was because it felt like a subversion of traditional blue and white glazes, using a purple that could read in a similar contrasting way as cobalt but also work as a visual language for queer ceramic objects. Historically purples have been claimed by queer communities, yes, and they have also been worn to designate homo-desire and transgender roles in so many cultures and religions. For me, I’m innately drawn to purple for it’s inbetween-ness and it’s vibrancy, it’s totally my power color.

CG & KT Does community play any role in your art making practice and/or process?

N Definitely. Having queer artists around me is so inspiring. When I’m making work in a cohort as the only queer or only trans person, I end up having to do a lot of teaching, and there’s something really satisfying for queer people to just get it. I also think making work about community, either documenting community activities or even, say, making objects for other people to use, has a lot of power in its connectedness to others. So much of trans women’s community is steeped in this idea that it’s unsafe to be seen together in the world, and this history of estrangement really pushes me to work in solidarity with others. That said, I tend to work in my studio alone, though have dabbled in collabs as a way to be creative with the queer geniuses around me.

Carnation, 2014. 4" x 8.5" x 3"

Carnation, 2014. 4″ x 8.5″ x 3″

CG & KT What books, articles, films, music are you into right now? Are they entertainment, philosophical engagement?

I’m currently re-reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and keep crying, it’s such a great novel and finding this imaginative and well researched connection to Judaism is really helpful as I also dig back into this as part of my personal history. Along the same lines, I keep Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit by Randy P. Conner, David Hatfield Sparks and Mariya Sparks next to my bed for referencing. I’m also really obsessed with the Brazilian youtube star Saullo Berck who uses bricks as heels in these amazingly choreographed videos.

CG & KT What queer artists would you recommend our readers learn more about right now?

N Right now go check out my genius friend since highschool Nia King who’s a podcaster and editor of the book Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives. Also, check out my amazing trans artist friend Craig Calderwood also a total genius.

Link Love:

Founder/Director Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.

Developmental Editor Keena Tarrant has a Masters of Science in Art Therapy from Eastern Virginia Medical School, and a Masters of Fine Arts in Studio Arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and their partner school Tufts University. Keep up with Keena here.


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