If you’ve lived in the Northwest long enough and frequent bookstores or gift stores, you’ll know of Nikki McClure. Her firm yet delicate carvings of black paper with an X-acto knife have made their way into popular culture in a way most artists can only dream of: With calendars, kids’ books and note cards, her images of everyday people doing things we all wished we had time to do (like baking, picking blueberries, lounging in a hammock) have come, for many, to epitomize the gentle back-to-nature image of the Northwest.
Now, that image is on the walls of Tacoma Public Library’s Handforth Gallery, and the artist herself will be there this Saturday afternoon to talk about her work and sign calendars. “Nikki McClure: Works with Paper” isn’t a groundbreaking show, or even a retrospective (that was done excellently last year at Bellevue Arts Museum). But it is a reminder of just why McClure’s works, though they’re just fine in a calendar, are really meant to be seen in the original.
Because they aren’t works ON paper. They’re delicate, filigree sculptures WITH paper, as the show’s title says, and the experience of seeing them lift lightly off their white background into another dimension is powerful.
A good way to get the idea is to walk through the first room of work to the back wall of the Handforth, where an illustration from her recent book “How to be a cat” sits next to one from “Mama, is it summer yet?” Like the other eight works from the cat book, this one is big and flat, the mother cat a puddle of solid black curled around her cute, patchy kitten. Kids love these images, but they could just as well have been done in print form, or even paint. Next door, though, a world-weary child (McClure’s heavy eyebrow and cheek lines make all her characters look like old souls) stares unconvinced at some bare boughs just greening with buds – what’s magical is how, for us, those line-thin fingers lift out of the picture with exactly the delicacy of real spring twigs. We feel like we’re looking into a world, not just a paper picture.
You can see this dimensionality, this realness, in the way McClure’s leaves rustle in the cover for “To Market, To Market.” Or the way the salad twists out of the bowl in “Cheers,” or the curling tendrils of steaming soup in “Share Your Table.”
There’s not a lot of biographic information in this show, nor much explanation of just how McClure cuts her magic from plain paper – some tool boxes or photos, as BAM did, might have been helpful, even an activity station for kids.
But if you know the backstory, two works to the left of the entry take your breath away. In “In Between,” the woman crouching on a forest floor of debris that snarls, weblike, up around her is McClure herself, grieving for a dead baby several years ago. On the same row, a stunning contrast in all-white paper, is the philosophical reverse: “Where is my baby?” separates segments of an angelic cut-paper tree trunk thick with leaves, and with tiny fingers just hinting at a child forever unseen.
Artist reception/signing 1-3 p.m. Dec. 7; exhibit open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 28. Free. Tacoma Public Library main branch, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-292-2001, tacomapubliclibrary.org.