︎New York City/USA
october 23, 2019

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up?

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. My father’s aunt (my great aunt and a great artist) told my parents I was an artist when I was 6 years old. My father was a trained artist, and worked as an animator for several years (drawing Popeye and Bette Boop). I remember seeing him doodling Popeye and Olive Oyl with a ballpoint pen while he talked on the telephone. My mother was a creative cook and homemaker. I did some of the background paintings for her needlework projects. I was an art major in high school and knew I would major in art at university.

Do you have any formal art training? What did art school do for you artistically?

I never took private art classes as a child. I took art in high school. I attended Syracuse University, School of Art, but had to withdraw at the end of the 3rd semester because I caught mononucleosis. I took a break, got married and worked for a few years in jobs related to making art. Before I returned to university, I took painting classes at the Art Students League in NYC. When I discovered I could matriculate at university and continue my degree with tuition remission, I worked and enrolled at New York University and was able to take evening courses for credit in art history and a few daytime classes in design. Then I applied to Hunter College, City University of New York, and got my BA degree (magna cum laude). It took 11 years but I got my degree in art.

Postgraduate, I took workshops in printmaking, learned Photoshop and got a mini masters in arts management. I believe teaching is also learning. I develop projects for my collage classes. I currently teach a class titled Create with Collage at the Pelham Art Centre in Pelham, NY.  

What did art school do for you artistically?

The courses I took at Syracuse University made me into a serious artist. The studio curriculum was rigorous and students were competitive.  At Syracuse University, I also studied art history with a brilliant professor. That survey course changed the way I view contemporary art and art history. It taught me how to look at art.

What are some of your important art experiences?

My great aunt was my mentor. It was a gift to be able to think of myself as an artist - even as a young person. It gave me confidence to pursue art for life.  I knew I was part of a family with artists. Making art is something I do every day.

Was collage a medium that spoke to you from the beginning?

The answer is no. I had already graduated from Hunter College and was painting in oil on canvas when a good friend invited me to her studio and showed me how she made collage. Her approach was collage and painting. As soon as I could, I switched to collage, and have never stopped. I did return to painting a few years ago but never gave up on collage. My studio practice today is collage and painting. My early collages were small and made with tiny cut and pasted papers from magazines like National Geographic. I called them puzzle pieces. I worked with tiny papers for a year or two, and then decided I needed to work larger and started to paint papers from magazines like Art Forum. Today, I work with painted papers, recycled drawings, monoprints, cut and painted canvas and hand-made Washi papers.

How would you describe your work and your style in your own words? Is your work inspired by anything in particular?

My studio practice is geometric abstraction that is a contemporary take on Cubism. I am attracted to grids and grid variations. The METRO series and the COLOR GRIDS series are made with painted papers assembled in grids where pieces do not exactly line up. Some of the grids look like the papers are woven. Some works are small; some are larger. When they are small, I install them into 9x9 grids on the wall and they look like a patchwork quilt.

Obviously, I am aware of great collagists like Romare Bearden and Kurt Schwitters, and admire their collage aesthetic.

Would you like to talk a little about the process behind your collages?

I am a paper collage artist. I love paper and want to work with papers that communicate depth and texture. It’s about a sense of touch. I paint papers to create a rich surface. Because my background is drawing, I am fascinated with the edges you can create with cut and torn papers. Sometimes I think collage is a form of drawing. Edges are lines.

I am a paper junkie. I hold onto junk mail. I have a huge stash of fine papers. I visit galleries and ask if I can have their unused exhibition postcards to use for small collage substrates. I paint and draw on papers. I probably have more papers than I need.

You write about modern artists, especially female artists. What inspired you to do this?

I have been posting blogs since about 2009 at Art of Collage. A few months ago, a former student noticed two posts I had just written that were exclusively about male artists. She emailed a simple question: where are the women? As soon as I read her email, I decided to change my focus and write exclusively about women artists. I’ve started doing research and discovered there are a lot of women to write about. I also plan to write a book about these women and about their collage aesthetic.

What are some of the artists you admire?

Most artists I admire are called blue chip. My favourite artist is Paul Klee. I love his painted drawings. I like the work of Jean Arp, Anselm Kiefer, Romare Bearden and Kurt Schwitters. The list of favourite women artists includes Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Lenore Tawney, Ellen Gallagher, Cindy Sherman, Hannelore Baron, Betye Saar and more. I haven’t listed younger artists, but I am always looking for emerging talent. Galleries are showing artists from all over the world – men and women. There’s still painting and a lot of conceptual and multi-media art. I have the idea that installation art and multi-media often express a collage aesthetic.

You also teach workshops and classes. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Is it only practical or also theoretical?

It’s practical and also theoretical. I teach a class titled Create with Collage and design a new project each week that focuses on the art of an important modern or contemporary artist who works in painting, photomontage or collage. The course is about color, design, art history and collage technique. The students range from beginner to advanced. My goal is to help students learn to see. I also want them to develop their own personal vision in the works they create.

What would you tell someone just starting out? Any words of advice?

My advice: explore the media you love and discover the content and context that appeals to you. Visit galleries and museums, read art periodicals, surf the web and get acquainted with all the variations and explore all the possibilities. Discover what works best for you. The sky’s the limit.

I think collage is a rather democratic art form. It’s open to anyone no matter his or her skill set. It also doesn’t require a lot of expensive materials. It’s a great entry to creative expression. Would you agree?

I agree. Collage can be created with everyday materials. Media can be appealing and also affordable. We can recycle and embellish our media. If students want to work with photos or fabric, metal or wood, I suggest the media connect to narrative or memory. Many class projects focus on social, political, ethnic, racial and/or gender identity issues that also add meaning for the students.

You yourself work exclusively analogue if I’m not mistaken. Do you have any thoughts on the analogue vs. digital debate?

I try not to get involved in any debate about digital vs. analogue. Both work.

I use Photoshop for my own work to modify images that are prototypes for a collage. I print images that I add to collage and add collage to digital prints. I’ve worked with service bureaus to create digital giclee prints that were sold through art consulting firms. Many of my students have digital skills. I suggest how they can work with a computer or copy shop to create variations in scale, color and texture for the media they use in collage. I think technology is a great tool.

And since we are talking about seeming opposites, what about the art vs. craft debate. You call yourself a collage artist and write about other artists using collage elements in their work, so I guess it’s safe to say you consider it art. Do you have any thoughts on collage as a craft nonetheless?

The problem with the debate about art vs. craft is it’s always been (and may still be) a debate about male vs. female makers of art. That may be changing. The men made art. The women made craft. The leaders of the debate were men, and the men were called the artists.

We learned the origin of collage as art began with pasted papers on canvas by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in France in 1912/1913. The male artists made it art. I found a collage artist - Mary Delany, born in 1700 in the United Kingdom, who lived a creative life and created botanical collage in 1772 and has 1000 works in the permanent collection of the British Museum [see more here]. She washed her background papers (substrate) in India ink, then treated them with size to make them shiny, then dyed the collage bits herself, or worked with wallpaper remnants. She said, “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers.” She called her collages mosaics. I will write a blog about her soon.

You’ve been an artist since before social media and the Internet became whatever they are these days. Have you noticed a change in how people create, share and talk about their work?

Some people are very adept at social media and may spend a lot more time online than I am willing to spend. Some of my students are more active on social media than others. I am intrigued with Instagram and have just begun to get involved. I want my blog posts to engage more and more people and plan to revamp my newsletter. I prefer to be in the studio and not on the computer, but I have to do both, so It’s all a question of time.

Have you noticed a difference in how people define and live their creativity and how they define themselves?

Yes, and there are so many platforms now for self-expression.

How has your own work changed over the years?

I work in series. My approach is about process and learning in the process. More and more, I am thinking about a collage manifesto. So, it’s not just about process. My most recent series is titled Curvy Geometric. I say I am channelling female energy. My work also includes a layerist premise, so there is potentially more as you dig down into the layers.

What is your own biggest challenge as an artist?

Time and focus. There are too many choices.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am juggling writing, teaching, and staying in touch with friends and family. I want to find time to exercise and always feel I need to spend more time in my studio.

Any plans for future projects you would like to talk about?

I have always been intrigued with the possibility of collage in 3D.

Nancy Egol Nikkal website
Nancy Egol Nikkal Instagram
Art of Collage - Nancy Egol Nikkal's Views on Art, Artists & the Fine Art of Collage
interview: Petra Zehner