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Meet Nikki McCauley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nikki McCauley.

Nikki, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve been making art since as long as I can remember. Starting around six years old, I would draw these little anthropomorphic bears in intricate scenes, and get lost in their stories. We moved a lot growing up, and I had to make new friends every few years, but I always had art as a constant companion. I never ‘studied’ art in a formal setting, but since being creative is necessary for my mental health – I’ve definitely put in the 10,000 hours. When I moved to LA about 20 years ago, I studied Psychology at UCLA, while continuing to pursue an acting career. But I always had a daily practice of tending to my craft as a visual artist. It’s rare you will see me not drawing or painting. If I don’t have my sketchbook, I use us my legs or arms. If I don’t have my paints, I use grass and flower petals. That’s my sweet spot – being given minimal tools and seeing what I can make with them gives me such a rush. One time I forgot my little travel palette, so I spilled the coffee I was drinking and made it into a painting, and that led to a series called #dripthoughts. I found that making art from a spill can serve as a kind of Rorschach test—seeing what the subconscious finds in the spill can be very surprising. And I discovered that the randomness of the spill provides a great entry point for those who have trouble tapping into their creativity. So I did some workshops that coincided with a ‘Drip Thoughts’ art show to guide people in my process. I love when I discover the unexpected, I love that my art is always evolving and will continue to evolve until I’m a little old lady with white hair wearing flowing dresses painting the buffalo in Montana.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Because visual art was always something, I did more for the pure joy of it, and less as a way to pay my rent, it’s allowed me to just play and explore. I started showing in galleries about six years ago, and that happened very organically. I actually feel a certain patience with my visual art, in terms of monetary success, that I don’t have with the other forms of artistic expression I do. I trust in the timing and exploration of it. For me art feels very much like a pilgrimage: something to experience every day, learning more and more about myself until I leave this Earth. Where I do ‘struggle’, and I think almost every artist can relate to this – is the constant inner dialogue: “Is this good?” “What is my art worth?” “Is this an honest representation of who I am?” I am definitely hard on myself, and I have been working to try to be a little easier when it comes to the self-critic. Recently, I’ve been really grappling with not wanting to sacrifice my integrity or artistic path for the sake of getting more followers or likes. Instagram is a fantastic tool for artists, but I want to make sure I continue to create work that speaks to me, and not what I think will speak to other people. So far, I pretty much create what I want, when I want. I don’t worry about my ‘brand’ or ‘look’ of my IG page. It’s more important for me to stay true to what I find interesting or fun to do. My art is all over the place – coffee art, abstract pieces, funny illustrations, pet portraits, children’s illustrations, character videos, political art, and most recently – animation – which has been a blast to explore.

Please tell us about your work.
I do a bit of everything. I’ve done, children’s book illustrations, album cover art, wall murals for nurseries and restaurants, wine label art, pet portraits, movie and play poster art, poetry book art. But mostly people purchase the original pieces I’ve created from my daily practice. Despite the all-over-the-place-ness of my art, I do think they all have a consistent vibe… like a childlike whimsy quality that is also kind of dark, with a dash of sometimes ironic humor, and usually a social justice or female-empowerment subtext. My main goal as an artist is to create connection. One human to another, to themselves, to nature… most of my paintings contain a figure (animal, person, alien thing) that looks straight out at the viewer. And… I never thought about it until literally just now, but I think I’m that alien thing! I’m the figure that I’ve painted over and over again in different bodies and forms, hoping the viewer will see me and connect with me. Wow, I just got a deep look into myself on this one. And it makes sense. All anyone on this planet wants is to feel good and connect… including me. Sometimes I make these little 2” x 2” watercolor faces with messages on the back. I used to pass them out at my art shows. But since the quarantine, I’ve started putting the messages on the front and leaving them stuck to trash cans, or light poles, or park benches around town. It’s my attempt to connect with another person who may need to see a message like ”love yourself more perfect” or “you are magical” while out on their evening stroll. In the past I’ve done wheat pastings mostly on discarded furniture because of my goody-goody-ness of not wanting to vandalize public property. But with these little “feel-good-faces”, I’ve used double-sided tape. So, if you find one, and the message speaks to you – take it home! I have friends who show me the little faces they’ve kept in their wallet from years ago, that they rediscover right when they need to be reminded to “dance more” or “keep being weird” or “you’re not too old”. For or me this is the best feeling. It lights up my heart, and reminds me of the purpose of my art. To connect. To bring joy. To inspire.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I’m finishing up writing and illustrating a children’s book right now about a little girl named Tink and her vivid imagination. I’m working on writing and illustrating an adult animation project with my writing partner that’s very funny and very timely. And I’ve been making lots of bigger pieces this year, so I’m looking forward to having a solo show with those. I also would love to do more installation pieces that are interactive. And finally, I’m just researching more ways to connect and heal my community through art. I have a couple of ideas brewing but too soon to talk about. I’m always looking for collaborators though, so anyone who wants to create and connect – reach out!

How do you personally define success?
Actually, this idea of “success” is something I’ve thought A LOT about. It’s hard coming from a very achievement oriented family (Air Force Colonels, Doctors, etc), and not to equate success with money and notoriety. There was a year or so in my art career that I was fixated on how I was going to build my business, how I could get more followers, how I could prove to my family and peers that I was “successful”. I did an extensive watercolor animal series, and I became obsessed on how I could get these animal faces on pillows and posters in Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie so I could make lots of money and people would know my art, and then I could buy a house! I was so focused on it that it didn’t dawn on me that A – getting my art on pillows in Urban Outfitters would not get me a house (especially in LA), and B – what a crazy thing to focus on! After all, what really made me happy was to keep painting and finding new ways to express what is going on in my head and in my heart. I’ve sold my art, yes, and sometimes made very big sales. But for me, focusing on how my art can make money spins me out into a spiral of ‘not-enoughness’ and anxiety. It takes away from making more art… which is really all I want to do. So that’s where that whole surrender part comes in.

For now, I will continue to focus on creating and being true to myself and my expression. Art has always been a joy for me. It’s never felt like work. And that to me is SUCCESS. If I can keep making art, and make money doing it without it ever feeling like it’s a job – then I am winning. And if I can inspire the viewer of my art to connect with something within themselves or make their own art – that is success as well. I recently made my first installation piece for a group women’s art show (at Thank You For Asking Gallery). It was a voting booth where one person at a time went behind a curtain to cast their vote for the Radical Empowerment of Women. There were a few silly steps the ‘voter’ had to go through to cast their vote before they found the star sticker, they could put either under the “Yes” or “F@&% Yes” column. Once their vote was completed – they could put another sticker on themselves. Watching people as they left this personal experience they just had with my art, sporting a bright star sticker on their face, brought me so much joy. Success. I used to care a lot about getting masses of people to discover me. Now I know that what I really want is to connect to individuals, not the masses, not “followers.” I’d rather have a “fellow-er.” Is that cheesy? It is. But I don’t care. If I can inspire one person to spill some coffee and make a drawing out of it – that’s success.


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