NIKKI MCCLURE IS AN ARTIST and writer based in Olympia, Washington, and our featured artist for the Spring 2021 cover. McClure’s latest book, 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea, features some of her favorite creatures with whom she lives in Washington. We connected with McClure to learn about the cover’s backstory and about her illustrations in the magazine, set alongside a television script by Rachel Carson.
Can you tell us how this lucky cumulus cloud made the cover?
The assignment was an experiment. I usually work with black paper, but clouds are never solid black. And if I cut out the shape of the cloud, the cloud would be a hole; it would be nothing. But clouds are there.
I painted sheets of lovely handmade Japanese papers with sumi ink: bark and soot. I cut this paper into cloud shapes. The first clouds I cut were robustly cumulous. They were cartoon clouds, the clouds that I thought clouds were. I went outside and drew clouds, lots of clouds, all kinds of clouds, training my hand to open up to all the shape possibilities of clouds. I then started cutting clouds after my hand had been trained. I’d run outside to photograph them, holding them up to the blue sky because a soot painted paper cloud looked more alive when held up to the deep blue of space. I sent these photos to Orion to share my experiments. Look at this cloud! How about this cloud? How about this one? Send Orion enough pictures of clouds held up to the sky and they’ll ask you to do the cover.
Once I knew I was taking photos for the cover, the play became work. I had to worry about light and wind crinkling the paper or bending it backward—it is not stiff paper!
I would reach back far enough and high enough with my phone to not see the opposite shore, and try to touch the right part of the screen with my thumb to take a picture. The other hand would be holding onto the cloud and trying to make it stay flat and not curl with the wind.
I’d run down to the beach each perfect moment, sometimes in my slippers, to catch the cloud with a rainbow behind it. But Orion decided it should be at sunset or sunrise. Sunrise, where I live, happens behind a forested hill. I never see the morning glow. Sunset is easier. I live on a beach that faces west and the sky is expansive for the forested Northwest. But the sun is setting there and the paper would be backlit. And it was winter. Sometimes the sky is gray for weeks and the rain lasts all day.
The cloud on the Spring 2021 cover was the cloud that survived all that. For the final cover, a background sky was added by Orion. The winter sky in Olympia, Washington, proved to be too unpredictable, too wild to photograph by myself. In a pandemic. On a wet rainy beach.
In “Head in the Clouds,” your illustrated piece in the Spring 2021 issue, I love Rachel Carson’s depiction of clouds as an airborne ocean moving right above our heads. Ocean below, ocean above. Water on all sides, the texture of moving currents in the sky as cloud scripture. In your illustrations you seem so masterfully to blur these lines, as Carson did in her writing and thinking, between cloud and ocean, sea and sky, human and more than human.
I swam in the ocean all winter. November. December. January. I kept swimming. My favorite way to swim is to have my eyes set at the water’s edge, in the space between sky and sea. Winter swimming has bigger waves from stronger and denser winds. I love it more than summer swimming. The relationship between clouds and sea and me is intimate. I also sail and am the most timid of the crew, so I am the one always looking to the sky and reading the clouds and watching gusts darken the water. I count to twenty to know that they will pass and we won’t capsize. I am the one who reads the weather. I listen to the weather forecasts, jot them down, and know three ideal anchorages at all times.
Yet I am also the one who hangs on to the boat rail to feel my toes cut into the water. I love feeling the waves inside me. Swimming or sailing on rough water, the waves slosh the cells of me. I can feel it for hours, days afterward, this memory of the sea. So it was natural to respond to Rachel’s writing of the airborne ocean with water and sea images. She felt it, too. And I call her Rachel because I really did feel that I was collaborating with her. I imagined sharing my experiments with her and getting her feedback. I imagined walking into the water with her and swimming with her. Rachel wears her hat in the water. I wear mine. We dive in and talk about clouds and feel the effect of them overhead. Clouds make wind. Wind makes waves. We have a continent between us, and death, and time, but we collaborated on this project. It was an honor to work with her.
The last time Orion published your work it was in collaboration with a Mary Oliver poem, a person whose words were influential to your life. How has Rachel Carson shaped your worldview, your creative life?
Silent Spring. When I take rainy morning walks, I see earthworms crawling across the road. To find drier accommodations? Out on their morning walk as well? I carefully pick them up. I touch them and wait for them to wriggle into a loop to pick them up from the rough road without squishing them. I carry the worms to the forest and find a softer, drier bit of ground under a maple tree for them to continue their progress. Robins party overhead and I think of Rachel Carson then. She was brave and strong. Maybe an introvert? She noticed. She wrote. She spoke and she did not look away. I need to read her again. I am nearing the age she was when she died. I want to think with her and feel with her. It is why I have subscribed to Orion for twenty years. Orion continues her voice.
So much of your work seemed calibrated on subtraction, on cutting away to the essentials, to clearing out as opposed to adding to.
Yes. I like “calibrated.” It makes it sound like I plan it all out with a micrometer when I don’t do that much planning. I sketch, then draw on the paper, then cut to draw out shapes and lines to the essential line.
For this assignment, I worked with painted paper. The more I tried to paint what I wanted, the worse it looked. So I let the vagueness of the ink suggest, rather than tell the story. The paper told me what to do. I also couldn’t draw on the paper because I couldn’t erase the pencil lines without making the paper fuzzy or smudging away the ink. I had to just go for it. So I played. I just let go and played. It was an experiment and you fail all the time experimenting. It was fun not knowing what would happen. No calibration! Just a knife dancing across paper.
Living in Olympia, perhaps you’re all too familiar with cloud cover. Sometimes I find people describing clouds as little more than that which obscures us from the sun, the light. Do you see clouds as obscurations, or more in the revealing, celebratory way of wonder, the way Carson sees clouds?
I know clouds more than I know blue sky. Living in Olympia is living with clouds. Yesterday, the fog swirled like smoke as it dissipated. Today the skies are white and there is a fine rain. Rachel’s depiction of currents and waves in the ocean sky widened my perception and connection to the whole Earth. This sky above me, these clouds, are part of a whole system swirling and moving, bringing rain and sun, wind and cloud, pushing and creating.
Awareness of air currents expanded last summer with the West Coast ablaze with fire. We were concerned not just about the weather today, but from what direction the wind would be blowing, what the air quality index was. We wore respirators outside. But that is not wonder. That is hard scientific reality that we are air-breathing organisms who suffer lung damage from smoke and every year there will be fires burning drier and drier forests.
Wonder? Celebration? We survive and yes, we will again lie on the grass with a small child, smelling sweet warm sunshine and making clouds into shapes that change from elephant to whale before our eyes. We will laugh at the duck pulling a train that now is a snake and the duck breaks off and dissipates into what? Was it there? Where did it go? We will always wonder. O
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