Nikki is a Pacific Northwest contemporary realist oil painter, who seeks to capture the true beauty of her subjects in portraiture, figurative, still life and landscape.
While growing up, art was encouraged with afterschool lessons. As with many introverted children, drawing was a pastime that allowed escape and joy. It was a quiet activity that could be brought with her anywhere. She drew her favorite animals, then eventually faces from magazines, and friends.
In college, Nikki became enamored with painting. She studied art at Western Washington University and SUNY, Stony Brook. Her professors varied in teaching style from classical art instruction, to modern, contemporary teaching that encouraged personal style and making bold moves. During those college years she was introduced to drawing and painting the human figure, which would become the biggest focus of her work for many years.
Nikki’s art career paused when she had her children, but soon she longed for that connection to the art world again and began going to a figure drawing group. This eventually led her to starting and running her own figure drawing groups, and joining an art collective in Everett, WA. She met her now husband, Michael, at her figure drawing group, and they rented neighboring studios at the Lowell Art Works art collective. Michael, an artist and tattooist, had a significant influence in Nikki’s path as an artist. Not only did he offer constant encouragement and the space to make painting a priority, but he unwittingly influenced her subject matter. Many of the skulls that are featured in Nikki’s paintings are part of a stash that Michael collected as reference material for his tattooing.
Aside from painting, Nikki also owns Art Spot Studio, a fine art school for youth. She has been teaching children art for 14 years.
nikkigardnerfineart.com (under construction)
My current series depicting skulls and flora is as much about the study of light and shadow as it is the juxtaposition of life and death.
These paintings showcase the luminescence in bone, flowers, and leaves, portraying what would usually be seen as a macabre subject matter as instead something elegant and beautiful.
I am just as enraptured by painting the colors and light reflecting off of dense bone or passing through the delicate thin parts of fragile skulls, as I have felt while painting the glow and transparencies of human skin. Through exploring both, I have found likenesses in painting bone and flesh. They react to, absorb, and reflect light in a similar way. Although one is no longer living, it once supported and carried life.
When did your interest in art begin vs. when you began thinking of it as a career/life choice?
I’ve always made art, but really became interested in it as part of my identity when I started taking weekly art classes in elementary school. It was something I spent countless hours on. I was always drawing. At first, unicorns and cats (haha!), then people. I knew I was good at it and figured I would always have art in my life. But it did not occur to me to pursue art as a career until later.
In college I first thought I might study literature and become a writer. But after taking an intro art class as an elective, my instructor pulled me aside and told me I needed to take more art classes--and to take upper-level art classes, I would need to declare my major as art. She then walked me down to the art department office and had me fill out the forms to declare my art major. I remember thinking it would be temporary…just to take some more classes. But I never looked back! That instructor opened up my whole world by believing in me and sharing different ways I could make a living as an artist.
What draws you to your particular subject matter?
Currently I’m painting a lot of flora and animal skulls. What really excites me about both is how light plays with the objects--shining through petals, giving a special glow to thin areas of bone, and how it bounces off each. The way flowers and leaves cast colorful hues onto bone and influence the color of the shadows. How the two different subjects play with each other in color, light and shadow, but also the symbolism of the two. One representing life, and the other, the absence of it. Both can be equally beautiful.
My biggest love when it comes to art had always been figurative work. The beauty of the human form will always draw me in. I used to run a figure drawing group, and I couldn’t get enough of it! Until life took a turn during the early 2000’s. The recession meant life drawing was a luxury expense that everyone dropped, and my group dissolved. I started painting mostly still life but not much floral. While I do enjoy still life painting, it wasn’t quite the same thing as painting people. When I started painting skulls, I felt that same excitement that I felt when painting people. Bone shares that same gorgeous luminosity that skin does. I get a thrill of satisfaction when I can pull off the fragility of a thin piece of bone, show the weight of a heavier part, or the glasslike surface of a tooth. I love when someone tells me they never thought skulls were beautiful, until they saw one of my paintings!
What interest of yours (outside of art) ends up influencing your practice the most?
Besides the obvious answer being nature? My husband, haha! I married a tattoo artist who moved in with a large box of “tattoo inspiration” in the form of animal skulls. It was only a matter of time before they made their way into my work. Now I have my own collection, and an artist friend that I trade with, so we have more inspiration to choose from.
Mike and I have very different styles of art (and pretty much everything else!). I’m a less is more type, and he is a more is more type. He is very detailed and loves a complicated design. My art used to have just one subject in it, but it is evolving and I’m challenging myself more. While it is still very much my style, I’m taking on more complicated compositions and subject matter.
What is one piece of advice you wish you could give your younger self?
Don’t worry so much about making other people happy. You have one life, and it is nobody else’s to live. Not your parents, not your friends. That applies to so many parts of life--jobs, relationships, and definitely when it comes to your art. If you are trying to be a certain way to fit a role that isn’t you, you’ll be miserable and it will affect the work you do, the relationships you have, and the art you create. Just be true to yourself. That will bring the right people into your world, the right opportunities for you, and the life you want to live will be yours. I spent a lot of my life trying to people please. I made some wrong turns, some harder to back out of than others. When you are doing things that make your heart sing, that is when you do your best work, and where you’ll find happiness.
What would you say is your biggest goal for this year?
This year is the first year of the second half of my life, so I have been thinking a lot about what I want that second half to be like. It looks like me prioritizing my art practice. After raising kids and building up an art teaching business, I’m more than ready for this phase of life. I’m not retiring from teaching, just not letting it take over my life anymore. I am finally at a place where I can build regular time into my schedule for painting. This year my goal is to produce a lot more art and show it in more places. I’m planning to stick with the same series I’ve been working on for a while. It still lights me up, so I’ll stick with it until it doesn’t. Or maybe it will evolve into the next thing that brings me joy. Maybe skulls, flowers, and figures together? A trifecta of my favorite things!