Meet Sabrina Nichols (@brinacasa)
Portland illustrator Sabrina Nichols @brinacasa discusses depicting the beauty of the human emotional experience in her Art Nouveau/Japanese woodblock-inspired art and quotes that keep her motivated to keep creating, as a single parent and full-time medical professional in her interview for the Bee Paper blog.
You have become quite a well-rounded artist from taking loads of art courses at your local community college (screen printing, intaglio, photography, graphic design, sculpture, drawing and painting). Which type of art is your favorite to do and why?
My favorite art is drawing, although, lately, I’ve been incorporating painting into my drawings. I love the idea of printmaking, and I really tried to be a cool screen-printing gal. But it turns out, I’m not super inclined to follow the “procedure” that is required in many types of printmaking. I do love to learn though, and found that each art form informs the others, so I took as many classes as I could. I finished my general education, but didn’t know what to do with it, so just kept taking art classes until eventually they gave me a two-year degree (it only took six years). Thanks Cabrillo College!
What are your favorite subjects to draw/paint and why?
I like to draw people, animals, plants, houses…the more detail that the subject requires, the better! I almost always use a photo reference. Sometimes the images are mine, sometimes they are found images. But I like to take the subject out of its element. Lately, I’ve been throwing everything into a galactic space scene. Sometimes, I go on walks and take pictures of interesting plants, so I can draw them later. I find that most of the images I choose to draw have what I would consider a feminine energy. I’ve also become obsessed with birth art and art that focuses on the biological human experience so I want to start experimenting with that as well.
What was the first thing you did to sell your art and what did you learn from that experience?
A friend of mine who owned a skate shop saw my art and asked if I’d like to design some stickers. I came up with some very “hyperlocal” designs. Everything I made either said “Santa Cruz” on it, or referenced California in some way. Santa Cruz has a very prideful culture, and everyone who lives there has at least one piece of clothing that displays hometown allegiance, so it was a no-brainer. Some designs became pretty popular and we started selling shirts, hoodies, hats, all the things. I was selling mostly out of skate shops and yoga studios (even though I don’t skate or do yoga), but I took away a lot from that experience! I made many great connections. I still collaborate with some people I connected with. I learned that people actually like my art, which gave me confidence to keep creating.
However, it became clear to me after a couple years of doing this that these designs weren’t really my own aesthetic, and it felt kind of soulless to me. If I came up with a design that I loved, it wouldn’t sell. But designs I thought were mediocre ended up being very popular. It was so hard to predict what people would respond to, and I eventually learned that the apparel industry isn’t for me. Having to be a salesperson was also incredibly challenging for me. After I moved up to Oregon, I sold those designs to a friend, and she still sells them out of that skate shop. I’m happy that the designs live on and people are still wearing the stuff, even if it wasn’t my favorite endeavor.
Do you have any specific artists who have inspired your artistic style?
A lot of my inspiration comes from block prints. I love the lines and bold color of the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo period of Japan, or old art-nouveau posters from France. I like the whimsical, yet natural and organic, aspects of both those examples. Some specific artists that inspire me are Hiroshige, Henri Matisse and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Of course, I have to give a nod to my girl, Frida Kahlo. I love the excessive amount of color and elements she would cram into one painting. I often think of her when I start feeling like I’m doing too many self-portraits:
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
Favorite Bee Paper product and why?
Vellum Bristol. It’s the perfect paper because it’s suitable for just about any media. Lately, I’ve been painting whole sheets of paper in soft, abstract arrangements of color. I use acrylics for this, so I need a paper that can withstand the weight of acrylic paint. It doesn’t buckle, and if it does warp a little, I use this fun tip: just paint the other side of the paper with one solid coat of paint, and the warp will go away, since the weight is balanced now. I then draw on top of the painted paper and let the color placement surprise me! Then I fill in negative space with plain black paint. A lot of layering goes into this process, and this paper handles it.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your artistic journey and how did you overcome it?
Treating art as a practice. I would get so frustrated when something wasn’t working, and I would give up on a lot of pieces. I wouldn’t try to problem solve. I still had some successful pieces, but my discipline was lacking and my perfectionism was counter-productive. It was when I was working at a “sip and paint” studio for a couple years, teaching guided painting classes, that I learned how to flex my art muscles. It’s not that I found generic paintings of waterfalls particularly inspiring, but I learned to trust the process of creating. Art isn’t always beautiful during the process, but if you keep moving and try to relax, you might just end up with something you like. Today, I finish (or at least resolve) about 90% of the pieces that I start. I work with my mistakes and I love to see where the unexpected turns take me.
What is the main message you want people to receive from your art?
I’m not sure if there is any particular message I want to deliver, but I can at least tell you what feelings inspire most of my art. It usually comes from a place of solitude, and of trying to unravel the profundity of the human experience. Life is beautiful, but sometimes it feels like it’s just loneliness and darkness that’s been tied up in a pretty little bow. We are surrounded by opportunities for joy every day, but some days it’s hard to see that. But I want to embrace all of the feelings, even hurting, sadness, loneliness, and see them all as beautiful. That’s one message I’d like people to receive.
As someone who works as a full-time medical professional, and has a young daughter, how do you stay inspired to do art?
Art keeps me grounded, so I make time for it. Sometimes, I don’t sleep as much as I should and I pay for it the next day, or maybe my house isn’t super tidy all the time, but it’s just the chapter of life I’m in. Parenting a toddler is hard work, but as everyone with grown children will tell you, “you’re going to miss this”. And I believe it. I try to accept the challenges life has thrown at me with grace. I’m a single parent, I work full-time, and I’m struggling in the classic ways you would expect, but I’m also an artist. I can’t let life’s other obligations stand in my way (even though they try).
You tell us that you took a two-year hiatus from art to focus on raising your daughter. Do you have any advice for artists trying to get back into art?
I stumbled upon this quote around the time that I was getting back into art, and I don’t know if this is really the reason I kept going, or if it was just meaningful at the time. But this sentiment by poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés has become very important to me:
“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write… and you know it’s a funny thing about house cleaning…it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
-Clarissa Pinkola Estés
A lot of the time, I still feel like I’m “stealing moments”, and sometimes I feel like I’ve committed a parenting fail when I spend time doing art instead of playing with my daughter. I mean, I’ve definitely used Sesame Street as a babysitter so I could draw, more often than I want to admit. But I think it’s more important for my daughter to grow up knowing that her mother had something that was important to her and that defined her, otherthan being her mom. I am a mother, and I am an artist. The two ideas can co-exist! So, for anyone who is having trouble getting back into it, I’d say, just try for one day to abandon your commitment to what you shouldbe doing, and do what you wantto be doing, whether it is drawing, writing, dancing, etc. You might find that the time is there, even if it means skipping laundry or staying up late sometimes. Try not to forget yourself, it’s worth it.