I have been following Penny Nickels for a couple of years now. The artist and her work are featured in the book, PUSH Stitchery. Penny also writes about fiber art for Mr. X Stitch and Feeling Stitchy. You can follow Penny Nickels, and her husband Johnny Murder, founder of the Manbroidery movement at their blog. Since I kept thinking about Penny and she’s so far away in Portland, OR, I asked if I could ring her up for a fiber art chat. Whoa! One of my favorite things about lively conversatin’ is the way one idea or story triggers another and the sublime meandering that takes you to otherworldly connections.
FOE: PENNY! Ya done blew my mind! Two phone calls and four hours of conversation and I still want MORE!
PENNY: NICOLE! Call me every five minutes! I loved talking to you!
FOE: In a previous interview you quoted Louis-Ferdinand Céline and it stuck in my brain, “People don’t deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them.” What is it about this quote or Céline that speaks to you?
PENNY: Well, I do love Céline. I love his work, it’s profoundly influenced me. I have a tattoo from “Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything” that takes up most of my arm. It has one of my favorite opening lines, “Neptune has finally wed Venus- even the Gods can’t screw around forever.” Céline the man was a total asshole, the kind of guy you probably wouldn’t push out of traffic. He became a monstrous anti-Semite, and some apologists say that he hated everyone; France, Hitler, etc. That’s true too, but it does nothing to redeem him. Vonnegut said about Céline – “I get a splitting headache every time I try to write about Céline. I have one now. I never have headaches at any other time,” and “Every writer is in his debt, and so is anyone else interested in discussing lives in their entirety. By being so impolite, he demonstrated that perhaps half of all experience, the animal half, had been concealed by good manners. No honest writer or speaker will ever want to be polite again.” Vonnegut says it better than I ever could, but the thing that I hold to, that Céline the man and his books best exemplifies, is an unflinching acceptance and exploration of the grey areas. When you strive to do that and abandon the black and white, you can begin to celebrate the absurdity, grotesque, and the beauty that life throws at you and have a more nuanced, more sophisticated understanding of yourself and the world.
FOE: I’m with you and Vonnegut on this one. But clearly, many people avoid the grey areas, avoid the animal half, do everything they can to prevent going into delirium in front of others. Some people seem very committed to the narrative they’ve decided on for their lives. It’s not my style, but maybe it works for them.
PENNY: I think that it’s all too common to define one’s self by what amounts to affectations, and if you’re approaching your life like a narrative and you already have that tendency, it’s far too easy to cultivate a false self as a shield. I think this is unattractive because it promotes hollowness, but who am I to say what works for other people.
FOE: This is probably more theme than narrative, but as an English major I tend to think of my life more like a hero’s journey. Every trial teaches me something and I grow from the experience.
PENNY: If one is really committed to the daily drudgery of self-knowledge, using a narrative/theme like the hero’s journey could be used as a helpful tool to tackle the more slippery aspects of one’s life and to understand one’s actions. The point of the hero’s journey is the hero ends up transformed by the journey. They become the hero through the trials and tribulations they experience, or sometimes the villain. That’s the point. We can’t address the success or failure of the hero without asking about the transformation.
FOE: Penny, you are committed to self-knowledge and exploring the grey areas. Has it served you well?
PENNY: I do think it engenders authenticity, and being authentically myself allows me to be present in my life and with the people I love.
FOE: I’m finally getting around to art, and then I hope to tie this all together. If you are a talented artist and you’re not getting the recognition you think you deserve, what is one to do? Go mad?
PENNY: Honestly, I guess I take kind of a hard line with this. You can’t make work with the idea that it will be celebrated in mind. (Excluding commercial work, ads, commission, etc..) I mean, if you are, what are you even doing? Why are you doing it? What’s the point? I feel like if you are, you’re not actually interested in making art, you’re interested in creating an affectation that defines you, a personality supplement. That seems pretty dreary and hollow.
FOE: What then is your responsibility as an artist?
PENNY: When it comes to art, your only responsibility is to yourself. I have kind of a Kierkegaardian view, a kind of subjective truth, leap of faith thing going on. It is the leap that is significant, that defines me, that is the work, that is the purest work. What comes after that should not influence the act of leaping. Even if I fail completely at art, if I’m never recognized or have any success or ever sell a piece, that doesn’t mean that the act of making art isn’t still valuable to me. It encourages me to take leaps in other areas of my life, it gives me more tools to work with, to see and experience things I would not have noticed before.
FOE: So lovely Penny Nickels. Thank you. I’m gonna try to tie this all up. Penny asked me to tell her some of my favorite visual artists. My brain always scrambles a bit with the word “favorite”. I was momentarily embarrassed not to have an impressive well-rehearsed answer. I own a gallery! But then I decided to go into delirium and paint myself into another “favorites” corner. I rambled about “favorites” always changing and answers to that question signifying laziness, or a desire to impress or whatever happens to be most handy and recent in my brain. Then not wanting to seem like I was avoiding answering for fear of judgment, I offered that I would feel more comfortable discussing some favorite authors. I said, one of my favorite short stories is John Gardner’s The Art of Living, and that opened up a new theme, stories and book recommendations. Penny and I talked about art, books, life and experiences in our 4 hours on the phone: part intellectual, part visceral, part dilettante, with lots of cussing and hyperbole. We were either going to connect or not. And who really gives a shit? We didn’t have to like each other, we just had to be willing to make the leap. I like Penny Nickels. I’ll be thinking about our conversation for a long time. She is one of my favorite visual artists.