Masha = Watercolor Mischief

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Artists We Love: Nichole Van Beek

We are so excited about our new series, Artists We Love, that we couldn’t wait to get another installment up on the blog. This week, we’re chatting with Nichole Van Beek, a talented artist living and working in New York, plus–a friend and classmate of Masha’s at Cooper Union. Nichole will be telling us about what inspires her, who keeps her company while she works (hint: you may know their voices!) and about her upcoming projects.

Nichole Van Beek

Tell us a bit about your upbringing and early life–did you always want to be an artist?
My parents were 17 and 18 years old when I was born, and they lived with my father’s parents in New Jersey at the time. My grandparents – Oma and Opa – had 8 kids, many of whom lived in the house with their spouses or children at one point or another. Oma was a crazy collector of antiques, a hoarder really, so there were rooms packed full with an eclectic assortment of art and junk. Opa was a computer programmer but I think he wished he were an artist. There were a few of his drawings and paintings around the house and they were incredible, but he never had time to do much of it. He grew up in Indonesia and a lot of things around the house – drawings, paintings, carvings – I guess came from his family. There also were a ton of animals in the house: dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, fish, a guinea pig, mice – all at the same time. It was chaotic, in both an exciting and isolating way. On top of all that my mom started to go to community college for art when I was three or four, I think, and I would watch her working on projects. I remember her teaching me how to grid off an image to copy it and how to make a coil pot. She and her twin sister, Helen, were/are very crafty and seeing what they made was a big inspiration. Helen once painted a Vermont inspection sticker for her car which looked exactly like the real thing, until you were about one inch away. I was pretty good at mimicking them, and then in school teachers praised what I was doing and it encouraged me to do more. I was lucky to have some super skilled teachers with great facilities. I liked school in general, but art was always the thing that didn’t feel like work.

Nichole Van Beek's Ixnay on the Ides of May
What inspires you the most in day-to-day life?

I teach English as a Second Language for art, architecture, and design students. Learning a second language as an adult is so much work! Everyday we focus in on different words, expressions, structures, or sounds. The amount of information that we hold in our brains in order to use a language fluently is astounding, and after ten years of doing this I feel like I rarely go over the same ideas. Just today I pointed out the word “ghastly” and I’m pretty sure no one ever explained the meaning to me just as I had never taught it to anyone. I’m not sure exactly how this correlates to my work as an artist. On a superficial level it’s easy to say I have been using words and letters to build the compositions in my paintings. But would it be a stretch to compare linguistic structure to the illogical, three-dimensional structures in my paintings? I’m still working it out. I work mainly in my studio in Crown Heights. My inspiration and production varies throughout the year depending on what else is going on. I know a lot of people talk about being in “the zone” and it’s really like that for me! But when I am there a lot of other things (like laundry and exercise) get pushed to the side and it creates a backlog that can be hazardous.

Nichole Van Beek's "Fitness" Nichole Van Beek's Peephole
Your work is indicative of a love of texture, what is your favorite medium to work in and why?
I haven’t always been a texture person. For a couple of years I worked mainly on paintings in gouache on paper. They were completely flat and purely about composition, color, and pattern. Then in 2011 I did the residency at Socrates Sculpture Park and went back to some older ideas of gooey, drippy materials – inspired initially by Lynda Benglis’ work and a love of making drip sand castles at the beach as a kid. I made a 4-ton concrete “geiser” embedded with hundreds of found ceramic animal figurines. The grout was piped on through a grout bag – like a giant pastry bag – to create a kind of oozy surface around the figures. I spent days and days squeezing that stuff through the bags. My forearms were like Popeye’s.

Nichole Van Beek's The Gusher

When I got back to the studio it wasn’t satisfying to keep the paint completely flat anymore. I started experimenting with using thicker acrylic paint and paint applied with pastry bags. It was a good way to counter some of the more anal tendencies I have in my art making practice. And it also gave me a deeper appreciation of paintings that push the texture boundaries and become sculptures, or that keep you really aware of the medium, like the work of Donald Moffat, Sasha Pierce, Caroline Larsen, and Russell Tyler to name a few.

Which artists do you admire the most?
Oh man, there’s so many. If I start naming them it’s like pulling the yarn that unravels the sweater. Here’s a few in no particular order: Judith Linhares, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Charles Burchfield, Alan Shields, Sheila Hicks, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ani and Joseph Albers, Agnes Martin, Al Held, Milton Avery, Ken Price, Ito Jakuchu. If I try to sort out a top ten list or something, I get totally lost. And then it will change tomorrow probably. I can’t even attempt to say all the friends and acquaintances who I admire! There’s also all the nameless artists from around the world that get lumped in as craftspeople, like the batik makers I met in Indonesia last year. Seeing that work was really inspiring.

Nichole Van Beek
Do you have anything new and exciting coming up that you’d like to tell us about?
I’ll have some small works in a group show curated by Zoe Pettijohn and Chris Schade called “Prime Matter,” which will be at David Sena’s space in downtown Manhattan this fall. And I’ve just started making sun prints on canvas which will be the base of some paintings that will be in Great Barrington at Geoff Young’s gallery in November. I’m hoping I’ll find the time to get a few more outdoor sessions in before the sun starts hitting winter mode. I also might be collaborating on a few fabric designs for clothing – updates soon!

Which person (famous or not) would you be most honored to have purchase one of your pieces?
I listen to a lot of podcasts while I’m working so I often think about sending people like Marc Maron (WTF), Brooke Gladstone (On the Media), Bill Moyers, Deborah Treisman (New Yorker fiction editor), Kevin Cole and Cheryl Waters (KEXP) something as a thank you for keeping me company every day. But I don’t even know what most of those people look like so how could I guess what kind of painting they would like?

Nichole Van Beek at Jeff Bailey
Thanks so much, Nichole! Click over to
her website to view more gorgeous work.

Images courtesy Nichole Van Beek.