Interview conducted by Eleanor "Ellie" Furness (Scripps).
Sarah Nicholls is a visual artist and publisher who integrates illustrations with text, and observations with research in books, pamphlets, prints, blog posts, and animations. She is especially interested in climate change, localized histories, urbanization, alternative economies, and breaking large issues down to their smaller and more personal parts. Her limited edition artist books are featured in collections at Stanford, UCLA, the Brooklyn Museum, and University of Pennsylvania. She’s run studio programs and residencies, taught interns, coordinated publications, and organized classes, readings, and talks in NYC. www.sarahnicholls.com
Your blog post on the various weeds in NYC made me wonder - what impact do you want to have as an artist, community member, and professional observer of highly localized phenomena?
As a publisher that writes about New York, I want to document this specific place at this specific time, and place it in a context that reflects both its history and an impending future. I like to make connections between past and present, and I think that includes the natural world. I want to document a landscape that is in the process of transforming, and call people’s attention to that transformation. I want to make a link between ecological changes and economic or social changes: gentrification, displacement, or redevelopment of a neighborhood. Those two realms are linked, and I want people to understand that link. But a lot of my readers are not located in New York City, so what I want to do at the same time is to inspire people to take the same kind of approach to their own surroundings. What plants and animals live where you live? Are they recent arrivals or natives? Who lives in your neighborhood? When did they get there and how? How is your neighborhood changing? I think the things that happen here are happening, in different kinds of ways, everywhere.
Considering works like your Intertidal pamphlet series, what impact do you want to have as an artist, researcher and storyteller on global phenomena?
I think that a large topic like climate change can be broken down into smaller parts; otherwise it becomes distant and abstract, or too complicated to understand. I think it is more useful to concentrate on what is close at hand, changes that people can see first hand where they live. I don’t want to have to travel to the Arctic in order to talk about climate change, and I don’t need to travel to a remote pacific island to talk about sea level rise. I just have to go to Queens, it’s happening right there, right now. I think that there’s a general understanding that climate change is happening, but not a lot of understanding on how quickly its effects are arriving, or how little time we have to make drastic changes. People think that if we just recycle more, or bring a reusable bag to the store then it will be ok, but really, we need a much more drastic shift, a systemic shift. The kind of neighborhood I wrote about in Intertidal won’t exist in a few decades, and I don’t think even the people who live there realize that.
What have you found valuable or meaningful about paying such close attention to the various ways you interact with your surroundings? Has it changed you in any way, and if so, how?
I have lived in Brooklyn for a long time now, most of my life, and I think that paying close attention to the landscape is an outgrowth of that, and speaks to an investment in a particular place. My family is from here, and have been here quite a long time, and I think immersing myself in the history and ecology in this particular place is an expression of a tie to this particular piece of land that I feel. I think that when people talk about feeling “tied to the land” they are usually talking about a rural landscape. I think doing the kind of research I’ve been doing has given me a richer understanding of this place and the ways that it is a landscape, and how that landscape has shaped who I am. I started researching Broad Channel in Queens because a friend took me out there one night, and I could smell the bay, and it smelled just like the Great South Bay which I grew up next to, and just that smell made the connection for me and made me want to spend time there. And then learning all of the things that live in a salt marsh, birth and decay and all the kinds of processes that happen there, I understood that the smell of the air at Jamaica Bay, or the Great South Bay, or any salt marsh, that is the smell of life processes themselves, life coming into being.
What does nature mean to you in urban contexts - are things that are traditionally considered industrial natural in their own right? Does it depend on context or the presence of people?
Human beings are part of nature, which means that everything we make and build is part of nature too, which means industrial waterfronts and cities and highways and infrastructure are all part of nature. If a beaver dam is nature then so is a pier. If a spider web is nature then so is an airport. This sounds crazy to us, because what we understand as “nature” is the result of hundreds of years of writing that frames it as something outside human culture. “Man vs. Nature” and all that. But that is all just a story we’ve told ourselves. We would build better infrastructure, more resilient infrastructure, if we understood the things we build as being part of nature, rather than something opposed to it. There’s landscape architects who are working on projects in New York Harbor that use things like marsh grass and oyster shells to reduce wave action, and make the city’s coastline more resilient. This is the kind of thing you build if you understand that human cities are part of natural forces.
Who are some artists that have inspired your various art styles?
I learned to print from metal type from Barbara Henry (Harsimus Press). I learned about bookbinding from workshops with Susan Mills and Barbara Mauriello. I learned that walking could be part of my art practice from Nicolás Dumit Estévez. I am inspired by small press publishers like Tammy Nguyen (Passenger Pigeon Press), Temporary Services, and DoubleCross Press. I learn about ecological processes and how they can be used in art from Tattfoo Tan. I learned about ballast weeds from Maria Tereza Alves. I rely on the friendship and community from artists I have known for years, Aurora De Armendi, Ana Cordeiro, Swati Khurana, and Asuka Ohsawa. I am starting to learn how to make paper this year, and while at home I’ve been looking at tutorials posted by artist and community papermaker Rejin Leys and at the work of Radha Pandey and Melissa Potter. I rely on community spaces like the Center for Book Arts to make my work and provide support.
When you’re entering a larger project, how do you decide how much of it to allocate to research and how much to make allegorical or more personal?
It depends; I really love the research phase, and it really is ongoing, and will often start in one place and then migrate to another. I think it is best to start reading about a subject and let it take you where it needs to go. For the pamphlets, I’ll usually come up with a general theme for a year in advance, and have a general idea of what each pamphlet that year might be about, but all of that can change depending on circumstances and what I learn in the process. I like having a general theme for the year because it makes the research process more streamlined, but ideally my understanding of the topic should change as I go, as I learn more. I approach the writing and making phase as a way of explaining what I am excited about what I have learned, and that sometimes comes out as factual information and sometimes as polemic and sometimes as a personal meditation, depending on what I have learned and how I think is best to present it. I don’t decide in advance, it’s more what comes out as I have immersed myself in a topic and let it sit for a while.
What does your process look like? Does it change depending on if what you’re making is more of a compilation, guidebook, or experimental piece? How much of the preparation and decision making conscious and how much is subconscious?
For the pamphlet series, I start with the theme, and the research. I do some of the research by reading, some in institutions like the Brooklyn Historical Society or NYPL or the Brooklyn Public Library. Some of the research is walking around in a landscape. A lot of the research is done by bike, traveling to a particular place and photographing the landscape. Imagery comes from the photographs I take or from visual reference material I find. I make drawings from photographs and plates from drawings. Writing the pamphlets starts with an outline where I put down everything I think I want to cover, then I gradually fill in all the parts, and link them all together. Then I edit that down, then edit again, then start setting the type, which usually results in more editing as I go. I only really know what the writing sounds like when I set it in metal, it’s part of the writing process. For a longer book project. I will start more with an idea of a genre (field guide, atlas, guidebook, etc.) that functions as a jumping off point, then I think about what kind of a physical object I want to make, then what kinds of processes will fit with the subject, and that I want to experiment with. Bigger books are an opportunity for me to write in a different mode than in the pamphlets; the pamphlets are by design very straightforward and factual, and focused on clarity. Longer artist books offer the opportunity for more experimental forms of writing, which might mean collecting other people’s writing or other kinds of language, either as a jumping off point, or for reuse in a piece using found language.