Lindsay Nehls is a "maker of arts, designs, and weird things". Which is a brief way of saying that she likes that blurred line between craft, fine art, objet d’art, intaglio printing and other ‘weird things’. She enjoys utilizing creative problem solving skills to work within the spectrum of art and design. That’s where she has the most fun.
Nehls is endlessly excited about making nerdiness fun and exciting. Previously the owner and operator of Rock Paper Scissors and a University of Cincinnati DAAP graduate, she plays around with historical and mythological subjects that hold charm and quirk in a way that's difficult to achieve but refreshing to find. She recently abandoned her day job for full-time freelancing. Lindsay privileged us with an honest conversation about the joys and struggles of working for yourself.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Lindsay Niels: I just recently renovated this space and haven’t been in here too long. Before I had this space I had all of my supplies squirreled away in the closet and I would take out what I needed if I was working on stuff. My "studio" was mainly the desk at my day job or the kitchen table. We bought this house a year and some change ago and this room was always intended to be my studio but with all of the other projects that you start when your working on a house, it’s easy to just keep pushing it to the side.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
LN: A little bit of both. This light is not ideal: it’s east facing and so it's super bright in the morning. It’s not like I’m Vermeer or anything, but it is a bit blindingly bright in the morning. It was kind of tough to design a layout but ultimately I do want as much sun as possible because, especially in the winter, it’s can be so sad and grey outside. Everything else is coming together organically. I’m working on keeping this wall as clear as I can for works in progress, and (another weird fact) I installed the ladder in the studio up that high so that it would force me to get up and stretch and move around for a second. It’s in that moment that I’ll usually realize that I’ve been sitting for five hours, haven’t had any water, and have been crouched over. It’s just kind of nice to force yourself to move around a bit.
F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building etc) influenced your work in any way?
LN: Working from my house can be very challenging at times. I’m an extrovert and those times where I realize that I haven’t spoken to another person all day can be a bit of a mental challenge. Though having an outside space isn’t a cost that I can justify right now and so it works. Being located in Northside abides that frustration a little bit. Being here allows me the opportunity to walk to Collective Espresso, which is my favorite friendly, neighborhood coffee shop. I’d say that ninety-seven percent of the time I will run into someone that I know and won’t mind me interrupting their coffee run to ask them to look at stuff. I have to say, the best part about having a space at home is being able to be with my dog all day. He used to be a shop dog and, you know, I just feel like I’m missing a shoe if he isn’t around me.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?
LN: Right now it’s pretty standard because I’m not working on any current deadlines. When I am working with a deadline that schedule really changes. I just run right into the usual, kind of crazed, “I’m gonna work from 8a.m. until 2 a.m. and not eat anything” habit that a lot of artists do to themselves. Typically I’m working on three to five pieces at the same time, that way I can rotate things around and not feel too stuck. The most preferable work environment is being able to work at a steady pace with a good podcast on and either a coffee or an alcoholic beverage; depending on the time of day. I’m a big podcast nerd.
F-D: What are you listening to?
LN: Oh my gosh. . . Like forty-seven of them [laughs]. Most of them aren’t art related; but my most favorite right now would have to be No Such Thing As a Fish— it’s all weird facts. The Allusionist is really good. Stuff You Should Know, obviously. Lexicon Valley, I like fact, word, semiotic, and history based podcasts. There’s less question and answer style interviews and more of that rolling information. I can’t do the murder one’s because it’s too stressful.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
LN: That question sort of points to my criticism that I have of myself as being a jack of all trades and a master of none. Depending on what I’m working on and with and where I am in my life, my work varies. My personal work deals a lot with dreamscapes, art history, mythology, and nerd stuff. Something that I hear about or learn in a podcast may work its way into something that I’m working on. For example, this one is referencing Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds and the Pandora’s Box myth, which is apparently historically inaccurate. The ‘box’ was actually a jar called a pithos which was mistranslated as ‘a box’. We say it was a box, but it was actually a jar. Those weird little inaccuracies and oddities are interesting to me. Obviously I’m not going to directly illustrate the narrative of a newspaper article, but if I find something interesting, I usually want to share it visually. Subject matter does vary greatly, but anything I make for myself tends to lean more towards the personal or the cathartic. I do certainly make things with the intent of selling them, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For example, I made these clocks for the a show that thematically revolved around clocks, down at Indigo Hippo. People are more likely to purchase a clock than a painting for some reason.
I love collaborating with others and I enjoy working as an illustrator— I enjoy creating work that’s inspired by someone else’s content. I’ve done a couple of different CityBeat covers and that was so much fun and I recently installed a piece that is located at Wave Pool right now, it was a collaborative piece that I worked on with Scott Holzman of Chase Public, which was so great because the way we work is so different. We had an idea to create an updated, contemporary version of a medieval bestiary. So, we wanted to represent the reality of being a working artist in the Midwest. One of them was called a “Patron Ivy”. It’s a parasitic plant that offers you the golden fruit of funding but can slowly bleed you dry until you forget who you are. He had set up some interviews with artists and then him and I sat down and come up with some ideas stimulated from those interviews. In the end, if I hadn’t worked with Scott, the work would have ended up looking similar but I wouldn’t have had the influence of ideas and thoughts that were gathered from others. I wouldn’t have had the idea to interview people either. I love collaborating.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
LN: Right now, most of the commissioned work that I’m completing is either watercolor on paper or digital work. I’ve been working with an extremely obsolete tablet in photoshop, but it works so I won’t hate on it too much. Working with the tablet is nice because it is a little quicker and cleaner— which are both things that people typically want. My work that I’ve been making for myself on the other hand has been with acrylic, some collage on panel, some potato printing and other things. I enjoy adhering drawings to panel: it keeps things commitment free. I’d love to do more intaglio printmaking. That was my absolute favorite approach to printing.
F-D: What about it?
LN: Probably just the line work. No pen can make those super crispy, tiny, lines. There’s no other way to do it and the process, overall, is so satisfying. You gain access to this connectedness to history that’s really engaging. Like, I’m doing the same thing as Dürer. . . I would never compare myself to Dürer, but’s it’s interesting to think that you share those histories with a character like that.
But potato prints are fun. This idea of talking about having fun with your work or making fun work is so stigmatized. The cult of personality and the artist are supposed to be “sad” and “serious” and that’s something that I’ve been trying to talk through with my work. It’s good to have fun and be happy and I think that making work that you want to make people happy with should be fine. It’s tough to write an artist statement when you are trying to be fun. It’s much simpler to be academic when you’re working to ‘call attention to something’. Which is amazing and fine, it’s just not what I’m interested in right now. For a while a lot of my work kept returning to this really tedious, repetitive, mark making. I love doing it because it’s such a satisfying mark. It’s an action that I can really get lost in.
F-D: It’s very escapist.
LN: Yea, and perhaps that’s not the best way to approach your work, but it’s what it is.
F-D: Your mark making ranges from the downright tedious to the loose or expressive. Do you find yourself making specific types of marks depending on how you’re feeling in the moment?
LN: I’ve never actually thought about that until now, and, it probably is true, but I don’t know. I definitely associate the tedious marks with times of stress or panic. I’m not capable of meditating; and I feel like this is perhaps the closest thing to that.
F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
LN: Research is very important. Research is just as important to me as the making of the work. It’s not something that I think is super common within the style of work that I make. It doesn’t reference a lot of pop culture or contemporary ideas. It’s rooted in the deep past. The prehistorical past, for instance.
F-D: But it seems as though you’re recontextualizing or using those ideas and images to discuss contemporary issues.
LN: For sure. The commonality between the medieval, prehistorical, or other imagery is usually pulled towards a discussion of how women are represented throughout history.
F-D: Do you work with narratives, plot, or a general progressive ideas?
LN: I guess I do, particularly with collaboration or editorial illustration. My own work is all over the place, though.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?
LN: Some of it for sure. My older work was more autobiographical, perhaps. It’s more about immediate inspiration, like drawing someone you love. That sort of thing. I do portraits from observation and I don’t have a budget to pay a model so I resort to using my friends. That kind of makes it’s way into the work. There’s also that divide between fun things and commissioned things. I usually don’t make work for shows that are deeply personal, but I enjoy making that type of work. Like I mentioned earlier, I do reference a lot of imagery from dreams because I enjoy that poetic or lucid approach to imagery that dreams naturally provide.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
LN: All of the podcasts. Every one ever. Art history, research, science. . .
F-D: Are you an avid reader?
LN: Not as much as I used to be just because of the convenience of having podcasts or audiobooks. I try to do that so that I don’t stop myself from reading for pleasure. Simultaneous research and entertainment is a process that I find myself utilizing a lot.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
LN: Having this space in my house, where I have the flexibility of working whenever I want, after having worked somewhere where I was only nine to five, is pretty great. Having the ability to store things safely and come back to something as much as a year later is important for me. Especially with how I like to leave work for long periods of time and then return to them. When you’re in a shared space that can be a bit risky.
I’m still figuring out how the space works for me because it’s a baby space! Perhaps it’s silly, but I have laid it out in such a way that I’m forced to move throughout the day. I’m prone to working in one spot for hours so I need practical reasons to get up and move around. Having space where I’m not having to accomodate anyone is also nice.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
LN: That’s tough. I don’t know if I have an answer. I guess the biggest influence for me right now is the internet. Being able to promote yourself to so many people for free is pretty great. I don’t really think that’s the answer to the question, but I love the internet. I love the post-internet art world. There is that art school pressure to name drop contemporary artists, but everything that I like is way old.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
LN: Just remember that you began doing it for a reason. Don’t forget that you actually like art.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
LN: Now I’ll say that I’m an artist. Before, I definitely had to say the whole, “Well, I work at a front desk but I’m trying to do the artist thing”. The word ‘artist’ can be kind of a hard thing to say out loud.
F-D: Why is it tough for you?
LN: Before now that wasn’t how I was supporting myself financially, and that’s usually what that question means. The person asking is usually really just wondering how you make your money. The term “artist” is so vague now that the response you usually get is, “Oh! That must be so great! Just sitting around and painting all day!” And I’m like, “No, man! I’ve got spreadsheets and stuff!”
You’ve never seen a movie that has an adorable, quirky, artist making a spreadsheet or doing their taxes and your never going to. What people imagine an artist to be is usually, just, so inaccurate. It’s kind of tough to introduce yourself that way.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
LN: Quitting the day job life is a huge risk. I think it’s risky to just try at all. The odds are against you for sure. It’s tough to not just focus on the financial side of that question. After running Rock Paper Scissors, which was so much about showcasing other peoples' art and bringing people together and was so fun, exciting, and fulfilling, I was left feeling as if I virtually no time for me to make my own work. There was a risk there, in not really making anything. But in contrast, it’s a lot more fulfilling to work to showcase other people. You just get a lot more out of the experience, I think.
When your working to support yourself it’s easy to feel as though making something lovely, silly, or funny is a waste of time. Which sucks. Making happy work can feel like a risk in some sense. The money thing is real, though.
F-D: Words of wisdom?
LN: Look after yourself. It’s really easy as a full-time freelancer to work constantly because you don’t know when your next work is going to come in. So you have to make sure that your work pace is sustainable. You have to work hard, but you have to take care of yourself. Maybe draw a dog or something. Don’t take yourself too seriously all of the time. Take a break.
F-D: I think that might be some of the best life advice we’ve ever gotten.
LN: Yea, just remember that life and art can be fun and go draw a dog. Oh! and don’t quit your day job until you’ve saved up a bit of money. Save your money!
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
LN: I’m in the research phase of a project that points towards biomimicry— so basically looking at problems that humans are facing, looking at how nature has already solved the problem, and then creating a solution that mimics that. I’m attempting to apply those ideas to art making.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
LN: I host a Drink & Draw event at the Contemporary Arts Center on the first Thursday of every month from 6-8. It's free to attend, and we provide all supplies. We pick a different theme every month and this month we're teaming up with Red Bike for bike month. They're bringing by a few bikes, bike gear, tools and parts for us to draw. We'll also be laminating drawings to make spokecards to decorate and personalize your own bicycle.