*Featured photo: “Chthonic”, installation view. Chris Rackley photo
Nicole Havekost (1970) is an artist living in Rochester, Minnesota. She is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Printmaking. She also earned her MFA in Printmaking at the University of New Mexico. Havekost had numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States, leading up to her solo show “Chthonic” in 2020 as part of the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Alongside her art practice, she is a long-time educator, teaching at St. Mary’s University, Winona State University and Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota as well as small liberal arts colleges in Southeast Michigan. She tells us about herself, her work and her research in this interview, steaming from the Spotlight that ArteMorbida dedicated to her work in the October 2021 issue.
The body is the starting and landing point of your artistic practice. Can you tell me the reasons behind this research and how it has evolved over time through the different works of art?
I went to art school intending to be an apparel designer, so I have always had an interest in the body. I just didn’t have the patience for that kind of sewing and precision and I followed my love for drawing. But for my BFA exhibition I made a series of hand-stitched and painted dresses that stood up on their own like little figures and realized in grad school I needed to deal with the body. Personally, I have never been comfortable in my own body; it has always been something for me to control and manage. For twenty years I was an anorexic over-exerciser, and I think making bodies allowed me to make physical the ways it felt like to live in my body. These bodies I make are places where I can put things…fear, anxiety, anger, expectation…and see it have a form. I have found as I’ve aged that making these bodies has brought me more home to my own body, to understanding my body is my partner and an organism with its own needs.
Above all, the female body is the pivot of your work: is it a purely autobiographical reference or is there also an aspect linked to gender claims, an assertion of the centrality of women that often they do not recognize themself?
It took me a long time to realize I was making self-portraits. I didn’t want them to be autobiographical, but I am not good at making other kinds of work. It has been such a lovely experience to have other women recognize themselves in the work. There is an experience of gender, expectation and desire that many of us women share and I think that is recognizable in the work. I appreciate that the viewer might come to understanding more about themselves or their loved ones by experiencing the work. I make it for me, but I also learn so much from viewers bringing their shared experience to the objects.
How did you come to use fabrics and sewing?
I mentioned earlier I had wanted to be an apparel designer and discovered that I was a different kind of technician and artist. I spent a couple of years exploring drawing and printmaking but hand-stitching always felt really natural. Fabric is like home. My mom made me clothing when I was a little girl and I loved being able to pick a surface that would feel good on my skin and let me feel comfortable in my body. Fabric is malleable, soft, strong and delicate like skin. I love that hand-stitching is both an aggressive and restorative act. Stitching transforms a surface…piercing, pulling, fastening. But it also repairs…it won’t be what it was, but something new. With stitching, I love physical repetition of accumulating marks. I also love that I have to be really present to accumulate marks and that those marks also indicate time. But I didn’t know any of that when I started. I came to use fabric because I worked in a costume shop and that was what was available. I figured I would make the first doll out of muslin and then work into all the fancy, gorgeous fabrics when I had the shape and form figured out. But the sort of unassuming fabric I started with has continued to serve me well. I think I have aspired to be more fancy than I am.
Sewing has a conceptual meaning as well as a technical function….
Sewing is also a way to keep my hands and mind occupied and surprisingly I don’t have the same sense of perfectionism in my stitching that I have in other mediums. Stitching feels really forgiving.
In your opinion, does art have a cathartic power?
Absolutely. Art has both a cathartic power for the artist and the viewer when it’s honest. I know I am a better version of myself when I am making work and that knowledge is hard-earned. I am so fortunate to have come to that recognition.
Which of your works involved you emotionally the most?
All my different bodies of work have engaged me emotionally in different ways. Each body of work is very much of a time and I see those experiences and that person when I look at it. When I am scared to make something I know I am on the right track. The figures of “Chthonic” were really significant. I remember being uncomfortable around the first one and I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see her. I was about to turn 50 and my son was in middle school. Then our world was swept away by a pandemic and I spend eight hours a day in the studio getting to know these ladies. This work helped me learn to let go.
From ‘Candy ladies’ to ‘Sewing dolls’ to ‘Chthonic’ your works have increased in size. How has your and their relationship with space changed? And with the observer?
I like small and precious. It is easy to manage and you don’t have to make a lot of space for it. That is how the Sewing dolls and Candy ladies started. I also didn’t really think I was a sculptor so that was me figuring things out. I don’t know that I ever would have gotten to making work at this scale except that I got this exhibition with the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I started making proposals to the program with the Sewing Dolls work and with each proposal the intention for the work got clearer and it grew in scale to meet that intention. It is a massive space. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off and it was like playing twister in my studio. I have come to really understand space and the kind of space I want to take up with “Chthonic.” The ladies of “Chthonic” don’t apologize; they don’t make space for you as you walk amongst them. There is so much power in owning a space like that. We should all feel in awe of small sometimes in this world we live in.
Can you tell me about your most recent work, ‘Massed’?
Massed is a large scale installation of layered, painted and stitched vintage commerical sewing patterns for children’s and women’s clothing. I started using sewing patterns on the surface of my sewing dolls as a kind of skin and I became curious about it as a two-dimensional surface I could make marks on. Depending on how it was layered and handled, it could become somewhat translucent and skin-like and hold marks that felt like bruises or wounds. I thought it could make a really compelling organic shape that would be breast or cell or even botanical like. I made a small installation for an exhibition I had in Rochester and knew that I needed it to spread over a wall. When I got the MAEP I started in earnest. The patterns were heat fused together with an iron, painted with acrylic, cut down, stitched into shape, painted with acrylic medium and then I stitched the backs on. My intention had been for everyone to be hand sewn, and I had a couple of sewing circles with friends and two lovely women who would take them home to stitch, so I had to transition to a machine. My 25 year old apparel design machine actually. I was really nervous to turn to the mechanical stitch to speed things up, but there was this amazing soundtrack to the work then that I couldn’t have imagined. Fortunately I don’t think it changed the work. I would actually like to make more and have them start on the ceiling, spilling down the walls to the floor so that the veiwer walks amongst them.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now I am finishing the work for two state grants and hope to submit my reports soon. My focus has been on learning to use a digital embroidery machine to stitch a series of drawings I created last year and it has been a challenge. When that work is done I will start on another group of large figureative felt sculptures…a mother and her litter of littles climbing on her and throughout the space. I’m also starting to think about a series of animal/human hybrid sculptures, but it is really in the beginning stage and making me nervous. I have a two-person exhibition at the Southbend Musuem of Art in South Bend, Indiana and a solo exhibition at Dreamsong gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2023 so I am working towards all of that.