In this interview, Lori Nix discusses the virtue of patience when it comes to being an artist.
Hi, Lori. I first want to say that I love that your site has a “Question and Answer” section. Your opening line about being frequently asked about your influences and processes is why I launched the Business of Art—people are already asking those questions; let’s talk about something else. Ok, then. Lori, I would first like to ask, where do you consider yourself in your career?
Hey, Janine. Thank you for finding the Q&A section on my site. I compiled about ten years’ worth of interview questions into one long answer. I should probably update it! I am definitely “mid-career” both in age and practice. I’ve been at this a long time, and I’m no longer fresh and new. I received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014, which is considered a mid-career award, so I’m officially “mid” now and happy to have made it this far.
And how does one make it this far? What steps, opportunities, and defeats helped you to arrive as an artist with notable gallery representation, residences, and a Guggenheim?
First and foremost, you have to invest in yourself and your career. When I was preparing for my graduate thesis show, I didn’t let money get in the way. I knew I had to be ambitious and mount a show that would eventually be my calling card for future opportunities. I made big duratrans prints and built light boxes and filled the gallery. I racked up some credit card debt, but I proved to myself and my audience that I was serious about making art with a capital A.
I then went in search of the kind of day jobs that would help me continue this work. This is how I ended up as a printer in various color photo labs. All along, I was sending my work out to be considered for group shows [and] thematic shows, and this eventually led to solo shows in nonprofit spaces in Virginia, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Toronto, etc. I was building my career slowly, gaining momentum every year.
On advice from a friend, I attended Photolucida, a portfolio review event in Portland, Oregon. Again, I was investing in myself and my career because these events are not cheap. I was not only putting my work in front of gallery owners, curators, [and] nonprofit organizations, but also meeting other photographers and exchanging information and opportunities.
These photographers became my friends, and friends can definitely help your career progress. If left alone, I have a tendency to be unaware of opportunities. If it were not for the advice of my friends, I would not have applied to Smack Mellon, Light Work, or AIM at the Bronx Museum.
And half of the galleries that represent me came from meeting the owners face to face at portfolio reviews. The other half of my representation came from friends and acquaintances suggesting my work to a gallery they’re affiliated with.
I’m a bit confused by your representation. Are you represented by multiple galleries? How does that work?
Yes, I have representation by multiple galleries. It’s a delicate dance to keep everyone happy. Usually, when an artist has multiple galleries representing them, one is the main gallery and all other galleries have to give 10-15% of the sale to the main gallery. Not in my case. I’ve always kept them at arm's length and on equal footing, possibly to the detriment of my own career. But my attitude has always been to not make difficult demands of them, like “x amount of sales,” shows, art fairs. In exchange, I get to keep more control over my production, inventory, etc.
You and Kathleen Gerber have been collaborating together for years. I’m interested in what collaboration has done for your practice and how that relationship differentiates from working alone or with a studio assistant.
Kathleen and I have been collaborating since 1999 when we moved to New York City. Over the years she’s become more integral to the work. When it’s time for the next round of gallery exhibitions, her name will accompany mine on the wall.
Kathleen and I divide the studio work according to our artistic strengths; I am more the designer and architect, responsible for color palette [as] well as the structure: floors, walls, ceilings, furniture, and cabinets. Kathleen gets to do the fun work, such as sculpting and detailing. We work extremely well together, and combining our skills has made the photographs more complex, with greater detail.
Since there are two of us, we rarely use studio assistants. We’re kind of control freaks and would have a hard time delegating and depending on other people.
Yes, but are there pros and cons to working in a collaboration? I feel like young artists, especially art students, aren’t encouraged to work in this manner. In fact, I have a friend who got her BFA in Photography who said the culture [where she attended] was to see everyone as competitors.
I had a similar experience in grad school. My professors were pitting the students against each other, not out of spite, but to encourage some of the students to buckle down and work a little harder and spend less time at the bar. It didn’t work so well; instead of getting more work out of us, it just made [us] pissy toward each other.
School is ultimately a game, and if can you recognize it as that, you can play the game long enough to make it to graduation. Just don’t burn any bridges along the way in service to your art. Try to remember that it’s your friends who will ultimately help you along in your career.
As far as collaboration goes, you really have to value, respect, and trust the person you’re collaborating with. If any of these are missing, then it’s going to be a horrible experience. Kathleen brings skills and an amazing work ethic to the project. I bring the energy and determination.
With our model-building business, we get to collaborate with writers, filmmakers, and advertising creatives. It takes collaboration to a whole new level and we find this very satisfying.
Your works take time: it takes months to build a single diorama and only about two new photographs are made [each] year. How do support yourself and your practice?
Both Kathleen and I have held day jobs over the years, so the artwork took place at night and on the weekends. I worked for years as a printer in a color photo lab. She worked for a small business selling gold leaf. About three years ago, we left these jobs to strike out on our own. We run a small model- building business called Nix + Gerber Studio. We build models for film and video and the occasional editorial assignment. The personal artwork still takes place at night and on the weekends, or when we’re between assignments.
Ok, this is mainly for my curiosity: what happens to the dioramas once you've gotten the image you want?
After we’re done photographing the dioramas, we tear them down and recycle what we can. Our apartment is way too small to keep these things intact. Plus, I must stress to the reader that the photograph is the final artwork, not the model.
You said in your 2015 Newsweek interview that your father questioned how you were going to make money as a ceramics major. That fear of financial stability is visceral to many, even many, even if not openly spoken. Do you remember what those first few years were like after college and grad school?
I feel like I’ve never left those first few years behind! Financial stability is still a daily concern for me. After I left grad school, I got a job working for a color photo lab in Columbus, Ohio, and continued to work for a lab when I moved to New York City. I’ve always gravitated to this type of work because it helps keep me focused on my own practice and helps nudge my career along.
The first few years after college I was living economically. I still have this mindset. Our art practice brings me enormous satisfaction, but a certain degree of financial insecurity. Because I’m not doing this alone, but sharing this with Kathleen, it’s easier to combat a constant fear of going under.
I bet [readers] will find that a surprise, and maybe even a disparity; even as a well-established artist, there's still no relief from the weight of financial insecurity. I mean, [in] what other careers could one be so established and yet still have to worry about money?
First, you have to define what “success” means to you. For me, success means that I am known and, hopefully, respected by my peers. If people know my work [and] are familiar with my work, then I am successful. Other people might define success by gallery sales and museum acquisitions. My work doesn’t fly off the walls and this does not surprise me. Who wants to wake up and look at images of decay and destruction, when all they have to do is turn on the morning news? I’m always surprised and a little suspicious whenever an image of mine is sold. Who is this strange person buying this work?
People are going to project or find a way to relate to the work outside of what the artist initially intended. Yesterday our societal concern was the Cold War, today it’s climate change, and tomorrow it may be machines becoming sentient. Do you have to adjust how you communicate with your audience depending on how they relate to your images?
My themes have evolved over the years, but have a basic core that remains throughout—landscape, forces at work that are larger than ourselves, and nature’s power and resilience. I purposely leave my scenes vague and let the viewer bring their own stories to fill out the narrative. The viewer’s ideas and background can definitely color how they see the work.
For “Feature Shoot,” you did “A Day In The Life,” which is a series about going through the inner workings of an artist’s typical day. For you, it seemed like it was a lot of interneting—which I am so grateful for, it’s how we set up this interview—and I want to understand your relationship with online communication a bit better, particularly social media.
I spend a lot of time on the computer. I have three distinct relationships with it. First, I use it to research potential dioramas, looking at all kinds of images from Google and other sources.
Second, I purchase a lot of art materials off the web and have them delivered to the studio. It saves me hours of running around Manhattan. And finally, there are days when I feel like every person in the world is emailing me all at once and I’m writing email from morning until night. This usually comes in spurts, and I’m weirdly thankful that I’m corresponding with another human being. There are times when we are so busy in the studio that I don’t leave for days; I forget what sunshine and fresh air feel like.
I definitely go for days without signing on to Facebook and Instagram. So when it comes to social media, my grade would be an F. I’m very private about what I’m working on personally in the studio. Actually, I’m superstitious about sharing, therefore I don’t share because I don’t want to jinx the project. And I definitely can’t share what we’re doing for other clients because a non-disclosure agreement usually comes with the contract.
So please, anyone, ask me out for a beer so I can be social and see other human beings. Otherwise, I’m stuck in my miniature world.
I want to ask you what I asked Chris Verene in our interview: when you reflect, are there things that you wish you knew as you were developing your practice? Do you have an “I wish I knew then what I know now?”
I don’t really have thoughts like that. Honestly, I never expected making art to amount to an actual career. I’ve always tried to keep my expectations low and be extremely thankful for whatever comes my way. I do try to remain open to new experiences and meet new people whenever possible.
What do the next twelve months look like?
I’m preparing for my next shows at ClampArt Gallery in NYC this coming [December], and [a] show with Catherine Edelman in March. [For] the next seven months I will be sequestered in the studio.
Lori, this has just been such an experience. Thank you.
Lori Nix photographs her own world—she and Kathleen Gerber create dioramas of a “post-mankind” world. Their works have appeared in publications such as O magazine, New York, Wired and on the cover of Time. Nix was a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography in 2014. She has held residencies at Smack Mellon Studio, Light Work, and The Bronx Museum. Nix is currently represented by ClampArt in New York.