Tim Nickodemus is an artist making painting, drawing, and installation, Tim is also a professor teaching Core studio, Research studio, painting studio and drawing studio, at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. His Research studio: Work from home, examines home from many angles including the artist's home as a site of creative research, a site of artistic production and as an artwork itself. Expanded concepts surrounding home will include family, homeland, utopian colonies, housing projects, security, communes, homelessness, ownership, hoarding and domestic life. Each student's work will engage with home differently, based on personal history, geographical position and cultural contexts. His painting studio investigates strategies to develop and maintain a painting practice within the context of a home or off-campus studio. Painting materials, application, color, form, and contemporary and traditional methodologies will all be examined. Focus will be given to the development of safe home studio practices.
Keyi Zhang: First of all, can you tell us a bit about your experience of teaching at SAIC. How do you feel about the environment, your coworkers, and your students?
Tim Nickodemus: It is a unique place. So I've had the privilege of teaching at SAIC for about 8 years. I think I started in 2013; I could be wrong about that but I think I started then and I started teaching in a few departments both painting and drawing as well as the first-year program which you all know as contemporary practices. And the environment is...what's new to me when I started I had never taught at an art school. I have taught at colleges and universities but not at an art school where they only focus on art and I think that's one of the first things that's very unique about SAIC of course. And it is mainly a very art concentrated experience and environment and is very different from a university where you know I also have taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago for quite some time and there their art department is very small. And SAIC is a small school but everybody is in the art department. In other institutions often students are taking classes in art as an elective or maybe to get a requirement out of the way and it's far fewer students are getting their major or their bachelors in that. So you know you become a little bit of someone that they look to, to help them convince them to become an artist, right, like encourage them to become an artist. That's not necessarily an issue at SAIC, everybody's gone in thinking yeah I want to have a life in art, I want to be an artist, and that includes the faculty members it includes the students and is just this kind of error of yeah we're all we've all bought into this notion of we're going to pursue creative path here ---- artists, designers, architects beyond. And, I think because of that, you get to immediately dive in deeper with each student and each and each faculty member as well. Hearing what they're really fascinated by at other schools where you maybe there isn't. You know, maybe students are studying to be pre-law or pre-made or maybe they want to be engineers or something, like this, not related to the arts. There's often a little bit more of an introduction, right? At our school, everybody has some experience with visual art and design. Coming into the program and then the really exciting thing is you get to have everybody share what they're really passionate about. Some people are really excited about drawing or some people are really excited about materials or other people approach it from maybe a cultural context and that informs some of their interest in artworks. All kinds of ways that people are entering conversations at SAIC. So I think that's one of the things that makes it feel unique. I'd say that's probably similar to other art schools as well but I like to think that SAIC at least you're also bonded by the blizzards. So you're kind of pulled together by the brutal weather in Chicago. And I have found that students, for the most part, are really wise to share their life experience and how they arrived at what they arrived at, that you know, all 3 of you have different stories on kind of like how you landed in where you are now in your fields of study but also other students when they're able to share some of that context, it's really helpful for faculty members to understand a little bit more where you're coming from what your interests because I think one of the roles of an art teacher. Is to be a facilitator to help students find the paths that's going to best meet their interests and meet the things they're most passionate about. And often that is something that takes a little while longer to foster in other programs just by the nature of the need to do kind of introductions to the world of our trader, our depreciation, and that kind of thing.
Keyi Zhang: How do you identify yourself as an artist? Do you identify yourself as a painter?
Tim Nickodemus: Maybe often we all are asked “oh you're an artist, what's your medium”, right? And that's always troubling things for people who work in more than one discipline or one more than one medium. I usually tell people that I primarily work with drawing and painting and those kinds of go hand and hand for me. I didn't think that I was a teacher until I went to graduate school and then that's all I did. And it was an interdisciplinary program but all I did was paint. Other people came in painting and they came out making videos and doing performance art. But in graduate school, I was painting and really in the decade since graduate school. I have focused a lot more on drawing and some other avenues as well in addition to Painting. So, I say I'm mostly drawing and painting with some other bits and pieces here and there.
Keyi Zhang: In your practice, have you ever experienced the situation that you want to experiment with a new medium?
Tim Nickodemus: All the time, all the time! Yeah, it happens all the time and it depends on the idea and project. Sometimes I keep thinking about what SAIC is often making and the meanings are intertwined, right? how it's made and what it's about our interwoven and if I want to do a portrait, it's going to change the concept entirely if I make a photo or if I do a video portrait or if I do a painting. In the last few years, I've done less and less Painting and I've definitely been focused more on works on paper and some sculpture and even some time-based artwork as well because I felt that that was going to capture what I wanted. Yeah with the kind of voice or within the right medium at that moment and there were some moments where I thought well I've had a lot of training in painting and drawing and now I'm thinking about trying these other things so there's it feels you know a little bit like I meet the limit of my knowledge. It's like I don't know everything there is to know about. And of course, that's true for drawing and painting as well, but those circumstances where I was like I want to work with sound right it's also very exciting at the same time as may be feeling a little insecure about it because it's brand new worlds right it's this brand new space that I haven't done as much exploring. Yeah, there is that kind of nervousness, but it’s paired with excitement. When trying my hand at something new.
Wantong Yao: I just wanna hear more about your sculpture and time-based work. I think all of us are more familiar with your painting and drawing and yeah we're just curious and want to know more about it.
Tim Nickodemus: Right well. A couple of years ago I did a project for the terrain biennial which happens every 2 years. It's an outdoor sculpture show and it happens all over the country where I and my collaborators installed our work was in Springfield Illinois. We had a really big space to fill in so we thought well we better make really big work but we're both painters right were both teachers. Then we built this kind of weird, maybe a little bit Louise bourgeois. It is kind of this scaffolding in fact the piece wound up being called a scaffold. And then attached to the scaffolds were all of these shaped paintings that were two-sided however it was all made with latex paint and acrylic. It expanded out and out and it felt a little bit like we had built a dome with paintings that are growing off of it. I think there are some images on my website that you could probably find under the collaborations. This project was some of my first attempts at dealing with 3 dimensions and it felt a little bit like just a half step into that world where it's like I was still holding on to the familiarity of making images paint color. Now the new circumstance was that it was outside and it was in a brand new environment for it to be exhibited. Both an object but it also was a frame to look through and see the surroundings with and so that became a new experiment and we built it all in Wisconsin and then we drove it down to Springfield and we had to assemble it and make a lot of decisions on site so that became the kind of site-specific challenge for that. And that had set me off into the world of making shapes. Having to deal with that previously I had done a number of sculptures with weeds that you would find in a river. You can find them in the lake. And come playing with other materials other than your painting on a canvas or panel or a drawing on a piece of paper. And that's something I am continuing with. A new work that has not been seen out in the world, it moves into the relationship between three-dimensional images and how they interact. It's exciting and it's sometimes confusing. For me in the studio, as far as sound goes, when I went to graduate school at USC university Illinois Chicago I. I had an old drum set like a rock and roll drum kit that I took with me. I had always dreamed of learning how to play the drums and I had a studio in the basement and nobody else was around in the basement for a lot of the time. So I got to make a lot of noise on the drums and then other people found out about it and soon. Everybody was asking me to be part of their performances with drums but of course, the catch was that I didn't really know how to play the drums. And but what I didn't know how to do was I knew how to experiment, kind of like that's what all of us you have a background in the arts are good at is fiddling around and trying new things and so I did a lot of sound-based performances for other people and in collaboration with others. In the end, I made some really exciting audio installations and performances that were all based on just the chance that I was the one person whom they knew had drums and then things grew out of that. So far that hasn't connected really directly to me like images that I make so it's kind of like a parallel or an offshoot of.
Wantong Yao: Thanks for sharing these valuable experiences, it's very wonderful to know about these works.
Tim Nickodemus: Right I mean I think about the artists that I am familiar with and I think a lot of them that they may be known for one thing. They're known for one particular thing but I would imagine they all have in any kind of like you know for a fact that a lot of people have other creative outlets that maybe aren't as visible because it can't be all poured into the one container. I realize most people in the arts have that trouble of more ideas than you have time or space. Certainly feel in that capacity.
Wantong Yao: Yeah our next question is somehow related to your answer, like have you ever felt like you are inspired by other artists from different fields.
Tim Nickodemus: Absolutely I think most of my favorite artists or filmmakers. I don't think I would be the artist that I am without looking at a lot of other work of. Looking at a really wide range of artists and I'm trying to think of them right off the top of my head. I became an artist I think it was after being a kid reading comic books and you know I was reading superhero comic books like Marvel I was particularly taken with the incredible Hulk. And I thought like that's what art was and that was this kind of storytelling and you know my work I think there are some narrative components to it but I'm not making comic books right and that is maybe more related to the field of drawing and painting. Yeah, graphic novels and comic books are really often kind of like more connected to time-based artworks and certainly all of film work has influenced me and then a lot of people who do field recordings that's where they go out into a location and they will set up a microphone into field recordings and. More and more I keep thinking about like oh this is the same idea as painting a landscape image it's just like a slightly different outcome and we take it in differently. They're giving us a picture of a place and certainly, that connects in a big way. If you want me to sit here and list all of artists or artworks that I've been influenced by that are outside of the realm of drawing and painting, we need a longer amount of time for that.
Wantong Yao: What do you think about the people who want to try or experiment with new mediums?
Tim Nickodemus: In life. Well I think so I'm gonna put on my teacher hat for a moment there and I think about the challenge of being an art teacher is that you can teach methods for working in a certain kind of material or applying a certain subject matter or a certain set of skills. But it's very difficult to teach curiosity. The students that are often the most engaged are the ones who are pursuing their curiosity and those are also the students who are willing to wind up pursuing things that are outside of the realm, you know look at the handful of genres of art that exist in a museum. And that’s not just making art, and what is a creative life and I think it's an adventure. If you tell me when I was much younger that picking a life in art is going to lead me to bicycling along the elbow river in Germany in the middle of winter and picking up sticks right in collecting sticks, or that I was going to be in the desert and having to worry about rattlesnakes while I'm you know like I'm looking at different rocks and petroglyphs. I probably would’ve thought that’s crazy right what kind of life is that. And I think it is just adventure and pursuing curiosity. There are times where you know one gets really into something and I think that's kind of like how you differentiate between being an artist and those who are not. There are folks whom I think are content to continue to try new things and that's great and they move from thing to thing to thing. And artists are often the ones who move from thing to thing and thing and then they get obsessed right. They may find one thing and they become entranced by it. You all know this feeling right and this impulse.
I think we all try to live a life that's interesting and that is always balanced with that notion of a need for stability at the same time. How do you find that balance? That could be a tricky thing to achieve because real life has its demands, we can't always be wondering, we have responsibilities too. But how do you make that a priority and I certainly have made a community of people in my personal and professional life, where those are the people I'm getting a lot from that engagement, and yeah it could be food it could be travel it could be all kinds of things. Does not necessarily need to manifest in art.
ChenYu Lin: When you teach the research studio, the topic of our class is “Work from home”, and we got the assignment to make a “memory home model” from the beginning of the class to the end of the class. During the process, I actually feel it is really architecturally connected. Do you think that spatial and memory affect all the art forms?
Tim Nickodemus: Gosh, the vividness of memory, and that class was a few years ago. The topic was “work from home,” and of course now we're all doing everything from home these days. We were ahead of our time. I am thinking about the relationship between space and memory here. That project was a challenge for students to really try and think about their connection to their own past and their own experiences. And try to identify elements that were most relevant to them, things that stood out to them. Kind of like a really pointed memory for them that they would curate into an experience for others to experience to be able to see, right?
I suppose that's a form of storytelling on a basic level, and we often don't think about storytelling in a spatial sense, in 3D. In the same way, as we do with language, or maybe even images, but I think that the richest kind of history that can be told, is to go to somebody else's house and have them take you on a tour, right? And we're like, oh, let me show you around my apartment. And all of a sudden, you're not just hearing about their stuff, or like why they chose to put the couch in this particular spot, you're hearing their life story. I think that filters into all types of art. That the medium is used is kind of this conduit for getting it, something that's deeper and that's maybe more meaningful to us. Um, that might be a connection to something personal, or it might be just touching on, you know, like a feeling. It might be cultivating a feeling that we were connected with, or it might actually be.
Kind of like an artwork that's revealing a story as well. I think that is kind of like where the thinking was for having folks make these models and it was also very inspired by the book The Poetics of Space by Gustan and Basharard. This is kind of wonderful. Book of philosophy, connecting, different ideas about the human psyche, and different areas of a home. And we have a deeply rooted connection to places that we have been, certainly, that was kind of modeled after that as well. (Um, I don't know that I don't think that really answers the question, but I think that was my answer.)
ChenYu Lin: You go on field trips a lot. Does your experience with nature influence your artmaking? What do you think about the connection between nature and art? (Is this also the reason why you include field trips in your class planification)
Tim Nickodemus: Trips that I've taken with students, but also things I do in my own practice as well. I certainly think that. My work in the studio and my work as an artist and my work as a teacher are interconnected and certainly their echoes of one another. And I assume I am teaching in a way that is connected to the way that I make. I think exploring space, um, is definitely a part of it, and whether that's going to an institution to simply just get out of the classroom environment for a while? SAIC has these studio classes that are six hours long, right? Although now with covid, they're a little bit shorter. I had previously taught at SAIC and had never encountered this before, this idea that you would stay in one class all day long. It seemed kind of ridiculous to me, and it still seems a little ridiculous, because I can't sit and work for six hours. I don't have that kind of energy or focus. You know, like, I have to move around and go do something else for a while and certainly break things up. A field trip is a good way to engage different parts of the brain, and use our bodies a little bit. And certainly, get out of our little studio bubble, which is really important that there are more forms of learning than what is just in a classroom.
Crosses over to learning from just simply being outside this summer. I got to take a trip for about two and a half weeks through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And I was doing research on silver mines, where they were mining a lot of silver, especially in the nineteenth century. And they were doing gold mining as well, and other oars. But at first, I thought I was going to, you know, like to bring this fancy camera with me, and I was going to do a bunch of drawing on site. It really turned out that, like, yes, I did those things, but the most valuable thing that I did is I went walking and I went hiking. Um, and I went to a lot of these sites where it feels a little bit like the mines stopped a hundred years ago, and they just left everything, and it's been, you know, in ruin. Just simply being there was valuable and also talking with people who were there, and that was less of a formal way of developing work, then say making sketches or taking pictures. I did that too. But I actually found simply walking around, I think informed my ideas about what I wanted to do about this work, which is, you know something. Currently, because this was only a few months ago, currently starting out in the studio, it's kind of a big mess, but it felt like maybe an alternative form of research, which I had done something similar before. But even I didn't anticipate it. This time I was just like, oh, okay, but I know what I want to do. I'm going to work on the site. I'm going to leave. And it didn't work out that way, right? Kind of never works out that way.
And the relationship to nature adds a new wrinkle into it, all right is simply being outside now for some artists that don't do anything for them, but for me, it's really important, you know it based on the kinds of histories that I want to connect with, right? And I've been doing a lot of work based around the Western, United States, and imperialism, and conquest of the Western, United States, and a lot of really fascinating and tragic stories that are connected with that.
And thinking about places that tell stories, right? Nature tells stories and we only get to hear a few of them, so getting to be there, getting to be outside with it is an opportunity to maybe take things indifferently than one word otherwise I get to do it if they're reading a library book about it.
ChenYu Lin: Did you feel your thinking pattern or persona changed when you switched between mediums/were using different materials.)
Tim Nickodemus: Oh, I don't know about my persona. I would like, I'd like to think that I had like a different identity entirely, but my thinking pattern, yeah, um, and you know it's, you are all familiar with the kind of the issue of being confronted with new material and having to do create a problem, starving right, it was just like, oh, what do I do with Styrofoam I don't know what to do with Styrofoam.
So, when I switch materials, There are just new limitations, and then there are, of course, some new possibilities, too. In some cases, it's really a very different mental shift. It's a mental change. I've been trying to learn, oh man, I'm just like I haven't made any work about this yet, but I've been trying to learn basic electronic circuitry. In order to understand how to make certain sounds. And um, I am a total novice at it. And it is such a linear way of thinking. Compared to how I approach drawing or painting, I don't approach it in a linear way. I don't approach it with, like, a first, then this, then this, then this, then this, um, because I work very slowly and I accumulate things that come back out of each other, cut things apart, put them back together. And I think that linearity shapes how I think when I kind of get into that space. And it's also informing me when I'm going back to a drawing. How does this feel a little bit connected to a building, a sound circuit rider trying to make square waves.
But I do like that question of changing personas. (I know that Beyonce has multiple personas for different modes, and I like to think that, you know, like, maybe at some point, I'll give some names to my different identities. Maybe, yeah, maybe I will become such a fierce at some point here. I'll let you know, I'll let you know.)
Keyi Zhang: Why do we (young artists) need to be interdisciplinary?
Tim Nickodemus: Well I am not going to be an anxious teacher which gets two answers and how political of me? I really think learning a discipline has its value and learning a discipline deeply is a really valuable thing. And if somebody is pursuing a life in art, that’s gonna happen. They are sicking out the support they need, such as school and community, including the community you are building. You know I think about my experience, in college, I took 3 painting classes ever. And then I went to graduate school and then it’s like you are not gonna take painting classes, but you need to teach painting class. However, there is no way that in three semesters, I had learned everything that I need to know about. So I took on myself and I sought out meteors and advisors to dive deeper into that content in that discipline. And that’s really rewarding because then I thought like I was taking some ownership over my education, maybe my life a bit. And I was really committed to something. That’s a very rewarding experience because you got to see the results. I think that’s the benefit of a disciplinary. And through that, I knew that I wasn’t just going to be painting for the rest of my life (or at least it hasn't been), and that I was interested in points of connection and I am always been interested in conversation and talking with people who were different from me, and I suppose that’s part of the reason I been drawn towards teaching, to have these meaningful conversations with students, other faculty, and staff. Those are these moments of overlap, like I mentioned, like the three of you have different views and values that you bring to your practice. And you share ideas with one another and eventually you will find a space, maybe not easily pindown to one type of discipline, and you are basically making your own very subjective discipline, and I think that relates to choosing a life as a creative practitioner or producer. It's like You get to make it up.
Some people are really drawn to only doing one thing, it’s like the Gorge Marina style like I am only going to paint still life for fifty years. What a phenomenal commitment that is. But that is not necessarily..that is pretty weird for people to do that. Instead, people are gonna find some languages between moving images and sculpture. And they do not necessarily worry about what kind of preset categories they are forced into and the knowledge they need to accumulate doesn't fit easily into a single discipline or a preset discipline. Wanting to be an artist is kind of finding a territory you don’t know much about and maybe that’s because other people haven't spent much time in. Sometimes that’s hyper-specific, sometimes it’s very broad. So I think it’s rewarding to be disciplined-oriented. And I think choosing a life in art is going to lead one towards an interdisciplinary approach. And if you are not interdisciplinary at all if you are really strict about it, who the hell are you gonna talk with? Because nobody is out there doing what you are doing, so you're gonna foster some dialogs with other people, that’s gonna be what keeps you going.
INTERVIEWER: KE ZHANG, WANTONG YAO, CHENYU LIN
EDITOR: WANTONG YAO, KE ZHANG