By Bascove
New York, NY, USA

Mentored by her great aunt – an artist in her own right – Nancy Nikkal has always known, that for her, the creative world was going to be the most absorbing and engaging.

Her primary mediums are painting and collage, but when called upon, printmaking also finds a place. She has innumerable techniques at hand, ready to go, like paint on a palette. Boldly, and without boundaries, she integrates these methods in the inventive and exciting ways that only a confident maker of art can. In her different “Series” collections of works, both thoughtful and playful, she explores the variations of her chosen colors and abstract forms.

As she became more recognized for her collage work, she was asked to teach the medium. Working with a videographer, she designed videos as tutorials that explain a few of her techniques. She also began writing about collage, researching early and contemporary practitioners.

BASCOVE: Your aunt was an artist and your father an artist and animator. What was it like growing up in that creative family?

NANCY NIKKAL: Knowing I came from a family of artists set the pattern for my life. I was six years old when my great aunt told my mother and father, “she’s an artist.” I was saddened that my father gave up a career as an animator, but I remember seeing him doodle perfect ballpoint pen images of Popeye and Bette Boop while talking on the phone, and I saw he was always creative in whatever he did. I felt a little guilty that he gave up his career in art and I was still able to pursue mine.

"Float" by Nancy Nikkal

BASCOVE: Did you also have more formal training?  

NANCY NIKKAL: I never took private art classes as a child, but art was always around me at home. I majored in art in high school and studied fine art at the School of Art at Syracuse University – attending for three semesters until I got mononucleosis and had to drop out of school. I took a job at New York University for several years because it allowed me to take art history courses that were offered in the evening. During this same period, I studied painting at the Art Students League. I was able to transfer all my credits to Hunter College, City University of New York, and received a BA degree in drawing and design. Postgraduate, I’ve studied printmaking, Photoshop, got a Masters in Arts’ Management and worked as a curator, gallery director, and instructor at art centers and museums. But, most important, living in the Metro NYC area allows me to attend lectures and get to museums and galleries often, so my art education is still a work in progress.

BASCOVE: Have you always worked in both painting and collage?

NANCY NIKKAL: Painting came first, collage followed, and painting and collage are current. My collages are analogue, but I also play with images and create collage media with Photoshop.

BASCOVE: In your more recent works I notice the classical elements of geometry: squares, triangles and circles, as the primary elements of expression. Was that a conscious decision in your exploration of abstract form?

NANCY NIKKAL: From the beginning, even in my earliest paintings, I’ve been attracted to the geometric grid as a design structure. I want the shapes (in paint or paper) to press against each other and compete for space.

"Black Force" by Nancy Nikkal

BASCOVE: Are there past or current artists who have been influential on how you approach your work?

NANCY NIKKAL: An artist friend introduced me to collage. My first collages were small in size and constructed with tiny papers cut from National Geographic magazines. I called these works “puzzle pieces.” Romare Bearden (African American, 1911-1988) was the first collage artist who inspired me. He worked with magazine papers, newspapers and Color Aid papers that have a dense surface with rich saturated colors. I love the way Bearden designed with color and geometric shapes. I learned he painted papers with watercolor, and I started to paint papers with acrylic to create my own collage media. Many NYC galleries and museums show Bearden’s works. His earliest collages are tiny, but the later ones are big.

Two other collage artists greatly inspire me. Kurt Schwitters (German, 1887-1948), is considered one of the most important collage artists in modern history. I love the way he used found papers with numbers and letters. And, Anne Ryan (American, 1889-1954), especially by the way she created small format Abstract Expressionist collages with delicate tiny scraps of fabric and handmade papers. MoMA has four Anne Ryan collages in its permanent collection, and Ryan’s works are now showing up in museum exhibitions more frequently.

BASCOVE: How did you begin teaching, and what do you enjoy most about it?

NANCY NIKKAL: I’ve been teaching for more than two decades, starting by doing workshops in connection with my own exhibitions at university galleries and Metro area art centers. Those were hands-on workshops related to my process and imagery. I developed exhibition-related collage workshops for the Newark Museum and the Morris Museum, both in New Jersey. My current teaching includes projects I design for classes at the Pelham Art Center (Pelham, NY).

"Forward Back" by Nancy Nikkal

I enjoy designing class projects each week that teach color, design, collage technique and art history inspired by a famous artist. I tell students they should never feel pressure to copy. I want them to learn to see and understand why a particular work is successful and why that artist is important. I love the sense of pride they feel with their successes. If I create a collage as a sample for a class project, I am making it and the process adds to my skill and understanding.

BASCOVE: You have made several videos about collage technique. How did they come about? 

NANCY NIKKAL: All the videos were created as tutorials about my collage process: how to paint papers, how to glue, and how to design a collage. People contact me with questions about the glue I use, and I offer free PDFs for some of the collage projects I teach.

Learning Collage with Nancy Nikkal

BASCOVE: You have interviewed and written about many collage artists, recently focusing on women collage artists. As an artist and teacher this must make great demands on your time; you must feel this is an important narrative. Has this had any influence on your own work?

NANCY NIKKAL: I’m always inspired by the skill, determinations and tenacity of the artists I interview or investigate. It makes me think about what it takes to succeed. Writing and browsing the Web takes time, but I love to see images and read what others have written, and feel the time is more than worthwhile and probably influences me in many ways.

BASCOVE: Can you explain your basic working process? You seem to move effortlessly from one medium to another. When working on a series, are the works decided by subject matter, design elements, materials?

NANCY NIKKAL: I want to explore media, color and technique, so always work in series to learn in depth. In the process, I also discover the context for why I make the work. The Metro series (60 works) was about learning to love the color green. I decided to explore variations in the color green to understand the color in an abstract context. I mixed a lot of different greens, from yellow green to brown green to blue green to grey green. I created painted papers and monoprint papers, then cut and pasted papers into grid-based collages that explore how colors interact and change optically when placed next to each other.

As I work, I want to be inspired by a previous work I’ve done, so typically have the earlier work directly opposite my worktable, pasted or hanging on the wall. I do not believe you can copy – not even your own work – so never expect to reproduce anything. I often change the size or shape of the paper substrate or canvas, and that will change all the design elements in the process. Once I start a collage, it takes off in whatever direction it needs, and I allow serendipity to happen.

Nancy Nikkal in her studio

BASCOVE: When I visited your studio, I saw some wonderful new pieces, from the Curvy Geometric series: round and curved shapes predominate, very different from the previous square and triangle forms. The color palette is also a departure, black eclipses and crescents with neutral surrounding color. I love the way you fearlessly include mono prints, painting, and layering papers and fabric. The size is so intimate it highlights the various textures of paint and paper. What did you want to explore in this elegant and strong group of works?

NANCY NIKKAL: The imagery is abstract, and colors are tonal whites, beiges and blacks. Each work explores open and closed circles, cut and pasted over or under each other. I purchased thin rice paper in natural warm tan with bamboo sticks embedded. I wanted to figure out how to use this paper. I was playing with layers and transparencies. I first cut and glued it down over paper that was painted with black acrylic. I loved the way the glue dried and a little of the black showed through the paper, especially because it varied in pattern and intensity and was unpredictable. Papers are touching, overlapping and layered so that texture and text show through.

The series was also about working with black and white painted papers and painted and raw canvas to show textures and the range within the colors. Color is important to me. I think even black and white are colors. Sometimes I paint black into the design after the papers are glued down. My black is never purely black – it’s a mix of carbon black, white and Nickel Azo yellow. My white is made with titanium white, a touch of black and Nickel Azo yellow. Sometimes I create black with Ultramarine blue and Burnt Sienna brown, allow the colors to show they’re not completely mixed and then work with other colors (blues) in the design that go together.

BASCOVE: What is do you think is most exciting happening in the field of collage right now?

NANCY NIKKAL: Collage is definitely happening – it's a concept and a practice. We live in the age of cut and paste. I see more and more critical attention to collage and want to help promote the collage aesthetic wherever and however I can.

BASCOVE: What would you like to do that you haven’t had the time or opportunity to explore?

NANCY NIKKAL: I plan to write a book about the artists who contribute and contributed to the Art of Collage. I would also like to create collage installations with sculptural pieces that connect in an open grid. The pieces would be mixed media – maybe paper, shaped canvas, ceramic or wood or a combination of all the different media.

Nancy Nikkal’s new works in the Curvy Geometric series, including collage and mixed media prints, were on view at the Art on Paper Fair March 5-8, 2020 at Pier 36 in NYC. She was one of six artists represented by the Upstream Gallery, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York that will also feature her work at the Gallery from April 30th – May 24th, 2020.




Bascove is a painter, author, lecturer and culture writer in New York City. Her paintings have been acquired by museums and private collectors all over the world. She is a frequent contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.