Nicki Werner – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Chief Keef to Malcolm X, from Drift series, wood, paint, spatula, towel, Autobiography of Malcolm X book

Chief Keef to Malcolm X, from Drift series, wood, paint, spatula, towel, Autobiography of Malcolm X book

Briefly describe the work you do.

My art practice both is and is inspired by ethnographies. The work deals with symbols that reveal specific class, race, age, gender, and familial relations. I paint signs and make sculptures out of wood, found objects, fibers, all sorts of things. Sometimes I write essays and do live or recorded performances. I focus on the ways in which we construct our own identities and conversely, how identities are constructed for us, as both individuals and collectives. The personal is political. I want my art to contribute alternative ways of knowing to important political issues of our time. My art is part of conversations that are happening in investigative journalism, anthropology, media studies, and more. As such, current events and news are a big part of the work.

Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.

Throughout my life I, like most people, have been on various sides of lines that stratify class, race, and other markers of identity in extreme ways. I will touch on a few. I grew up in St.Louis, Missouri, an extremely segregated city in regards to both race and class. I went to private school, but only because I lived in a city district with a failed public school system. I’ve worked many different types of blue and white-collar jobs. Also, being an artist sometimes puts me in a unique, both sides position in regards to “high” and “low” culture. Drawing from these experiences, my art is about validating forms of culture that are sometimes seen as less legitimate producers of knowledge.

My Mom wore her nice shoes to work and hurt her knee moving pallets, wood, yarn, rubber, sandbags, pine-sol

My Mom wore her nice shoes to work and hurt her knee moving pallets, wood, yarn, rubber, sandbags, pine-sol

The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”

Being in the studio is important to me. Messing around, taping stuff together, even writing in a room that is full of my stuff- of my ideas materialized, makes connections happen for me in a way that I can’t seem to imitate (not without lack of trying) on the internet or in other non-studio spaces. That being said, observing and gathering from real life, both mine and other peoples’, is a big part of my process. That happens in many places, in many ways.

What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?

The un-hiring because of his public opinions of Steven Salaita from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this summer has been a kind of landmark case in a long string of rising condemnations of public intellectuals both inside and outside of academia in the last couple years. These, and other, events- the Mike Brown protests most importantly- have made me feel a particular sense of urgency about being public. I am still trying to figure out what that means, for my voice, for my art. This summer I co-taught a weeklong place-making workshop for neighborhood kids at a park in the Riverworks/Keefe area in Milwaukee. We built an inflatable structure, then drummed and danced inside. It was great. I guess I never necessarily envisioned how important organizing people around art is, and that has become a huge part of what I do.

untitled monument from “My Book to Help America” project, lamp, rubberbands, package wrapped in paper scrawled with “Trayvon Martin”, melted plastic, work pants, pedestal

untitled monument from “My Book to Help America” project, lamp, rubberbands, package wrapped in paper scrawled with “Trayvon Martin”, melted plastic, work pants, pedestal

When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can? 

Making art is a privilege. Having a studio is a privilege. Having access to the facilities and resources I need is a privilege. I find that at more and less privileged times in my life the answer to this question is different. Right now I have the advantage of being able to teach at a college. This, and other specific freedoms, allows me to make and think and write and be immersed in my research all time without many obstacles. I tend to be a late night studio person when I my schedule allows. From another perspective- that still involves privilege- I think that being an artist is about building the life you want to live, building it in a way that makes your art life part of your whole life, your day to day life.

How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?

I think in the last five years sign-painted and using words directly has almost taken over the work. I often feel like I am fighting against it. That said, it isn’t something I see going away any time soon. Even though materials and forms shift often and in big ways in my work, understanding bigger collective struggles through individuals and materials has always been there.

Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?

In some ways my work is entirely about influence of other people. I even have a piece titled “Top Artistic Influences”, which lists my main influences since childhood. It includes such disparate types of thinkers as Malcolm X, Nicki Minaj, Bruno Latour, Claudette Colvin, Edmonia Wildfire Lewis, Wacka Flocka, the Spice Girls, Hilary Duff, Pocahontas, Donald Judd, Odd Future, Donna Haraway, and more. It is in the specifics of these types of listings and references in my work that politics become most articulated.

To answer in a less researchy way, my grandma has always been an essential role model and cultivator for my art endeavors. She took me to my first real museum experience, “The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican” at the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998. She was a graphic artist by profession who drew everything from women’s shoes and gloves for newspaper ads to detailed diagrams of Boeing airplane engines for instruction manuals. Outside of work she loved to paint animals, children, saints, popes, and angels. I think the sincerity of her aesthetic and content has had a huge impact, in both very direct and indirect ways.

If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?

I still want to be a serious, rigorous writer, writing about politics and art. Mostly because there are things that I wish were being said.


headshotNicki Werner is an artist who lives and work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her BFA in sculpture and Art History from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa in 2009 and her MFA from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2012. She has been exhibiting for 9 years at venues including Art Chicago at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, the Anderson Gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was a visiting assistant professor of art at Illinois State University in 2012-2013, and an artist-in-residence at Redline Milwaukee in 2013-2014. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of art at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

Detail of piece in progress

Detail of piece in progress

All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.



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