Tabitha Nikolai

Tabitha Nikolai

Please tell us a little about yourself…

Hi, I'm Tabi! I'm an interdisciplinary visual artist and sometimes curator, and sometimes educator based in Portland. I make installations and sculptures that help me process a chaotic world and make sense of myself within it. The things I do almost always include some digital components--virtual environments in the Unity game engine, and 3d prints are fairly common in my work--this is because I spent (and spend) many formative years online and in game worlds. I grew up trashgender in Salt Lake City, Utah, and digital environments were both respites from tough physical/social circumstances and also allowed me to manifest facets of my identity that were otherwise repressed. I strive to work in modes that feel honest to this cybercultural experience and produce things that I think would have better sustained my younger self: arty non-linear videogames, cosplay, perler beadwork, and earnest rights of suburban occult.

Utopia Without You by Tabitha Nikolai at Williamson | Knight

Photo credit Mario Gallucci

What's your background in art? How did art making first find its way into your life?

The earliest and most profound experience that I can remember with art was seeing the pewter Dungeons and Dragons figurines that my mother painted for my uncle. They were so tiny and detailed and evocative of such an incredible expansiveness beyond what I saw in other media as a kid. My uncle would let me page through his Monster Manual and I was similarly so enchanted by all these really stilted black and white crosshatch drawings of creatures. Knowing that they all had these stats and descriptive text that I couldn't yet read made the sense of possibility about them feel all the more profound. As a teen I would go on to run countless DnD and Vampire the Masquerade games for people. I think playing games like this can be really invaluable for fostering a capacity for understanding different paradigms, and growing empathy. It's where I first started consciously identifying with monsters, which is a big element in my work.   

Utopia Without You by Tabitha Nikolai at Williamson | Knight

Photo credit Mario Gallucci

What advice would you offer to people interested in pursuing a career in the arts?

Oof. It would really depend on what that meant to them, which I guess would be my first piece of advice. The art world is very multifaceted, so learn to identify those facets and think about the parts you're genuinely interested in, but also don't let yourself be pigeon holed. Most people trying to be artists are really just reproducing things that LOOK like Art rather than making things that they truly need to make or that meaningfully push creative discourse. But I guess "career" doesn't imply creative satisfaction or innovation, it implies $$$. I've never found a great way of doing that because most of what I do isn't terribly salable. I think most of the people who appear to be sustaining a career in art are in fact living off of generational wealth or sponsored by their spouses or something like that. So probably finding a sugar parent is your best bet. Zombie Formalism seemed to work well for a lot of people for awhile, so identifying the next version of that is probably a good idea. Blandness/palatability, proximity to whiteness, willingness to exploit your tokenization, and networking are all good strategies too. I know I sound really snide, but it's also really true. It can be a very dark world to get into and people need to be more honest about that. Lots of feelings here.   

What keeps you motivated and engaged in your creative practice and how do you maintain it? 

I'm fortunate to be pretty distractable and have a terrible memory so there's always lots of new experiments to try! My work is also very much the way I process things like transness, and the impact of new technologies on the social fabric, and these things are moving targets, so that helps. I don't come from a technical background so learning Unity and VR, which are so powerful, is pretty endlessly enthralling. They're also primarily used to produce very conventional media so it's really fun to find ways to subvert their purpose and make things that wouldn't otherwise get made, but are nevertheless quite media rich. It's also very important for me to produce things in collaboration with people--to see what kind of new meanings we can produce (maybe optimistically these could be called counter-narratives?) but also just to do solidarity and distribute money to people who need it and have a hard time getting it from more conventional capitalist institutions (jobs.)

Could you describe a moment, experience or situation that profoundly changed or influenced your work? 

I don't know if I have a singular one. In college Sue Coe visited and instead of delivering a normal artist talk lectured graphically about all the terrible aspects of factory farming. It was very intense and helped open my conception of what and how artists can discuss their values. I did a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah, on an abandoned military base where the Enola Gay was housed for a time, and Matthew Coolidge, the founding director, took us around to all these far flung military installations in the desert, and likewise it expanded my understanding about the amorphousness of art and it's capacities to address the violence of history. Other really invaluable situations have been when I came to the realization that there are types of art, or scenes, or people who do gross things in art scenes that I just don't have to care about, or aspire to have anything to do with. It's very freeing when you can stop chasing petty things, or things that are a bad fit, for the sake of social capital.  

Utopia Without You by Tabitha Nikolai at Williamson | Knight

Photo credit Mario Gallucci

Do you have a favorite artist(s), in general, and/or right now?

Porpentine, Ajay Kurian, Anicka Yi,  

Are you currently working on any projects you can share with us?

A couple! I have a solo show opening next month at Western Oregon University's Cannon Gallery called Nightcore Deep Cuts which is a remix of older work and work I haven't shown in Oregon before, which sort of ponders the need to remix and accelerate one's practice to be remotely viable economically. I'm also part of a collaborative project called Sex Temples with Portland artist Garima Thakur, and we'll be having our first real show this December in Seattle's SOIL gallery. The show questions early memories of sexuality & gender through the lens of hybridity (cultural, sexual, historical & textual) illustrating experiences that are both mundane and traumatic. There will be neon, and a mobile on the ceiling, custom incense, and a new video game!

Screen-grab from the video game Ineffable Glossolalia taken by Nikolai

Screen-grab from the video game Shrine Maidens of the Unseelie Court taken by Nikolai

Aby Henry

Aby Henry

Claiborne Colombo

Claiborne Colombo

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