An artist and educator of over 20 years, Nicole Havekost deeply understands the power of art when discovering and developing one’s voice and curiosity. From her initial influences of watching cartoons, her foundational courses at the Rhode Island School of Design, to her affinities with multidisciplinary artist Kiki Smith, sculptor and fiber artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, and installation artist Annette Messager, Havekost understands the range of agency of the visual arts and shows her advocacy through all aspects of her practice.
We took the opportunity to ask Havekost about her exhibition, “Chthonic,” currently on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through June 26. Through her anthropomorphic sculptures Nicole Havekost explores the simultaneous joy, sublime embarrassment, and disorderly beauty of the human body.
The felt and hand-stitched figures included in “Chthonic” range from five to 14 feet in height and feature details that suggest a human body stripped of artifice, illusion, and proportion. Works of this size are a first for Havekost. “I wanted the figures to aggressively take up space in a way I didn’t allow myself to, that women generally don’t allow themselves to,” Havekost says. “The scale of these sculptures is powerful, not pretty. But at the same time, the way they are positioned implies vulnerability.” “Nicole Havekost takes the body—a form that has been celebrated and deified throughout art history—and exaggerates it, softens it, and distorts it in a way that unsettles yet evokes affection at the same time,” says Mia’s assistant curator of contemporary art Nicole Soukup.
Here we get some insights on Havekost’s intentions and her advice for other artists dealing with rejection.
“Chthonic” comes in a time where everyone is still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. With this pandemic, many people are more conscious of the fragility of older people and people with pre-existing conditions. For everyone, we had to decide on whether or not we were protecting ourselves and others who needed the extra consideration. Has the pandemic transformed the way you look at this body of work?
Nicole Havekost: The pandemic hasn’t transformed the way I look at the work, but showed me so clearly how interconnected we are, how fleeting this life is and how lucky I am to be engaged in a practice that brings me comfort and allows me to process these experiences with my hands.
This exhibition displays your largest work yet. What are some of the similarities and differences between working at smaller and larger scales?
Nicole Havekost: The similarities of working at these two very different scales is in my process. I often have an idea about what something could look like, but don’t quite know how to get there. I have to figure it out. How do I get a dolls’ limbs to turn into forks and spoons? Or make a giant lady that stands upright? I try a bunch of things, find people who have more experience than I do who can counsel me and try to be open to all the possibilities without attaching to a particular outcome. I’ve made small work most of my career which lets me sit with a cat on the desk and watch new Netflix shows. These new large figures required me to use my whole body and challenge the way I had previously thought about space.
My femininity has often been a mystery to even me. Putting the focus on the female allowed me to explore contradictions in my own experiences that often felt universal to the women I shared them with.
As you were making the pieces onsite at the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s U.S. Bank Gallery, you mentioned some intuitive decisions, like removing the heads of the figures so they were less human-like. How did the interactions between the animal-like forms in your exhibition develop?
Nicole Havekost: I decided prior to the installation that heads were not right for the figures, but I didn’t know why. The figures were playing twister in my studio, all intertwined and I didn’t get a sense that they were also animalistic until I got them to the gallery and they got some space. I wanted them to have relationships with one another so they weren’t individually on display but were a community. I had a sense that certain gestures would complement one another and tell a larger story.
When was a time when your body shared desires and needs that were counter to what you had in mind?
Nicole Havekost: I have two examples—a body needs both rest and moderation. For many years, I was an obsessive athlete who had little interest in either. I pushed hard and relied on my stamina and will. Over time, I had to come to understand that my body’s limits, whether a cold or stress fracture would protect my longevity. Now I am in perimenopause and the undercarriage is like a murder scene. My body needs to age out of these hormones and functions, and although I don’t want any more children, the symptoms that come along with that are not my happy place.
In your filmed Artist Talk, you mentioned applying to the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) several times. Through your applications, how did your proposal improve each time? Could you share any resources or feedback for artists making similar exhibition proposals?
Nicole Havekost: I think I applied six or seven times to the program and with each proposal my intention for the work, my understanding of how my work would engage the space and what I wanted the audience to experience with the work became clearer. The best resource for writing proposals, grant applications, etc. is to put drafts in front of the people you trust; find support that will be honest and understand what you are about. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Ask for feedback on your rejections if it is available. Decide what you want and then get out of your own way so you can achieve it.
I am in a contest with an artist friend to see who can accumulate the most rejections in the next year, so I am applying to everything and anything. I intend to win the nachos that are the prize.
The figures are very feminine. You mentioned that you’d like the viewer to recognize their mothers, daughters or female partners in their lives. Why did you decide to put a focus on “the female”?
Nicole Havekost: I only know my experience. I am a daughter, wife, mother. I have felt misunderstood and unrecognized. My femininity has often been a mystery to even me. Putting the focus on the female allowed me to explore contradictions in my own experiences that often felt universal to the women I shared them with.
Do you find it difficult to nurture your creative spirit while also addressing the business side of being an artist—promotion, appealing to buyers and galleries?
Nicole Havekost: Flexibility is my goal. I tend to work in cycles, creating work for a period of time and then promoting that work. I am not really good at doing both simultaneously. When I start baking way too much I recognize I need to redirect my creative impulses and get back in the studio.
Tell us about your next big project.
Nicole Havekost: I am currently making a new figure for the exhibition “a glitter of seas” that will open June 4 through August 8 at Dreamsong in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am tentatively hoping to exhibit many of the ladies of “Chthonic” in a solo or two-person exhibition at the South Bend Museum of Art in the next two years. I am working on two separate Minnesota State Arts Board Grants, the Artist’s Initiative and Creative Support grants, to explore more sculptural fiber works as well as two-dimensional machine embroideries. And I am in a contest with an artist friend to see who can accumulate the most rejections in the next year, so I am applying to everything and anything. I intend to win the nachos that are the prize.