In this blog interview, Niki McQueen lays bare the intricate threads of her artistic evolution, offering insights into her inspirations, techniques, and the driving forces behind her creations. Her openness and authenticity shed light on the transformative power of art and the endless possibilities that lie within creative expression.
Q1: Can you take us back to the beginning of your artistic journey? What sparked your interest in art, and how did it evolve over time?
A: Art is the first thing I remember winning a prize for and being good at. I won a local art contest when I was about 5 and from then on, my parents always encouraged me to develop my art skills. I studied art after class, outside school and did it as a matric subject at school. I put in a lot of overtime at the school studio, and with the tuition of an excellent, broad-minded and passionate art teacher. As a teenager, I fell in love with the surrealists …and remain fascinated by and inspired by them. Sadly, studying art after school wasn’t an option for me and I followed my second love, science, which I had a bursary for. After obtaining my MSc in marine biology in 2002, I followed where life lead and have worked in the field of communications, graphic design, marketing and web development for the majority of my life. I love my day job and the graphic design skills I’ve taught myself have fed into my artistic process significantly.
The art I make now, I only started making during the COVID pandemic, so there was a roughly 30-year break from school art until then. I never stopped dreaming about making art someday and during that time, I did pick up my brushes from time to time and take the odd course, but nothing that stuck.
My current artistic technique emerged from experimentation with hand-printing following an online ASTAR art therapy workshop I did with Lindy Solomon, in the first couple of weeks of the COVID lockdown (March 2020). The workshop was a lot of working with subconscious and unconscious cues prompted by meditation and reflection over a 10-day period. After it was finished, I realised I had a lot more in me, and thus began the journey I have walked with my art-making, which is a 6-10 step process that I have gradually developed, refined and perfected over the last three and a half years.
Nothing could ever have prepared me for the flood of inspiration, the wild imaginings, the torrent of emotional, mental and psychological metaphors that emerged, and at last, a technique that allowed me to express them which came after the holding back for 30 years. I first met the wonderful art educator and portfolio development specialist, Ilhaam Stoloff, during the art-drought years. She was to become my current mentor and a pivotal part of my journey and success. We reconnected when I joined her amazing online art course a few months into Covid. With Ilhaam’s expert tutelage, I learned how to channel and express my imaginings. She is a deeply talented and thoughtful person, and through her, I learned be more mindful and deliberate, and less rash and impatient with my expressive energy.
My artistic journey took off beyond my wildest expectations after I started posting my artworks on Facebook, for my friends to see. Within a couple of weeks, had my first sales enquiry. I never dreamed I would one day sell artwork, let alone over 100 pieces in 3 years. I consider myself blessed to have the generous and supportive friends I do, and that I was introduced to people willing to give me a chance. I was exhibiting and signed with a gallery within 8 months of making my first work and I have placed in a few local art competitions including Sasol New Signatures, as well as getting a chance to collaborate with Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls, which I’m very proud of.
Since 2020, I have honed and refined the technique I use, which involves creating digital composites that I turn into physical artworks. Over the years I have added materials, steps and methods. It’s all been experimenting, learning and growing, with advice from literally anyone who could put up with my constant stream of questions.
Q 2: Your artworks are imbued with personal symbolism and magical realism. Could you share some insights into the themes and concepts that drive your creative process?
A: I’ve experienced significant complex trauma in my lifetime, which has definitely influenced my work. Domestic abuse and sexual assault, a loathing of constructs like the patriarchy, a complex dislike of organised religion, and economic and gender injustices, current events, dream- and wish- fulfilment and inner-child work, are all themes and concepts which come out in my artworks. I start by getting ideas and inspiration from many sources, including personal awakenings, memories, emotional and psychological triggers, dreams and practically through extensive image searches. Ideas and concepts for artworks, metaphors and scenarios are called or prompted by thoughts or feelings which come up during my searches, which I undertake in an almost meditative way, following my feelings and allowing my intuition to guide me. I take these “trigger concepts” and develop them with other elements until they become a cohesive composition which works both emotionally and psychologically to ‘resolve’ or speak to the initial creative sparks, memories, awakenings or dreams.
As I say in my artist statement, my artworks are manifestations of an urgent, unquenchable need for the expression of years of unspoken truths, unthought thoughts, unfelt feelings, unfulfilled longings, losses, triumphs, lessons and personal evolution.
Q3. Surrealism, Jungian theory, vintage illustration, anatomy, and biology – your influences are truly diverse. How do these elements come together to shape your unique artistic voice?
A: Old library and museum collections, vintage book, advert, poster and newspaper illustrations and vintage biological, scientific and medical image collections are always my starting point. I spend hours poring over beautiful and strange old engravings, etchings, drawings, diagrams and lithographs and reading about the artists who made them. Without fail, one or more images or image fragments, symbols or allegories will stand out. I will gently probe them and start the process of creation, replying on my instincts and feelings.
Choosing images is often initially a subconscious process, and I encourage myself to think and analyse as little as possible, especially in the early stages of creation. I engage in a meditative process of tweaking, searching, addition, subtraction, merging and layering elements into a digital composite, until visual metaphors resolve into a composition that makes sense to me on a deeper level I cannot really name. The elements I choose to use in an artwork are often anachronous, very different from one another and generally comprise dramatic and surreal juxtapositions. I rely on the physical part of my process – drawing, painting, and adding colour, to unify them fully, and shape them into a cohesive whole.
Q4: Your portfolio is divided into two distinct styles: surrealistic, symbolic art and whimsical, light-hearted decorative pieces. Could you elaborate on the inspirations behind these two facets of your work?
A: The styles you mention in my work cover everything from deep examinations of dreams, desires, memories, and traumas to more innocent dream-and wish fulfilment work.
The light and playful work (I call this portfolio Life Beyond Reason), often featuring children and animals, speaks to the flashes of a childhood that was magical and surreal at times, and inner-child therapy, which I have benefited from significantly. Through connecting with facets of the playful inner child, I’m able to contact an innocence and wonder I thought was long gone, and these works flow from this process. They often consist of a ‘witness’ and a ‘wonder’ and are either stories I tell myself, or are sometimes self-referential in obscure ways. They can be things I may have once wished for or dreamed of, or things my inner children wish for or dream of.
A lot of the more surreal and symbolic art (Niki McQueen Art) I make is almost a process of channeling psychological and emotional disturbances or realisations and happens on a subconscious level. There are works I set out to make deliberately trying to capture, express of comment on a particular topic, but a lot of the work I make emerges and develops subconsciously. Much of this work will take me days, weeks or months to create, understand, contextualise and explain.
Q5: Life Beyond Reason seems to exude a sense of playfulness. Can you tell us more about the emotions and messages you aim to convey through this collection?
A: I absolutely set out to create an air of magical realism in these works – to tell a story or better still, invite the viewer to create their own narrative around the image. Some are just my mind having fun- an odd sense of humour coming out to play, but mostly I make them to bring people joy, hope and happiness.
The fairytale pictures are often accompanied by small verses and led to the publishing of my first book, prompted by some fairytale work going viral on social media, and repeated requests from my followers. In the pictures and verses, I try to capture the innocence, wonder and curious excitement of childhood, which too many of us seem to lose as adults. I like to think that anything is possible somewhere, or one day, maybe in one of an infinite number of universes or maybe, with imagination, openness, and wonder, inside the mind of the viewer.
Q6: The Deckle Edge seems to hold a special place in your artistic journey. Could you share what draws you to shop there, and how it has contributed to your creative exploration as well as what your favourite art supplies from us are?
A: The Deckle Edge is my happy-place. Most people would picture a sun-drenched beach or a peaceful lake when asked, I picture your shop!
You have experienced, knowledgeable and very friendly staff, who always recognise me and have been extremely patient over the years with my endless barrage of questions. If it weren’t for their advice at the beginning of my journey, the terms ‘lightfast’ and ‘archival’ could not have applied to my work! Following their advice has helped me develop art that is both appealing, long-lasting and professional. They know I love to experiment and always show me new things when I come in.
You also have an excellent product range – certainly the best I have encountered in South Africa. I use some very obscure things I have to import and a few of the materials I use are very hard to find nowadays – I can always rely on the Deckle Edge to order them in for me.
Some of my favourite products are:
- 640gsm or 300gsm Fabriano Artistico hot pressed paper
- Copic Multiliners
- Unipin fineliners
- Inks – all the non-acrylic ones
- Dr PH Martins liquid watercolours
- Copic markers, refills and nibs
- Faber Castell Pitt pastel pencils
- Metallic leaf and accessories
- Acrylic pens (Posca and similar)
- Metallic pens of any kind
- Chrome pens (a recent discovery) – yum!
- All the watercolour pencil ranges
- Derwent Inktense pencils
- Every paintbrush imaginable
- Schmincke universal sealant, Aquadrop, liquid charcoal and masking fluids – I would probably buy Schmincke EVERYTHING if I could!
Q7: Many aspiring artists find inspiration in the educational path of established creators. What did you study, and how has your academic background influenced your art?
A: I had no formal art training after school, but what I learned at school and in an extra-curricular capacity, I think prepared me in a small way for what has developed into a calling. My studies of botany, anatomy and zoology at university, have influenced my aesthetic a lot, and are where I first fell in love with vintage illustration. My abiding interest in behaviour and psychology, which began as a teenager and coincided with my discovery of the surrealists, has also had a great influence on my work.
I haven’t ruled out formally studying art in future and I do have mixed feelings about being self-taught – I’m sometimes insecure that I’m not a ‘real artist’ because I don’t have the academic background, but my work has received accolades from academics, and at the end of the day I make and sell art to a global audience. It’s probably something I will always battle with – I know a lot of other self-taught artists who have similar feelings from time to time.
Conversely, there are times I’m glad I didn’t have a formal art education, because so much of what I have achieved has been through experimentation with nontraditional materials and methods. A lot of my successes have resulted from trying new things that those with formal education maybe wouldn’t consider using, simply because I didn’t know any better or take it too seriously when I started.
Doing Ilhaam’s course, “Developing your Artistic Identity” was very influential, and her influence has been pivotal in learning to both analyse and understand what I create, and in creating art that is meaningful, polished, and deliberate. Having someone to tell me when my work was not up to scratch or was just downright awful, was as, if not more important than having people praise my work.
Q8: Your artworks are available as original pieces or limited-edition fine art prints. How do you approach the process of transforming your creations into these different formats?
A: To make my original physical artworks, I first use my digital skills to build up composites, which can contain over 50 image-fragments from the public domain collections I mentioned.
Once the digital image is complete, which can take days to months (I’m always working on more than one at a time), I will start making the physical artwork. I create a handmade underprint of the scene on 640gsm or 300gsm Fabriano Artistico hot pressed (my go-to paper), and then I hand-draw the entire composition with ultra-fine liners, unifying and balancing the arrangement, adding elements and further refining the work, after which I add the background washes and colour using mixed media which includes watercolour, inks, metallic leaf and a whole lot more. As hand-printing is at the heart of my process, I make between 1 and 10 limited edition original variants of each work I produce (except commissions, of which I only make 1). No two are exactly alike and they are all created with a mind to capturing the soul of the original artwork.
This is an example showing a comparison between the first and second editions of Perfect Ruin:
I also offer 10 – 30 limited-edition premium-grade giclee prints (signed and unsigned, which determines the price) of my surreal and symbolic work, which are produced on Hahnemühle German Etching paper.
For the fairytale work, I offer unlimited giclee prints, of both standard and premium quality. For local buyers, I use Orms and Studio 22 to print and deliver my works. As I have many overseas buyers, I partner with 3 print companies in the UK and the US to produce prints which cuts down on shipping costs, unless the buyer specifically wants a signed print, in which case I have it printed here and ship it overseas.
Q 9: As a woman artist, do you feel your gender has influenced your work or your experience within the art industry? Could you share your insights on women’s representation in the art world?
A: I think it cannot be overstated enough how underrepresented women have been in the art world, historically. It’s a discussion that needs to stay alive and loudly so, until a state of equality is reached.
I think historically, women artists have faced overt challenges such as restricted access to and opportunities for education and exhibition, to more subtle discriminations, like the style and subject matter they were expected to focus on. Quite simply, historically, women have been taken less seriously as artists until recently, and it is still an uphill battle for many of us.
While there have been improvements over time, I think there’s still a way to go to achieve gender equality in the art world. Gender disparities still exist in gaining access to exhibition spaces and galleries, the valuation of artworks, institutional recognition and in the spheres of leadership and decision-making such as gallery owners, curators, and museum directors. These inequalities could definitely affect the overall direction and inclusivity of the industry.
There are two powerful catalysts for change that I see: feminist art movements that have inspired dialogue and change within the art world, and the emergence of digital platforms as ‘gallery spaces’, has provided women artists with new opportunities to showcase their work outside of traditional gallery-driven systems. Online spaces have the potential to equalise visibility and recognition, but I also think that the inclusion of women’s voices in curatorial decisions are vital in working toward a more equitable art industry. I am represented by two galleries currently, but a lot of the work I have sold has been via online enquiries from social media platforms.
With regards to gender-based subject matter, I most often choose to focus on universal subjects. I do however, embrace my gender and have produced many works which incorporate feminist or gender-related themes, some of which I’m glad to say, have sparked heated discussions and dislike from MRA-aligned people, online.
Q 10: What advice do you have for aspiring artists, especially those who are navigating the early stages of their creative journey?
- First and foremost, trust your gut. Learn to take criticism gracefully…encourage it and absorb it like a sponge, but never be afraid to disagree with someone more experienced if your gut tells you you’re right.
- Find your forte. The thing / material / technique you are best at. It will give you direction and free you up to express yourself – it took me 30 years, but I got there in the end.
- Experiment! Never be afraid to try new and non-traditional things and add them to your repertoire. Never be afraid to ask questions of literally anyone who you think can help or advise you – asking costs nothing and a ‘no’ isn’t the end of the world.
- Do your homework – art is more than just being talented, it required hard work, research, and knowledge. Learn from others, watch tutorials, go to workshops…. whatever it takes.
- Don’t let people define you, your style or your purpose – those are things to work out, with guidance, for yourself.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Some of my best work has been produced in collaboration with other artists – we ignite each other when we work together. Network and make friends with other artists – people you can exchange ideas with and mutually use as sounding boards. I usually work in consultation.
- Art is not for sissies! The art world and the world in general, are not fair or equitable places. You need to mentally prepare yourself for disappointment, criticism and rejection. Equally, you need to mentally prepare yourself for success – it can be overwhelming when it happens.
- Be authentic. You cannot universally satisfy everybody, ever.
- Share your work with anyone who will look at it, be it online or in an art class – it might seem daunting at first, showing your soul to the world, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly that changes. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
- The muse is real – sometimes she’s there, sometimes she takes a well-earned break. Your creative energy will experience highs and lows. Don’t be afraid you’ve lost it when you hit a low ebb or feel stale, use it to consolidate, regroup, rest and reflect – don’t give up! You will come back stronger every time.
- Don’t skimp on art supplies: buy less, spend more. I save up and get the better brands (especially in certain areas like colour and sealants) – it’s been worth it. Quality over quantity has become a motto for me.
- Make sure you learn about business and marketing as well as art. Your talent might be breath-taking, but if you don’t believe in yourself and market yourself, it might go unseen.
- Read the fine print! If you are signing with a gallery or asked to do a commission work, always have a contract or consignment agreement in place, and get someone that has experience in the art world, that you trust, to go through it with you.
- Never undervalue your own work. Do not forget how much of yourself you put into your art when you sell it. There are formulas for working out how much to charge for your artwork – either use one or check with someone more experienced how much they feel you can charge.
Q 11: Looking ahead, what exciting projects or developments can we expect from Niki McQueen Art in the near future?
I’m currently collaborating with Amanda Palmer on a cover for a new single she’s releasing, and possibly with the Dresden Dolls on more tour artwork (I made the artwork for their 2023 reunion tour last year). She’s an amazing artist to collaborate with and I always enjoy doing so.
I am planning to crowdfund a tarot deck, which a lot of my social media followers have requested – it will be a very long project, but I’m quite excited about it. I will also most likely start approaching more galleries this year with a view to exhibiting my work. I am also, thanks to some great advice from Marke Meyer, slowly making some very large format works, which are both very striking and very challenging!
Q12: Is there anything else you would like to share?
A: If I may, I would like the acknowledge and thank the people I feel have helped me on this exceptional journey, because without them, there would have been no art:
- Ilhaam Stoloff, my friend and art mentor without whom literally none of this would have happened. From putting up with the late-night messages, for being honest, and for the ever-encouraging words of love and support. This woman is a gem, and the best teacher I have ever had.
- Marke Meyer and Margherita Introna who reached out to me when I was at my lowest ebb and have offered me invaluable assistance as well as art and business advice.
- To my buyers and collectors, without whom I would most definitely not have kept on keeping on.
- Dirk Durnez from Art at Africa, my first gallery representative, without whose brilliant ideas, my work would not be what it is now.
- Isabel Roos, for her guidance, and Michelle Lewis and Ros Goodson, who currently represent me in their galleries.
- Leona Sykes, for believing in me.
- Gordon Froud, for his encouragement.
- Amanda Palmer, who is an exceptional musician, artist, writer and performer, for her kindness, her authenticity and her spirit, which have long inspired me. And to The Dresden Dolls, who chose me and dragged me kicking and screaming outside of my comfort zones.
- My insanely talented artist friends from all over the world, including my best friend Anthony, and Josh, Anika, Kristen, Tania and Thandi (and all of you, who, thanks to brain -fog and not dementia, I cannot remember just now).
- My followers, friends and supporters on social media – you kept me going when I was determined to quit. I see you and I love you.
- Last but not least, my parents, which is where words fail me.
Niki McQueen’s artistic journey is a testament to the enduring magic of self-expression. Through whimsical tales and profound symbolism, Niki invites us to explore her inner world. As she forges ahead with collaborations and innovative projects, her story reminds us of the boundless potential of creativity.
Related blog post you might like: