My Dear Sister: Leslie Nichols in the StudioOctober 30, 2015
NEA Studio Residency Grant recipient Leslie Nichols hunches over a table strewn with metal letters. She holds a ruler against her block, squinting as dim light from the Letterpress Studio glints off of the metal type. Several sheets of paper hang on the wall behind her, each with a woman’s portrait mirroring the type Leslie is setting. She takes her time, each word meticulously set and reset, remeasured and replaced.
In Leslie’s work, the history of the letterpress, of women’s words, and of portraiture combine to connect the visual, the literary, and the political. Her current practice started when she was given a typewriter ten years ago. With this, she created images of women through words. She began with simple phrases and original poems, then branched out to more complex, historical texts and imagery. While at WSW, Leslie experiments with the metal- and wood-type of the letterpress to create new rhythms and patterns in her portraits.
“I love math and puzzles, and both the letterpress and typewriter present problems in that language,” Leslie says.
In this body of work, Leslie is reimagining several pieces from her series Textual Portraits, creating portraits of contemporary women from classical feminists texts. “For me, the inclusion of text in portraits alludes to the idea that our lives are the creations of our minds,” Leslie writes in her statement about the series. “How we identify ourselves and label others is a product of social construction and our awareness of this construction.”
Across her practice, Leslie is concerned with the power dynamics connected to representation. In an early work which borrows words from Hélène Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Leslie draws a woman comprised of hand-written words bringing herself into being by writing. The text reads, “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” In Textual Portraits, Leslie researched and read several iconic works before she talked to her models and then, based on these conversations, she matched the texts to these women. The words of Virginia Woolf, Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and many others compose the faces of contemporary women just as their words influenced the world women experience today.
“These aren’t just women,” Leslie says, “they’re women made with women’s words. The portraits I create imply that our ideas and the way that we want to shape our lives and our world is a worthwhile thing.”
Fellow artist Siobhan Liddel’s portrait was the first that Leslie revisited at WSW. She used metal-type to create the form out of Sarah Grimke’s “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes,” a text that Leslie keeps returning to in her other works here. The phrase “My Dear Sister” is repeated in Siobhan’s face and throughout Leslie’s other letterpress portraits. With it, Leslie is addressing her subject, her audience, and women at large. Her work becomes a love letter to the print medium and fellow women.
While experimenting with the letterpress, Leslie became interested in the physically larger and graphically compelling wood-type. In previous portraits, she sacrificed a level of readability for the more detailed form of the portrait. The wood-type abstracts both the portrait and the language in favor of the essential forms of the letters, foregrounding the moveable type itself. With these works, Leslie is directly addressing the medium itself and its history. Printing has always been used as a tool for protest and action, and it underwent a renaissance in the hands of politically-oriented feminist artists of the 1970s—the context in which WSW itself was born. These women felt that the labor of printmaking and its democratic, collective spirit could be used to express their feminism, a sentiment familiar to Leslie’s practice.
“It’s great to be in this environment where you have all of these women that are achieving and making great things,” Leslie says. “As a woman, to not only be taken seriously but also supported in what I’m making is invaluable.”
Leslie Nichols is a Kentucky-based artist whose primary artistic tool is the typewriter. She has a BFA from Fontbonne University and an MA from Western Kentucky University. See more of Leslie’s work on her website at leslienicholsart.com and see more photos from her residency on our Flickr.