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Gallery Visit — Nick DeFord

LOCATION: Knoxville, Tennessee

I visited Nick DeFord via email for this interview. He has lived in Tennessee for awhile now, and too far for one of us to visit his studio this time. But, it would have been worth the trip, as Nick is an artist to watch. We, at Culture Seen, have been watching his work since he was a member of the Eye Lounge Cooperative in Phoenix, and are excited for his success and new work.

Nick’s themes bring together a world of monsters, the occult, conspiracy theories, and the mystical, combining them together to form his own unique alternate universe. He seems fascinated by maps, old books, and globes, sometimes erasing or whiting out geographic borders, or words to confuse the viewers’ sense of place.

Nick is a master with a needle and thread, and will often embroider found items to create a new way to imagine the piece. His love of craft, and love of old world stories of monsters, make him almost seem like a throwback from a different time, but his work shows that he is fully present in the modern world as well.

Below is my interview with Nick.

“Sampler (Spells)” – Hand-embroidery in book – 2011

Nick DeFord- photo by Evan Meaney

(CS): What inspires you?

Nick DeFord: Much of my inspiration come from what I read, look at, or watch. It’s not always an immediate inspiration though, more like a slow, steady brewing – I suppose, much like cooking with a Crock Pot. The vegetables go into the broth pretty early on, but their flavors don’t really reach the full potential until after a day of cooking.

I’m always stopping at every thrift store or antique store I can find – sometimes going a few times a week to stores that I know have a good influx of goods. I work 98% of time on found papers and objects. So inspiration often comes from what presents itself to me as go shopping and collecting. Sometimes, a found map will stay pinned to my studio wall for months before I know what I want to do with it. In between the purchase and the artmaking, there’s always reading being done (usually a lot of poetry and horror novels) and other works being made. It may sound a little egotistical, which is probably why artists don’t say it very often, but my own works often inspire me. I think this is true with a lot of artists – and it’s actually not that vain of a process. Because more than likely, that inspiration is driven by a desire to improve upon a previous piece that I never really felt was completely articulate in concept or resolved in form.

Any books inspire you?

I listen to audiobooks pretty frequently – both in my car while driving and also during my studio while working. My studio practice is usually monotonous, so listening to audiobooks is much more fulfilling than listening to music. Currently, I’m listening to Christine by Stephen King. Now, I currently don’t incorporate a lot of killer-car imagery into my work, so there’s not a lot of direct inspiration from the tale immediately. But I love listening to King’s novels because, like the “Crock Pot recipe”, the inspiration might come later, months away. And while I still might not be moved to draw a Plymouth Fury on one of my embroideries, I will certainly still be thinking about the following things: What does it mean for something to become haunted? What’s the difference between a haunting and a possession? Is it always objects and people who become possessed, and spaces that become haunted, or can those be reversed? If they are reversed, what does that mean? So, Christine becomes an ingredient in a recipe forming in my mind, and that flavor mixes with other ingredients: The Shining (both the film and book), Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Yi-fu Tuan’s Space and Place, Blatty’s The Exorcist and even Dicken’s Christmas Carol (Scrooge’s house isn’t haunted but he, as a person, is being haunted – which is unusual). Where does this recipe on ghosts lead?

“Invasion” – Hand-embroidery on paper, four panels – 2010

As a kid, did you draw or make art?

I was always drawing on pieces of 8.5” x 11” paper as far as I can remember. Monsters mostly. It is related to the previous question. I’ve always been interested in reading about the supernatural and the unknown. As a kid, I also really interested in inventing my own places, complete with maps of these imagined geographies. It took many many years of art school to realize that I could synthesize what interested me, both as a child and as an adult, into my research and studio work.

Is that when you wanted to be an artist?

It’s clear, looking back, that if I wanted to be an artist as a child and adolescent, then I did not have any correct idea of what an artist was. I probably thought being an artist meant that I made paintings, alone in my studio, about whatever I wanted (and then subsequently sold the paintings to make a living). I don’t think that’s what an artist is now. I think an artist’s job to think deeply about cultural and human concerns – political, sociological, psychological, or poetic – and then invest oneself into the dialogue regarding those concerns. I make objects to try and connect people together in discussion and reflection. In that sense, I am not really an artist when I’m in my studio, only an artisan. The art happens when a viewer comes to me with a question like, “Do you really think Ouija boards work?” and then we can have a critical conversation about death, longing, and homes.

“Cibola” – Hand-embroidery, Highlighter, White-out and adhesive stickers on map – 2010

What are thinking about now?

It seems that I’m bringing up Ouija boards and ghosts a lot in my answers, and that is mostly due to thinking about some upcoming projects that research and address those topics. I’ve used map and map imagery for around six years now to talk about our concepts of place and the unknown, choosing to alter or disrupt maps that reference unusual phenomena. I first used Ouija board imagery in my work in 2008, and it was a big step in thinking about abstract places (like death) instead of real physical geography. But I’m ready to take that even a little further, to start actively investigating the idea of Ouija boards, or more correctly, the concept of “talking boards”, haunting, and divination, as fundamental attempts to understand identity, place, space, and mortality.

So, what’s next for you?

So, there are a few projects I’ll be working on the coming months.

First, I’ll be continuing my embroidery on paper and focusing on the relationship between embroidery as text, embroidery as embellishment, and text as embellishment (and vice versa).

I teach drawing at the University of Tennessee and my role as a drawing instructor has inspired me to get back to my roots a little bit and work on some more traditional (embroidery-free) drawings. I’m working on a series of talking board drawings – talking boards refer to board or paper that can be used to contact spirits. Ouija boards are the most famous, but there are hundreds of different types and models out there. I find the idea fascinating of making a “functional drawing.” As someone who works both in fine-art and craft mediums, there’s always the conversation of defining the two into some kind of hierarchy, and often the object’s functionality or utilitarian aspects play into those definition. So what would it mean for a drawing to be both a image/composition that hangs on the wall, but could then be taken down from that wall, placed on a table, and used to contact the dead?

“Found” – Hand-embroidery on digital print – 2008

As part of this, I’m also in the beginning phases of working collaboratively with a colleague of mine at UT, Evan Meaney. Evan is also interested in ghosts, but from a much different approach – by its relationship with technological glitches. Our plan is use our combined knowledge of the conceptual phenomena of haunting to become actual ghost hunters. The ghost hunting will rely upon the use of both arcane artifacts and high-tech equipment, and will probably include a lot of whiskey and spooky noises. We’re not entirely sure what the results will be, but I think for me it’s an important step to, as I mentioned before, get out of the studio and start making contact.

“Magic (Craft)” – Hand-embroidery in book – 2010


  1. cherie (Reply) on Tuesday 30, 2011

    cool art work ~ quirky, i like it :)