Nicole Kutz: When the conditions all fall in place

Nicole Kutz in the studio, 2020, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

The Nashville based artist and curator, Nicole Kutz, meditates in her paintings on life’s transience through handmade pigments and dyes. She frequently draws on the Japanese Wabi-sabi aesthetics, as well as the artforms of shibori and kintsugi, to create ethereal abstracted worlds, where you can find beauty in imperfections.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to art.

I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA in 1991. As a child, I was wildly creative and terribly nearsighted. My strong astigmatism caused me to look at things closely and my imagination used that to its advantage to recreate the world around me. My vision issues, coupled with my introversion, did not translate well to sports, but I found my community in afterschool arts programs. Art classes provided a whole new outlet for me, where I could hide behind my drawings and let the paper speak for me.

The arts were also in my blood: my Oma was an artist and owned a gallery in Atlanta in the 1980s. I grew up visiting my Oma and Opa’s time capsule of a home, their basement filled with pieces that never sold, and I looked up to my Oma’s beautiful stories and love of art. She passed when I was 11 from a stroke and shortly after, she visited me during my first experience with sleep paralysis. She made it clear that I was meant to be in the arts and that my spirit was guided with painting. I held on to her words and still call upon that memory any time I question what brought me to making art in the first place.

That memory fueled me through a BFA from the University of Georgia and a MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. I moved to Los Angeles after graduating in 2017 and felt that the change was a necessary shift in order for me to grow personally. I worked in several fields within the arts in hopes that working in tangent with my passion would satisfy my need to paint, but no matter how hard I tried to veer away from painting, it would always call me back.

The pursuit did however open my eyes to the business aspects of art. I worked as the Chief Curator to help build an online art streaming company, as a curatorial assistant for a fine art advisor and as a gallery manager for several galleries. These experiences shaped my approach to painting and emphasized time management as a key factor in my art, which I believe informed the majority of my material choices and love of process-based work. As cliché as it sounds, art has always been my therapy. Painting is how I process memory, past traumas, fears, and dreams. Every series has its own story but it all centers around my internal struggles and the ongoing goal of staying present.

Eastern philosophies seem to play a central role in your thinking about art. How is that expressed in making your paintings?

I have always resonated with Buddhist thought and wabi-sabi aesthetics are deeply ingrained into my process. Wabi-sabi is the truth that both life and art are beautiful not because they are perfect and eternal, but because they are imperfect and fleeting. I find this liberating not only in life, but also in how I approach making art. I have learned to embrace the flaws within a work, as well as materials that are unpredictable.

I also draw inspiration from meditation, Reiki therapy, moon cycles and how all of this plays into understanding my environment. Japanese culture views the moon as a symbol of the passage of time and as the guardian of mountains. The moon frequently finds its way into my work – be it subconsciously or planned.

For several years, I have attended Reiki therapy as an outlet to process trauma. Reiki is a form of alternative medicine that originated in Japan in the 1800s in which the healer administers treatment by accessing a universal energy through their palms. During multiple hours in this meditative state, I envisioned landscapes that resemble caves, glaciers, waterfalls or otherworldly structures. I channel these landscapes through painting as I attempt to recreate my subconscious spaces. With our thoughts, we create our reality, and through my art, I realized I could make this intangible energy, tangible.

Fera Space XXXVII, 2020, 21.5” x 22.5”, Indigo on paper with book binding thread, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

You indicate that watching the disastrous impact of wildfires while living in Los Angeles through 2020 has seeped into your work. Can you elaborate on that in reference to Girls Can’t Run at Night I and its sequel?

I grew up in Atlanta where wildfires were not common, and it was radically different to have fires be a part of life. I feel a deep connection to trees and our forests and while I lamented each disaster, there was something particularly jolting about the fires at the end of Summer 2020. I was feeling the strain of life during a pandemic. I no longer felt safe inside, but now had an increased fear of being outside. I lost my sense of time as all the orange days blurred into one. The red scenes throughout the area and media festered deeply in my subconscious and seeped into my artmaking in the forms of red landscapes, signifying the suffocation I felt overtaking us.

Girls Can’t Run at Night I and Girls Can’t Run at Night II address the anxiety I felt after leaving Los Angeles and its environmental stress, but they also draw from the vulnerability I deal with daily as a female. I drew the parallel while I was running along a trail and became panic-stricken as I reimagined all the warnings of what can happen to a girl who runs alone or at night. As I realized I was projecting my fears onto the landscape, I became aware of the reality of this same landscape surrendering to the wildfires ravaging California. It also raised the question: why am I instinctively afraid and how has fear been ingrained into my gender?

I realized that women are often conditioned to be afraid as a survival tactic. As I continue making this work, I realize this fear is shared by Mother Earth, as she too feels the constant threat of aggression experienced by most women. Yet for all the ominous insinuations, these paintings are imbued with power and strength, reminding us of the ability of nature – and humans – to change course, adapt and overcome.

Girls Can’t Run at Night I, 2020, 30” x 66”, Flashe paint on paper, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

Girls Can’t Run at Night II, 2020, 30” x 44”, Flashe paint on paper, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

You have used Indigo with gold embroidery thread in your series Indigo Spaces II. What is the origin of this series and what would you like to share about the process of making this body of work, especially your use of indigo?

I began my sewn paper indigo series four years ago to process my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease. The once loquacious woman fell silent and would only come to life through song. She would consistently sing “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” and I felt called to capture that blue yonder through painting.

I discovered indigo and shibori while experimenting with rust dyeing and techniques that forced me to let go as a painter. I saw shibori’s process as a symbol of the bonds we have over life and how when we loosen our grip, we find peace. The fabric literally transforms once it escapes its bonds and “breathes” to create otherworldly colors and patterns. I instantly became transfixed by the celestial blue and its erratic behavior and I think Shihoko Fukumoto puts it best: “Indigo doesn’t always dye to the beautiful hue in one’s mind’s eye…yet when the conditions all fall in place, indigo yields a pure clarity and brilliance almost beyond description.”

I started experimenting with dyeing paper by moving the paper as if it was swimming through indigo. I would then draw connections between the separate pieces and arrange them to create a scene that was reminiscent of a tangible space. The more dye I added, the more the paper would tear or crumble. The broken sections became part of the piece’s story and I felt compelled to salvage its remains. I chose Japanese gold thread to fill the cracks and mimic the practice of Kintsugi, the act of finding beauty within the broken. The cracks and tears mimic our faults, but through stitching I am reminded that it is our flaws that create a beautiful being.

Make it Whole, 2019, 60” x 50”, Indigo on paper sewn together with gold embroidery thread, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

In the paintings Untitled, you work with additional ingredients — plaster, azurite and black tourmaline — to create a monochromatic space. Tell me more about your approach to color, both as material and as a visual vocabulary?

Color has always been more symbolic to me and I find myself unconsciously paring down my palette. I look more to the meaning behind the materials and then work with the color that comes from them. I chose indigo as my foundational color for several years because I was enthralled by the process of making it. Creating a vat of indigo became more of a ritual for me that grounded not only my process, but also my daily life. In Untitled specifically, I used materials that recalled a cold, celestial cave that I visited during an energy healing session. I infused black tourmaline and azurite into the indigo and plaster to root the piece in a transcendental world. Black tourmaline is specifically used for grounding, purification and protection. Azurite calls upon psychic energies, opens the mind and third eye and releases stress. I felt that the two worked in tandem to call upon this place and add a hint of shimmer. The silver leaf along the edges allows the piece to glow beyond the stretcher bars and was chosen less for its color sensibilities and more for its metallic properties.

Untitled, 2019, 36” x 25”, Indigo, plaster, azurite and black tourmaline on canvas, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

I use similar techniques in For Tyler (This Must be the Place), but within this piece, I added red opal, oil paints and orange dye to accompany the indigo dye, black tourmaline and azurite. The colors in this work are less monochromatic, but I approached my choices in a similar manner. I started with indigo as a reference to the sky, but a portal to a memory or place I couldn’t fully grasp came up the more I painted. I have always been inspired by the colors in Don Bluth’s animations – his work consistently had orange emanating light and I found myself gravitating towards that same orange when I felt nostalgic. The colors in the work are meant to trigger similar feelings or memories, while also incorporating materials that ground the work metaphysically.

For Tyler (This Must Be the Place), 2020, 39” x 39”, Oil, indigo dye, natural dyes, plaster, Azurite and Red Opal powder on canvas, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

What are you working on in your studio these days?

We recently moved to Nashville from Los Angeles and I’m slowly starting to settle into making work again. Everything currently feels a little disjointed and my space is still a cluster of boxes that I work around. I have been diving into making smaller moon paintings on layers of silk, collecting materials for new pigments and two new red tree forests. I also felt called to sculpture again and have been collecting branches that I then wrap in plaster casting – I am still deciding on what these will become (or why I was drawn to the process in the first place). Ultimately, I see the work as a larger installation that incorporates light emanating from the white branches. We’ll see where it goes or if I’ll just run back to painting.

Automatic 7, 2021, 22” x 30”, Flashe paint on paper, Photo courtesy of Nicole Kutz

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email:

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