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Women to Watch: Artist Nikki Leone

Along with creating masterpieces of her own, Virginia display artist Nikki Leone takes the phrase window dressing to a new level. Nikki chatted with us about the balance of working on personal projects, building a career in the arts and being a mom to boot! 

It seems like you have a ton of amazing projects and work! Give us a short summary of everything you do! 

I’m a display artist. I’ve worked for companies such as Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, building and designing their in-store displays and fixtures. Since leaving my full-time position doing that, I’ve moved to doing displays and set design for anything and everything, from weddings and fashion shows to commercial photography and store build-outs. Having a background in painting, I’ve also been invited as an artist at the Richmond Street Art Festival which showcases amazing artists from all over the world. 

When I’m not working on projects for clients, I’m working on my own art. Lately, I’ve been focusing on making sculptures that definitely have a furniture language to them. It’s weird...I applied to some industrial design programs and ended up choosing a studio arts field, and I’m finding my way back to design. I love making practical pieces for the home. So it’s only natural that it finds it’s way into my studio work. I also have a two-year-old, who is really good at being a two-year-old.

How would you describe your artistic aesthetic?

Simple, functional, clean, sophisticated and playful. I find myself drawn to simplicity.

Do you have a philosophy that drives your work?I tend to start with humble materials and then figure out how to manipulate them to make something beautiful, engaging and unexpected. I enjoy figuring out how to make familiar objects surprise the viewer. If you can do that a few times in a space, people begin to become more engaged and look for the possibility for delight in everything around them.

I saw you recently talked with an art class about your career. What’s the most important lesson you’d like to share with younger artists? 

When you’re starting out, don’t get comfortable. Now is the time to play around, explore and get as much screwing up done as possible. Mishaps aren’t just a headache: they can lead to such incredible discoveries. I think once you lose the curious side of learning, you’re giving up the most fertile catalyst for amazing work.

Also, to VALUE themselves. I find too often that creatives undervalue their experience and skill set. Don’t do things for that enticing work “exposure.” It’s not good for our community as a whole. This isn’t a hobby. We are always perfecting our craft, and we should be compensated accordingly. A general contractor doesn’t go up to a plumber and say “instead of payment I’ll be putting your business card next to the bathroom sink.” That’s just silly. 

You have a beautiful family! What is the biggest challenge of being a mother and working artist that people don’t often consider?

I think people don’t consider that it is a STRUGGLE... Some women seem to do both career and motherhood effortlessly. The way I want to parent is to really be present with my kid, teach her everything I know, be curious about the world with her. That means disengaging from my work longer than I normally would like to. So I’m still learning to not be working in my head when I’m with her, not making to-do lists, problem-solving, budgeting. I’m lucky that my daughter Oli (Olivia) is really good at snapping me back to the present.  She is starting to be mindful of when I do need to work really fast, she’ll grab her tools (blocks and sticks) and join in. It’s a challenge for sure and I’m up for it.

What brought you to the visual arts?

I would consider myself a late bloomer. I didn’t really get into making until I was about 15 or 16, when I started gravitating towards writing graffiti. I wasn’t nearly as amazing as some of the women I came across during my adventures, but I loved it. I started to gravitate away from a flat surface and began to play around with objects coming off of the wall. When I got into art school, one of my professors said to take the jump and apply for the Sculpture program. That’s when my brain exploded! There was so much to learn and explore. The materials are what got me. I’d get fixated on a material and would see what I could do with it. I think that “material testing” mentality is what really helped me be successful in my career now.

What led to your career as a design artist?

After moving back to the East Coast from getting my MFA in sculpture from the University of Santa Barbara California, I got my first job as a part-time gallery assistant at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. I then got a job with the Chrysler Museum as a contracted Preparator. When I heard an Urban Outfitters was opening up down the street, I jumped at the opportunity to apply as their Display Artist. That job is what spurred me in the direction I’m at now. I think me naturally being drawn to making objects that are useful, simple and have the capability to change with the trends helped me a lot. We would have to make fixtures that could stick around for longer than a season. so it meant we had to be pretty savvy on designing it to be able to change into something else or be used in a different concept. Same with displays, we always had to be just ahead of the trend but not too far out that people couldn’t understand. I was really drawn to that “taste-maker” momentum. Always new and fresh!

What are the top tools you need when working on an installation or piece of art?

My drill and impact driver is ALWAYS with me, even if the job doesn’t ask for it. At some point in the job, they will be used even if it’s not in a way they were designed for.  Lastly, my phone. I hate to admit it, but it is attached to me for every job. If it’s not to listen to music or podcasts, it’s being used to figure out geometry, physics, fraction/decimal conversions and random questions like "why is this plaster not curing, or where to get coffee?"

You’ve worn the Mavens for a while- what are some of your favorite features?

Besides the fit being perfect and absolutely flattering, the pockets! Before, I’d have so much jammed in my back pockets and the tiny front pockets that grabbing one thing meant a few more things coming out with it. I’d put screws and sharp things in there too- definitely not comfortable. Now, I have everything right there when I need it. Everything has its place (you ladies even made a pocket specifically for our measuring tape!) and I’ve gotten to the point I don’t  have to look down anymore to find what I need, they’re right where I can get to them even when I’m 14’ in the air straddling a ladder. I have so many work pants I’ve blown out the knees or crotch. Your denim is so high quality I don’t have to baby them.

Are there any special shows coming up, organizations or other info you'd like us to share?

I’ll have some work in a group exhibit coming in the next few months at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. There are also some collaborative projects I’ve worked on with a few female makers. One aims to create workshops for women to learn to build small projects that can enable them to feel empowered to make anything. I’ll also be working with Mary Fleming of the Community Supported Prints of Virginia. They curate limited print editions and all proceeds split between the artist and the selected non-profit. The other is a collaboration with Kelsie Marie of Smirk Supply creating beautiful home objects. Also, a quick shout out to the Richmond Street Art Festival because they work so hard and do a lot of great things for artists.

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