Wisdom of the Primal State : Interview with Gallery Artist Kim Niehans

Wisdom of the Primal State

Interview with Kim Niehans on her upcoming installation: “When Words Fall Away”

by Francis Calimlim

My last written piece was about Kim Niehans and my personal experience and interpretations with acquainting myself with her work.  Niehans animals are painted in colorful strokes and varying textures that captivates the viewer with a sense of liberation and urgency.  After reviewing the artist’s work , I sat down with Niehans in a one-on-one interview in her quiet San Diego home studio. 

 Can you speak a bit about your upbringing?

My dad worked for the US State Department so we were overseas a lot.  I was born in Portland, Oregon and moved to Pakistan when I was five.  We moved every two years until I graduated high school. After graduation I moved to Long Beach, California.

How does living here in San Diego influence your work and practice?

I love the rugged landscape of Southern California. The wildlife and plants need to be tough to survive here. That appeals to me. My earthy palette is reflective of the natural desert landscape here.

Did you go to school for art?

I went to Laguna College of Art and Design.  I was only there for a year and a half, but that was where I discovered my love of drawing and started studying art seriously.  I moved back and forth from the West Coast to the East Coast during my early and mid twenties, so I would pick up classes and attended life drawing groups here and there along the way. I ended up earning my BA in Studio Art from San Diego State.

How do you maintain a balance with art, work and family?

That's always a big juggle. Mostly I work at night after my kids go to bed.  I try to schedule one day a week to focus on just my work.                       

Who and what are some of your influences? 

I love drawing. It's my first love.  So I'm definitely inspired by the Old Masters. Da Vinci and Caravaggio spring to mind .  I love work where you can see the process and the artists' hand, for example Lucian Freud's and Joan Mitchell’s work.  I’m also very attracted to political art; art that talks about the human condition. The work of artists like Kathe Kollwitz, Judy Chicago and Siqueiros are exciting to me.   That's where the traveling ties in for me. I see a universal thread of survival through all people, no matter where they’re from or what their particular circumstances are. We are all just trying to get through our day with some human connection and some sense of purpose.  I’m attracted to the struggle and the drama and I want to see a record of the journey in the work.

Can you tell me what your process is?

The site specific installation “When the Words Fall Away”, for me, talks about our primal impulses and how we spend so much time and energy sort of pushing that down, and trying to domesticate that.  In general, in “polite” society, it's frowned on to show our primal selves.  We’re encouraged to medicate strong emotions and taught at an early age to trust hard facts above all else. But there's a lot of wisdom in that primal state. It always makes me think of that Monty Python sketch from The Meaning of Life when they’re wheeling the woman in to have a baby and she’s asking what she should do and the doctors are pushing her back down onto the bed telling her she’s completely unqualified to know how to have a baby and they’ll take care of it. Brilliant!

Would you say that your animals are used more for this metaphor, where all they have to live by is their primal instincts?


You don't do any initial sketches?

I never do. I enjoy not knowing exactly where I’m going or what's going to happen.  It's an adventure. There’s an energy that’s created when I’m responding directly to what’s going on with the materials in that moment. I think that energy is something that people respond to and is a really important element to the work. It’s one way to draw people into the visual conversation.

Conceptually, that's a really interesting process.  Your work is about describing or reminding one about our inherent instincts, and you are using your instincts to make your marks, and then you're forcing the viewers to use their instincts when looking at your work.  Your work is all about instincts!

Yes. It's about trusting our instincts and not being afraid of what is animal in us.

Do you usually work in a series or individually?

Over the past few years I’ve begun working more in series. Working in that way has allowed me to explore ideas more in depth than working on single, unrelated images. I also think it’s good from a business perspective to show cohesive bodies of work.


Where exactly do these images come from?

I listen to a lot of music and I love to read.  I love strong imagery and writers who can describe things vividly and creatively.  Often times I’ll hear something in a song or read something and it will trigger some connection in my brain. Honestly, it can come from anywhere. Sometimes I sit down and write to try and understand my situations.  I’ll write lists of words and something will resonate with me that will drive an image in my mind. Once I have an idea for an image I find references and start in directly on my surface. 

Have you always drawn animals, or did you have some kind of turning point somewhere down the line?

When I started drawing it was always people.  I haven't drawn people in a while, but I love it. I find people fascinating.  My husband, who has known me since I was seventeen, recently pointed out to me that I have, in fact, been drawing animals for a long time, too, but they were always somewhere in the background; a bird here a snake there.  I had forgotten, so when I looked back at those old drawings I saw them and remembered that I did do that! When my kids were born, that's when the animals really came in.  Having kids is such a huge life altering experience.  It's a raw, primal kind of thing.  They are these wild little people and you have to rely on that inner strength and that inner knowledge to guide them through for the short time you have them close.  The animals just felt appropriate.  It wasn't a choice; it just came out. 

Would you consider your work to be more in the present or nostalgic?

I would say it's more present.  In the future I would like to do some work that's more nostalgic; drawing on my traveling experiences, but right now it's definitely more in the present.

Is that a conscious choice, or is that how you've always worked? 

I would say that it's a conscious choice.  I need to talk about what's going on in my life, just day to day.  I have to communicate about my experiences in the world whether it's through my art,  speaking or writing.  I want to share because I feel like other people must be feeling these things too and I feel by sharing my version of reality it gives others permission to do the same in an honest, straightforward way. I believe human animals grow and evolve through honest self expression.

In your statement online, you state that you want to communicate your truth of your experiences.  Can you elaborate a little more on what this 'truth' is?

I think it's hard for people to speak plainly about a lot of things because we don't want to rock the boat or effect sales or our chance for reelection.  We all have an image that we're trying to maintain. When I had kids, I was shocked at how much work it was to care for these tiny human beings and how intense it was. This is a tough, serious job and people kind of get turned off when you talk about it in those terms. Parenthood isn’t portrayed realistically in our society and I felt kind of angry about that.  I feel compelled to say something, to tell the truth, as I am experiencing it, through the visual language I’m developing as an artist. The “truth” is my messy, raw, beautiful human experience. 


How do your decisions in choosing your materials contribute to this truth?

Well, I started using acrylics because of the kids.  I love that they dry fast. It forces me to make really quick decisions. I think it mimics life in that way.  Because they dry so fast, acrylics have a built in struggle, so, for example, if I make a mistake, I'm having to sand it and scrape it and scratch into it to make the image work.  This way of working creates a tension and energy that feel honest to me.

Okay, now for my last question.  What's the most personal part of your work? 

All of it. It's very emotional and personal, but also, I hope, universal because of its personal nature. 


Eighteen o Five is pleased to present “When Words Fall Away”, a Site Specific Installation by Kim Niehans. The opening reception will take place on November 8th, 2013 in conjunction with Kettner Nights.

Eighteen o Five is an art studio and gallery located on 1805 Columbia Street in Little Italy San Diego.

You may view more information on the exhibit at www.EighteenoFiveSD.com.