Wearable art blurs the lines between art and fashion. It’s physical and visual, material and conceptual. It’s, above all, creative, a reflection of the artist-turned-designer’s personality and beliefs. Garments do more than cover the body, just as a gourmet meal goes beyond fueling it.
Taos nurtures creative types and one of them is Nicki Marx, a fine artist whose wearable art creations are enjoying a joyful renaissance.
Born and raised in California, Marx attended University of California-Riverside and University of California-Santa Cruz before she started traveling.
“My journeys kept bringing me to New Mexico,” she said. “In the early ‘70s I was working as an artists’ model in Santa Fe and dabbling in different crafts like pottery and jewelry-making, using natural materials like wood and abalone.”
The self-taught artist began to incorporate feathers into her jewelry when she found a packet of feathers used for fly fishing in a Santa Fe store.
“I was looking for something to add to the pendants that I was making,” she said. “The moment I saw these feathers I had a vision of people wearing them, of feathers on walls as ornamental pieces … I thought it was absolutely new, amazing and beautiful.”
She went home after buying the packet (for $2!) and added the feathers to a pendant that she wore the next day to the Plaza.
“I sold it off me, right away,” she said. “I took it as a sign and went on to create more feathered pieces. Finding these feathers was a catalyst for what would become my life’s work.”
At first Marx used the feathers in pieces of jewelry like earrings and necklaces but later she branched out to make capes, robes, breastplates, collars, and wall works.
“Except for feathers, which I bought and still buy, I pick up most of the materials myself,” she said. “I work with only natural materials such as bark, shells, bones, dried flower petals, and earth.”
The feathers, all legally imported from Southeast Asia and India, belong to chickens, pheasants and peacocks.
Marx’s name became well known in the artistic circles — Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson owned her work.
“The ‘70s and early ‘80s were a fun, active, and productive time,” she said.
Marx lived for many years in Santa Cruz, California. She created, exhibited and sold her pieces nationally. But she kept coming to New Mexico, spending time in Santa Fe and Taos until she moved here permanently in 1985.
Once in Taos, Marx also changed the focus of her work, from wearable art to wall assemblages. Some of these highly detailed pieces were made of feathers, but she also used mixed media and encaustic paint.
“My work, in its different facets, is a cry for the environment, for Mother Nature, and a celebratory ritual of our connection to the Earth,” Marx said. “When I work, I feel as if I were meditating. It’s a very powerful act and that strength is hopefully reflected in my pieces.”
Ten of her wall pieces were recently exhibited at the El Monte Sagrado Grand Bohemian Gallery.
After Marx spent almost 40 years living quietly in Taos, Katie Nartonis, a 20th century decorative arts specialist, rediscovered her. She happened to see a picture of the artist on the pages of “Craftsman Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution”, a book that documents the arts and craft movement in California in the mid-’60s through the ‘70s.
“Katie wanted to meet me but she didn’t know how to contact me … I had become sort of ‘invisible,’ after moving here,” Marx said. “Well, a few weeks later I called her, at the suggestion of a friend who thought that we should get together. Obviously, my friend didn’t know that Katie had read about me. It was just perfect synchronicity.”
As a result of this serendipitous meeting, Nartonis, who found Marx’s art “of exceptional power and beauty,” organized the show “Marx: Rising” at Reform Gallery in Los Angeles in September 2014.
“Her work resides in that rare intersection of art and fashion, as well as a strongly evocative counter culture vibe,” said Nartonis in a The Los Angeles Fashion Magazine article about Marx’s work.
Nartonis and Gerard O’Brien co-curated the show that exhibited new and vintage pieces by Marx. She presented new works like necklaces, collars, breastplates, and wall pieces.
“I haven’t exhibited wearables for over 30 years,” said the artist. “It was wonderful to do it again.”
“The works by Nicki Marx are metaphors for life and cosmological process,” wrote David L. Witt, curator at the Harwood Museum, for a show called “Nicki Marx, 25-Year Retrospective” that took place at Sun Cities Museum of Art in Arizona. “They represent grand themes but if some works suggest the cosmos, others suggest the most intimate moments of love, death and the mundane accumulations of occurrences that make up daily life.”
Marx’s work, both wearable art and wall assemblages, is currently part of many private collections. It is also owned by public collections like the Harwood, the University Art Museum at Arizona State University, the Palm Springs Desert Museum, Stanford University, IBM and Bank of America.
One of her pieces was recently acquired by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its permanent collection and will be part of a 2016 show.
Recent feature articles in C Magazine, American Craft Magazine, The Los Angeles Fashion Magazine and upcoming in Ornament Magazine further speak to the renewed interest in her unique work.
Currently Marx has her studio on Gusdorf Road, which can be visited by appointment.